Last Tuesday, Sept. 15, the 70th session of the U.N. General Assembly opened in New York.
A long list of heads of state lined up to address the annual event. There are great expectations about this session because the work of the United Nations has become essential in an increasingly complex world.
However, the international organization has not been able to effectively deal with issues such as the war on international terrorism, nuclear nonproliferation or the prevention of a global economic crisis.
One of the problems is that the General Assembly's voting system does not reflect the political and economic balances of the world: under the one vote-one nation system, the United States, which contributes 25 percent of the U.N. budget, only has 0.5 percent of the voting power in the General Assembly (one vote out of 193 member nations). Without the veto power in the Security Council, U.S. influence would be irrelevant.
The wind of change has been blowing on the U.N. since the beginning of the new century, when the United States and several other countries became disappointed with the administration of certain programs, such as the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which was chaired by Muammar Gaddafi's Libya and endorsed brutal dictators with records of violating of the same rights the commission was supposed to protect.
The United Nations System lacks central coordination: It is composed of 20 specialized agencies (including the World Bank Group), each one with its own budget and its own assembly, with an average of 180 delegations per agency (one delegation for each member nation). Therefore, there are over 3,500 delegates to the entire U.N. system and 20 directors-general.
The activities of the different specialized agencies should be coordinated by the secretary-general to implement uniform action and to better allocate their resources.
Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan and current Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon attempted to introduce some reforms and deserve credit for recognizing the important role of the private sector. They developed the Global Compact, a public-private partnership to promote global sustainability.
Their efforts were echoed by the president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, whose institution last year launched the Global Infrastructure Facility, an initiative that combines private capital and public expertise to foster international development.
And notably, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Christine Lagarde, expressed strong arguments in support of IMF reform. The quota reform, which would increase the representation of emerging economies while preserving American de facto veto power, has not obtained the required approval from Congress. A compromise solution that would give greater influence to emerging markets without altering governance and funding is being discussed, and such solution would not require congressional approval.
These are small but important steps to modernize an organization that risks becoming obsolete — but the United Nations needs more change than that. It needs a comprehensive reform to make it less bureaucratic, better coordinated and therefore more efficient.
Any amendment to the U.N. Charter requires a super majority of two-thirds of the General Assembly, and no veto from permanent members of the Security Council. To be successful, a reform would have to be initiated by the five countries with veto power (United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia). But because of the current dispute between the West and Russia over Ukraine, this may not be the right time to put it forward.
Until the international climate has the conditions for structural reform, the U.N should increase cooperation both in the vertical and the horizontal dimensions. Vertical cooperation should be developed between the U.N. and regional organizations such as the Organization of American States; horizontal coordination should be increased between the secretary-general and the specialized agencies. The World Bank and the IMF should strengthen their collaboration with the Bank for International Settlements.
The United Nations needs to be reformed to better reflect the political and economic balances of its members and to deal with the global challenges of the new millennium. The 70th session of the General Assembly could be a good opportunity to restart such important debate.
Stipo is an American author and expert in international affairs. He is a member of the Bretton Woods Committee and was formerly the president of the U.S. Association of the Club of Rome, a global think tank.