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The Future We Want and How to Get There - Revisiting the UN Charter

A summary of remarks made by Augusto Lopez-Claros at the Annual Reception of the APPG on the Bahá'i Faith, at UK Parliament on October 24, 2022.

I attended a number of side meetings last September in New York during the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly. Perhaps because many of those attending still had the disruptions of COVID fresh on their minds and were at the same time witnessing the global consequences of the war in Ukraine, a sense of alarm was perceptible in many of the sessions in which I participated. The concern is that we are facing a whole range of global catastrophic risks—climate change and associated calamities, a renewed arms race, tensions between the superpowers which could spillover into violent conflict, a reversal of the progress made in recent decades in reducing extreme poverty, to name just a few—and we seem to lack the instruments and institutions that will deliver solutions to these serious global problems and are risking being overwhelmed by a multitude of crises. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, had warned in 1931: “the fundamental cause of world unrest is our failure to adjust our system of economic and political institutions to the imperative needs of a rapidly evolving age” a statement that, 91 years later, seemed to capture very well the essence of the crisis of governance we face.

In a report issued last year titled Our Common Agenda United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the very end of the Summary of the report, states that he “will ask a High-Level Advisory Board, led by former Heads of State and Government, to identify global public goods and other areas of common interest where governance improvements are most needed, and to propose options for how this could be achieved.” A proposed Summit of the Future, “to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it,” has been announced for 2024.

What our future should look like

While there may be differences of emphasis, most surveys of public opinion suggest that there is already a broadly held international consensus on what kind of future we want. It is a future in which ours and future generations will be free from the calamities and dislocations associated with accelerating climate change, in which we will have found enduring ways to reduce the tensions and geopolitical risks associated with destructive nationalisms which have caused so much suffering and conflict over the past century. Indeed, to put behind us forever the fear of a nuclear holocaust. It is a future in which the economic advancements we have made are shared more equitably across all populations, in which social cohesion is strengthened, human rights are fulfilled, and in which all have sufficient food on their plates, a roof to sleep under, and a free education to benefit from. And it is perhaps a future in which our concepts of security will have evolved from an undue focus on military preparedness and the buildup of weapons to one in which we conceive of security as being fundamentally about human welfare and the need to formulate public policies in ways that contribute to improve human wellbeing. Indeed, the UN´s 2030 Agenda and supporting Sustainable Development Goals already provide a comprehensive vision of what that future should look like.

A proposal for improved governance

One way to enhance our chances of securing that future is to go back to a promise that was made in 1945, at the San Francisco conference where the UN Charter was adopted. Going into the conference many of the assembled delegates were distressed at the introduction of the veto power granted to the permanent members of the Security Council. Earlier that year, at the Yalta conference, the Dutch delegation had warned that giving the veto power in the Security Council to a select few countries would make the organization largely useless in disputes between great powers, or in conflicts involving a close ally of a great power.

Cord Meyer, a member of the US delegation in San Francisco, would later comment on the weak moral grounds implicit in the inclusion in the Charter of a principle which would create a situation where “a major power can violate every principle and purpose set forth in the Charter and yet remain a member of the Organization by the lawful use of the veto power expressly granted to it.” New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser expressing dismay at the inclusion of the veto led a group of 17 nations in their opposition to it during the conference.

It was in response to their strongly voiced opposition that the delegates in San Francisco agreed to include in the Charter Article 109 stating that “A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purposes of reviewing the present Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members of the Security Council.” The article opened the door for a future consideration of the appropriateness of the Charter in light of changes which might have taken place since the adoption and ratification of the Charter.

Article 109 was not only a way to placate the many members who were upset at being presented with a fait accompli, with the key elements of the Charter having been earlier agreed to by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. It was also a way to address the sense, widespread among those who had followed closely the debate in the period 1942–45 about the kind of UN which should be created, namely that the UN Charter, as conceived, was an inadequate response to the devastation of World War II and its 60 million casualties. In the view of many, the organization would fail to live up to the noble ideals in the areas of peace and security identified in the Charter’s Preamble and spelled out in its numerous articles.

The Article 109 conference, expected to take place within a decade from the time of ratification of the Charter has never taken place. As with other elements of the Charter, it remains a dead letter, a victim of the onset of the Cold War and the general sense of inertia and paralysis that has been a permanent feature of UN reform efforts, to say nothing of decision making within the Security Council, which remains largely ineffective at a time when a range of global risks threaten our future, risks which reflect problems the solutions to which are not possible outside a framework of much stronger international cooperation.

A proposal for the Summit of the Future

Many of us, strong supporters of the idea that global problems are best addressed in a multilateral setting of cross-border cooperation, would very much like to avoid a familiar scenario where the forthcoming Summit results in laudable words on a page, but limited impact in the real world. One way to avoid this is to renew the spirit of Article 109 and call for the holding of a General Conference—sooner than 2030—to put forward proposals for reviewing the Charter considering the problems we face today, 77 years after the Charter was adopted. So, a key deliverable of the Summit would involve seizing the moment and agreeing to hold such a convocation, without prejudicing its eventual outcome. Consultations and peaceful deliberations might shine a light, in a dark world, about “what our future should look like” and what we can do to secure it.

“The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith

Augusto Lopez-Claros is an eminent international economist with senior roles in the World Bank and IMF, Executive Director and Chair of the Global Governance Forum that fosters and strengthens ties worldwide in a search for solutions to global problems. A prolific author on economic issues and answers, his latest work demonstrates the positive relationship between equality for women and general prosperity.

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