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Rethinking Humanitarianism | What could an alternative to the UN look like?

‘Please invent something different because this thing is actually killing us. Literally.’

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Reform of the UN Security Council was, once again, a topic of discussion at this year's UN General Assembly. But this time around, the calls for change were more forceful, in part because the Security Council’s credibility has recently – and perhaps most powerfully – been damaged by its inability to act against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

From Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley to US President Joe Biden, world leaders in New York were talking more urgently about ending unequal power dynamics and forging a more equitable world order. 

But can the Security Council – or even the entire UN system – be reformed in practice? And if not, what is a viable alternative?

Host Heba Aly explores these questions with Tim Murithi, head of the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and a professor of African Studies at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Aly and Murithi discuss the extent of the dysfunction at the Security Council (or as Murithi puts it, the “Insecurity Council”), why he’s unphased by Biden’s support for more countries to have permanent seats, the transformative potential of Article 109 of the UN Charter, and the idea of a World Parliament as an alternative to the United Nations.

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TRANSCRIPT: How to reform the UN Security Council

Csaba Kőrösi, President of the 77th United Nations General Assembly: “It is high time that the Council represents the world’s population more equally, and that it reflects 21st century realities. This is a matter of credibility for our entire Organization and our multilateral order.”

Heba Aly
At the end of September, world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York for the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly

Reform of the UN Security Council was – once again – a topic of discussion, but this time, the calls for change were more forceful. 

Macky Sall, President of Senegal: “It is time to overcome the reticence and to deconstruct the narratives that persist in confining Africa to the margins of decision-making circles.” 

Mia Mottley, PM of Barbados: Because we believe that a Security Council that retains the power of veto in the hands of a few will still lead us to war as it did this year.”

Heba Aly
The Security Council is the world’s most powerful governing body, and its five permanent members wield a veto power over all international security issues. Those five members are the countries that won World War 2 nearly 80 years ago - and they include the United States. 

But in a surprise move to some, US President Joe Biden was one of the voices pushing for reform

Joe Biden, US President: Members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States, should consistently uphold and defend the U.N. Charter and refrain — refrain from the use of the veto [...] the United States supports increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent representatives of the Council. This includes permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Heba Aly
So there is more support – in principle – for the Security Council to be reformed. But can it be reformed in practice? Can the entire UN system be reformed? And if not, what is a viable alternative?

I'm Heba Aly, and this is Rethinking Humanitarianism

This season, we’re re-thinking, not just humanitarianism, but global governance more broadly, because multiple existential threats are converging at what many describe a historic inflection point – the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, the invasion of Ukraine – all of which have caused and are likely to continue causing huge humanitarian need. 

And I think it’s fair to say that today’s multilateral system isn’t capable of responding to these challenges. 

At the heart of our current global governance system is the United Nations – the arbiter of global peace and security where every country in the world was meant to have a seat at the table.

But in practice, power is concentrated in the Security Council, where huge swathes of the world have no representation at all. The make-up of the Security Council has led to paralysis – many would say “dysfunction” – and often fails to prevent or resolve conflicts because of the vested interests of one of its permanent members. 

Lifesaving humanitarian action in Ukraine and Syria and other emergency settings around the globe has often been hostage to geopolitical wrangling between the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council.

This failure to act and lack of representation has sparked a crisis of faith in the United Nations. 

Our podcast producer Melissa Fundira spoke to people attending the UN General Assembly in New York. Here’s what they had to say.

Melissa Fundira
Do you think the United Nations is the global governance model of the future, if we are going to deal with humanitarian crises?

Fernand de Varennes
It is the only one we have, and obviously, there can be improvement there, and probably needs to be a democratisation of the UN.

Corinne Lennox
It needs to create spaces for the voices of civil society to have an equal voice in the decision making, to be present and not excluded, as we often see in UN processes.

Richard Gowan
I think that the UN continues to play an underappreciated role in managing humanitarian issues. If you look at situations like Afghanistan, or northwest Syria, it's UN agencies that are central to efforts to help millions of people.

Colum Lynch
I mean, there's not another place in the world where you have a senior Chinese, Russian, French, British and American diplomat every day, working together for hours on a whole range of issues. That's the one thing that really sets the UN apart in terms of it has this capacity to convene a broad range of governments of individuals across, you know, a whole range of regions in the world.

Anne Githuku-Shongwe
For many countries, especially those of us who are from the South, without a forum like this, there are so few other opportunities that we have to be able to be almost equal at the table. And so, while it has its flaws, the platform is such an important one for the defence of human rights. For the defence of the goals that we globally set for ourselves. I think that if we didn't have the United Nations as this multilateral forum, there would be a gap, there'll be a significant gap in the world, and I'm not sure who would play that role.

Richard Gowan
But we have to be honest, the UN system, based on the power politics of 1945, is facing an effectiveness challenge, and a legitimacy challenge.

Fernand de Varennes
In the only section of the UN which actually can exercise real authority, and that's the Security Council, there has to be a rethink of this to actually make it more adapted and suitable for today's world.

Ibrahima Kane
It’s not just because you were – in 1945 – winner of the Second World War that you need to continue to dominate the world. The world has changed, and in this changing world, norms, you know, status, and everything should be also changing.

Joshua Castellino
Because the United Nations, of course, was set up more than 75 years ago precisely to do that, to make sure that there was going to be never again the scourge of warfare, and to be able to respond to communities and crises in need. But I'm afraid 75 years later, there are serious questions about whether the UN is and is serving that particular purpose. 

Ibrahima Kane
The Ukraine crisis showed that if you are a member of the UN Security Council, and you are engaged in war, the UN is not useful as a place to sort out the problem, because you can use your veto to stop any initiative that you think is against you. 

Joshua Castellino
It's a real shame that the UN, in its aspiration to be a body that responds to humanitarian crises, has been unable to call these people out. Has been unable to call out powerful nations, including those that sit on the Security Council.

Anne Githuku-Shongwe
Could it be better? Certainly. I'm sure there are better ways to strengthen it and to have stronger equality in voices and in global decisions. But this is what we have now. And there's a lot of work to do to repair it, and I know that there's huge attempts to do so. 

Melissa Fundira
So reform and not dismantling?

Corinne Lennox
I'm in favour of reform and not dismantling. We can work with what we have, but we can make it better.

Joshua Castellino
I'm slow to suggest replacement, because usually, when you erect something with great deal of difficulty, simply tearing it down and hoping another solution will come up is unrealistic. 

Ibrahima Kane
For me, it's more than a small reform. It’s really to change the whole system. Change by making sure that all the five regions of the world are involved in decision-making.

Richard Gowan
We have to be a little cautious about calling for reform. Even if you had a successful Security Council reform, you would find that the Council would grow bigger and as it grew bigger, it might actually grow even less efficient because you would have more states in the room arguing out what to do about crisis situations.

Colum Lynch
For years countries have been talking about the reform of the Council and it never happened. Every new Secretary-General comes to office with a brand new reform process to the point where if anybody uses the word reform, my eyes glaze over. And I think that this is not really something that anybody should pay attention to, because every effort to reform has been, you know, a kind of PR effort to try and show that they're reforming an institution everybody knows needs to be reformed, but really has a very difficult time actually doing it.

Paul Divakar Namala
The UN is what we’ve got. Right? But that doesn't mean we need to stick with it. It has mostly the states and state representatives. But where [is] the civil society? Where are the communities? Where are the people whom they're governing? I don't find that complete replacements are the answer, because then you're going to have a different backlash. But definitely you need radical changes.

Melissa Fundira
How likely is that to happen?

Fernand de Varennes
We have to be optimistic. Anyone who works in the area of human rights has to be optimistic. And if we don't strive for better we never achieve more.

Those were the voices of Fernand de Varennes, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues; Corinne Lennox, Senior Lecturer in Human Rights at the University of London; Richard Gowan, UN Director at the International Crisis Group; Anne Githuku- Shongwe, a Director at UNAIDS; Joshua Castellino, Executive Director of Minority Rights Group International; Paul Divakar Namala, Convener of the Global Forum of Communities Discriminated on Work & Descent; Ibrahima Kane, Special Adviser to the executive director of Open Society Foundations Africa; and Colum Lynch, UN correspondent at Devex News.

You heard there both desire for UN reform and scepticism that it can happen. So to explore the question of UN reform further, I’m joined by Tim Murithi.

Tim is the Head of the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and a Professor of African Studies at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

He is an advisor to Democracy Without Borders, where he has been key in their campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. That campaign is part of the larger We the Peoples movement, which is pushing for inclusive global governance at the United Nations.

Tim joins us from Cape Town.

Welcome to Rethinking Humanitarianism.

Tim Murithi

Thank you, Heba.

Heba Aly

I want to first ask you what you thought of those voices we just heard, many of them speaking of the value that the UN plays, but also of the challenges it faces. What stood out to you?

Tim Murithi 

Well, I think you had the full spectrum of the, you know, those who have actually have identified some of the key challenges with the current existing system that we have of the United Nations writ large, and the United Nations Security Council in particular, which is, in fact, the most powerful institution in the entire UN system. You know, there is those who, those who feel that we need to have definitely some kind of a reform process, but one that is gradual, and incremental, all the way to certain voices, in fact largely from the Global South, that are advocating for a radical departure. I think the word that was used was a ‘dismantling’ of the current system. But it's interesting to see how it's disaggregated by North and South, the Global North and the Global South, you know, almost articulating slightly different approaches to the system, because it has worked, in fact, more effectively for some parts of the world than others. And now we are in a bit of a crescendo with the current crisis in Ukraine. The dysfunctionality of the United Nations, shall we say particularly the Security Council, is not something that is new, but in fact, was already embedded in the Cold War contestation between the Soviet Union and the, the West, the NATO countries, so to speak. And that really hasn't changed very much. And during the Cold War, the two power blocs could actually control the agenda of the Security Council to their advantage. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the ascendancy of one global superpower, the United States, and regional powers, like China and Russia. You find that decision making became even much harder than before because there wasn't necessarily a bipolar system, but a unipolar / multipolar system. Now, it really is clear that this doesn't really work very effectively, particularly when one of the permanent member, five members of the Security Council, are involved or implicated as instigators of a crisis as we have currently in Ukraine. And the system also doesn't work necessarily for countries in the Global South.

Heba Aly 

So even, even with that example, and your point about what we heard in the voices earlier is that those who have benefited from the UN, i.e. the Global North, see it is as worth preserving, and those who haven't, i.e. the Global South, are those calling for its its dismantling?

Tim Murithi 

Largely yes, I would say that is how it subdivides itself. Obviously, you do have the exceptions to the rule. You have some voices in the Global North that are, that have been calling for a radical shift away from the current setup, which was, you know, conceived, developed in 1942, formally adopted in 1945. And in 1992, when Boutros Boutros Ghali, the United Nations Secretary-General from Egypt was ruling over the Secretary of the United Nations, he was very optimistic about the prospects for change because it coincided with the end of the Cold War, Russian glasnost, perestroika, and it- you almost felt there was a there was a turning point here, that things would move in a certain direction. But I think Western triumphalism should not have been written off. And in fact, that triumphalism continues to this very day, it was a sense that we won the Cold War, our economic model, you know, of unbridled neoliberal capitalism is the model for the world and accompanied closely by liberal democracy, which has its fundamental challenges across the world. 

Heba Aly

That whole kind of history led you to where you stand. You have argued for dismantling the United Nations system, and I'd love to hear a little bit more about that. In particular, you wrote a piece a few years back for the Africa Portal website. Tell us the argument that you made in that piece around dismantling the UN.

Tim Murithi

I like to visualise the metaphor as one of, you know, a nail going into a coffin. And each one of these systematic failures is like a system failure, like the machine’s literally shutting itself down and is no longer working. If we just start with the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the Srebrenica genocide in ‘95, in which the United Nations peacekeepers were actually implicated, followed by a whole host of interventions, including in the DRC, Congo, where again, peacekeepers implicated in negative action, to the 2003 illegal invasion of Iraq presided over the United States, not prevented by the Security Council – in fact, the Security Council was fairly impotent at that stage with, you know, power players from Washington coming and issuing a completely false argument that was never even subsequently followed up. No weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and they sold this lie to the United Nations system, hook line and sinker. Throughout that period, again, 2011, illegal invasion of NATO which caused harm to innocent civilians, no checks and balances. Each one of these systemic movements are failures of the entire machinery of collective global collective security, what we call international peace and security. And in fact, you know, leading up to now where we are, if you also factor in Syria. Four out of five of the permanent members of the UN Security Council were involved in heavy destruction in Syria. That is not a Security Council, that is a United Nations Insecurity Council, and it clearly has to be dismantled because the system is now in complete freefall. The 2022 Russia war in Ukraine has demonstrated what happens when one of the permanent five are actually a proactive belligerent, in fact the instigator, of the violence. What if China decides to do the same thing in Taiwan? What if the United States, UK, and France again decide to do something similar, something somewhere else? There is nothing to stop these powerful countries that are nuclear states from actually not doing what they will do, which means that the UN Charter is in fact not worth the ink with which it was written in, in 1945. But it doesn't mean that we're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I hear the question that you've been putting to a lot of the interviewees was, “is it dismantle or reform?” and it's actually not either or. That is also a false dichotomy. Because if you follow the history of the League of Nations, which was established at the end of the First World War, the League was not closed down for business, and then the United Nations opened up for business. The league existed, and in fact, technically, you could probably still revive it, if you wanted to. It still does exist. 

Heba 

I had no idea about that.

Tim Murithi

It's obviously not real, because nobody belongs to it in a real functional way. The doors are not closed. What happened was the United Nations Charter was drafted, and members, 51 Member States, decided to join it. And you had this, this coterie of members of the Security Council that ultimately eventually assigned to themselves the power of veto. Fifty-one [Member States] is now bludgeoned to 193. So the model is, in fact, one in which countries that are willing, will draft a new Charter, or they will have a- first they can have a Review Conference of the United Nations. And that review conference can actually lead to the establishment of a new Charter, which does not have a an elitist, two-tiered system of membership in which a permanent five are in fact, the emperors, so to speak, the warlords, the overlords of the planet, and all the other minions and quislings have fallen in the caps that these overloads have, in fact, self-defined for themselves and self-ascribed to the rest of the world.

Heba Aly

So you’re suggesting that while, like, while the Security Council and the UN functions as it is today, you would simultaneously get countries to agree to something new and different.

Tim Murithi

Absolutely. 100%. 100%. Because there are multiple international organisations. The United Nations is not the only international organisation in the world today. There are many other international organisations. And so there is no harm, there is no, there is no fair, there's no foul in creating a new multilateral institution that aspires to universal membership, it aspires to become the United Nations in the future, right. And then members will simply switch gradually when they deem it necessary, but you need a small coalition of the willing. And in fact, there is a pathway to achieving this, which is triggering Article 109 of the United Nations Charter, which calls for a review conference, a General Conference of the members of the United Nations, the Charter of the United Nations, to review the Charter. This was in fact supposed to happen in 1955, and it did begin. It did begin, but then it was stopped. And what this article requires is two thirds of the votes of the members of the General Assembly and the vote by any nine members of the Security Council. So in fact, if none of the permanent five members of the Security Council vote for this conference, it doesn't matter and they cannot veto it, because the Charter says that they cannot veto it. But it does require nine members of the Security Council to also vote, which means that the non-permanent members, if you work behind the scenes and get them all on board, could actually make this happen. 

Heba Aly

And, so what would this review consist of?

Tim Murithi

So that's it, the Charter leaves it wide open. That is where you now enter the process of actually defining the agenda, ensuring universal participation. All of the comments that your interview[ees] gave would be listed on the agenda for items, for example, for this conference. And then the Charter review conference would actually take place. Can you believe it has never been convened in the history of the United Nations? And it is in the Charter in blue, in black and white, that this should happen, that tells you how dysfunctional this system is.

Heba Aly

But then does this review have the power to then make decisions that affect the future of the UN?

Tim Murithi

It has the power to chart a roadmap, to identify a pathway. Once you get to the point of having that review conference, I believe that the momentum will lift it and carry it forward. The powerful countries are not interested in this review conference, otherwise, they would have made it happen. It is really up to the rest of the majority of the General Assembly to make it happen. And if they don't and they can’t, then we'll still be talking about this institution in the next 10 to 15, 20 years, right? And then we can also share some models of what this could look like.

Heba Aly

If you have this review, obviously, you need an alternative to propose. So maybe we can talk a little bit about that. And you have been, obviously, very involved in trying to make the UN more inclusive. I mentioned the We the Peoples movement that is calling for three major changes to the UN. So a World Citizens Initiative, a UN Parliamentary Assembly, and a UN Civil Society envoy. You were key in advocating for the UN Parliamentary Assembly, so tell me a little bit about how that would work.

Tim Murithi

Yeah, so a UN Parliamentary Assembly is not such a strange idea. And by the way, it's not a new idea. And it's not an idea that is necessarily held by any one particular group or, you know, or political ideology. It is, it is a universal idea. Think, firstly, of the model of the European Parliament, right? So we already have a model at a regional level. We also have a Pan-African Parliament in South Africa which convenes and has its regular, you know, interaction and interventions. The concept of a World Parliament is not such a great leap. We have probably 210 countries and territories if you include all the small microstates, right? So, a conference of, if you bring three representatives from each country to have to have a sit down, that's not a very large grouping, 600 people. Two, bring two, you get 400 people, it's not a very large conference, right? 

Heba

600 people is not a very big grouping?

Tim Murithi

I don't think you've ever been to the UN Environmental Program conference where numbers escalated 20, 30,000 people trying to save the planet, and which is again another issue we can discuss in terms of the failures of the United Nations. The conference would convene a series of agenda on agenda items, you can have working groups, you can have breakaway groups. It’s a process, it's not going to happen overnight, it will be two to three, maybe even up to five years. And definitely one of the outcomes of this should be the fact that every single country should have a representation within a body where the views can be expressed. And not just the government, but also the people. And how do you bring 7 people, 7.5 billion people into a conversation about the challenges, the global challenges that we face. So, some of the work that we do at Democracy Without Borders, where I'm on the board, is actually [to] reflect and think through many of these models. So there are multiple models already out there. There's a lot of work that's been done. You know, the Paris Peace Conference two, three years ago, actually convened on this very theme, and had you know, a number of people come over and participate, members of our Democracy Without Borders travelled to Paris and we put forward ideas which can be found on the website, obviously, of Democracy Without Borders. The idea of a World Parliament, where people have the equal right to comment, propose ideas on how to solve global challenges – the environment, illicit trade and arms, human trafficking, gender based violence – with a range of committees, portfolio committees. And the difference is, the parliament should have some means to raise its own monies, its own taxes. Then you need an international taxation organisation. You see how it spins off. You begin to create all the institutions that are necessary to actually make the global polity function as a political community. 

Heba Aly 

That’s fascinating

Tim Murithi

So the World Parliament is just one idea. It's just one idea of very many ideas that actually are out there. In terms of the civil society, you heard some of the speakers interviewed talking about some kind of a committee or global forum of NGOs, and the special envoy for NGOs. Absolutely. Spot on. So the the nation states that are dominant in the planet right now would not want to see such a radical shift, because they, they believe they have controlled the planet up to now, they believe they can carry on controlling it going forward, and really would not want to see this happen. So the onus is 100%, completely on the members of the General Assembly, to put this agenda item on the table. We've been trying to reach out to governments like in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, Switzerland, who are open to these ideas, again, clearly you can see there are small countries without major global agendas that are playing out. So there will be some attempts to subvert such a transition. When you hear Biden talking about reform of the Security Council, he simply wants to add a few more members into the permanent five grouping, which is in fact, not a very wise idea. It's simply shifting the deck chairs around the Titanic, and the Titanic is still sinking. And the Titanic will sink. The global climate catastrophe is evident. If you need any evidence: recent floods that are happening, the tsunamis, the hurricanes, the earthquakes. So this is the kind of thinking that we actually need to be fostering going forward.

Heba Aly

You know, you talk about the General Assembly needing to put this on the table there. They have, or it has, tried to do so in the past. There were, well, there have been conversations, as you've alluded to, about decolonizing the UN for decades, but particularly in the 1970s, newly decolonized countries pushed for what they called the New International Economic Order. They wanted to end economic colonialism, to reform the Bretton Woods system so that it was more equitable, etc., and the UN General Assembly actually adopted a declaration to implement these proposals. But unsurprisingly, perhaps, today, it's generally thought not to have met any of its goals. So even when the GA does push this agenda, it ends up failing, ultimately. How do you see a different kind of trajectory?

Well, if you listen to the rhetoric from the General Assembly meeting in New York, in September this year, 2022, there was a high degree of convergence about the need to reform the institution, like, from the most powerful all the way down. The reason that it hasn't happened so far is because there was in fact a tendency to drag the feet amongst the powerful countries. The US, China, Russia really have had no interest in reforming this institution, clearly.

Heba Aly 

But how do you ever…how do you ever get over that?

Tim Murithi

Well, there's a pathway, there is a pathway through Article 109 of the UN Charter. You cannot control that process, and you cannot control the agenda that will emerge out of that process. If you believe the process will be controlled, then it's not a real genuine conversation, right? So if you open up that can of worms, so to speak, let's call it what it is, let's put the Trojan horse out there into the heart of the UN and see where it takes us. I think that is where we should be at the moment. None of that is moving. A lot of the countries are talking about it, but none, none seem to have the ideas of how to move forward. The reason why previous efforts have failed is because there actually is an extremely active campaign behind the scenes, which you wouldn't see in public, in the corridors of the United Nations, in the corridors of the Security Council, to subvert any such attempts. Let me give you a concrete example: the General Assembly has the ability to vote on security issues as well. It's called the Uniting for Peace resolution, and we actually saw it implemented in the most recent crisis with Ukraine. Who were the countries that were actually, who actually put it on the agenda and drove it forward? The United States, France and the United Kingdom. And that vote was held in the General Assembly, it was basically a resolution to condemn. It has no binding authority on any country whatsoever, but it was a huge diplomatic assault on Russia for what it has done in Ukraine. Why has that resolution never been used in the past? You see? Why are the General Assembly countries unable to take these initiatives on their own? There is tremendous Machiavellian brinkmanship, backroom stabbing, coercion – it's an extremely violent place in terms of the formal discussions that are held. Even resolutions of the UN Security Council are technically always decided upon before they come into the floor of the Security Council. [The] Security Council is not the place where you discuss the issues that go into the resolution. The resolution is basically drafted by what they call pen holders of certain agenda items – the pen holders for the Somali issue, for peacekeeping operations around the world, DRC, you know, in Cyprus. These pen holders are the countries that technically have the power to frame the narrative. And you can see, it's basically a club that decides what is worth looking at and what is not worth looking at. And that's why the system is, in fact, completely dysfunctional. It's like a silent pantomime, that's not making a lot of progress for anyone.

Heba Aly 

So let's talk about the Security Council in particular, because that's obviously the, you know, when it comes to calls for change at the UN,  the number one culprit. We all know that four of the five permanent members were colonial powers when the UN was created. As you've alluded to, it costs, you know, it costs a lot to be able to do those backroom deals, millions of dollars to lobby for one of the non-permanent seats. You know, there's, even for the bits of the Council that are accessible, a money game that bigger countries almost always win. And you've mentioned a number of the initiatives that are out there, that a lot of work has been done. What do you see as the reforms that have been put forward vis a vis the Security Council that have the most promise?

Tim Murithi 

Well, promising is perhaps a very optimistic word. I mean, in 2005, the African Union grouping of 55 African countries, convened in Eswatini in Swaziland to in fact craft an African consensus. And what Africa was calling for was two permanent seats on the Security Council. And the African countries themselves were determined through a process of rotation which of the two African countries would sit on those two permanent seats at the Security Council. Then at least you move away from the reality where 50 to 60% of the business of the UN Security Council relates to Africa, yet Africa has no permanent representation on the Security Council. That is clear replication of the power play [and] power division that existed during colonialism, without even a doubt. 

Heba Aly

I hear you on the problem. I'm really interested in: what are viable ways to address it?

Tim Murithi

Well, if you want an incremental step, I mean, the idea of regional representation for all the five, five continents of the planet makes sense. And you would need to also include the Oceanic countries, because they're equally not included. So if you have all 5 regions represented in some kind of a council, and if you eliminate the veto, that will be a step in the right direction, so big power interest doesn't actually dominate over the Council and actually undermine the principles of democracy, which the UN is very busy preaching and proselytising across the planet.

Heba Aly

You seemed sceptical earlier of Biden's proclamations. You know, there's been quite a lot of buzz about his speech at the UN, because in fact, he's proposing, or not proposing, but voicing his support for precisely what you've just detailed: expansion of the Security Council, increasing permanent seats for African countries, not using the veto. So why is it that you’re sceptical of that?

Tim Murithi

I should add that this is not the first time that the US president has actually made this promise. If you go back to Obama's reign, administration, he made the same case about India. He said, there's absolutely no case, there's no sense for country of more than 1 billion people not being represented. That is 1/7th, 1/8th of the planet not being represented on the Security Council. But it was clearly rhetoric with no intention of acting. Washington is notorious for doing this. Absolutely notorious. I'm pretty sure that nothing's going to emerge out of Biden's rhetoric or comments. If there was going to be, we would see some kind of resolution to trigger some kind of a reform dialogue – hasn't happened yet. Maybe it's early days, it's just a month after the meeting. But I'm not going to, as I said, I'm not going to hold my breath. I don't encourage anyone to hold their breath. Otherwise they might suffocate to death. And I think a British diplomat actually articulated this the most, most succinctly when he said that, as far as the permanent five members of the Security Council are concerned, they're not going to vote for the diminishing of their power. And they have tremendous power. And he said, and he put it this way, “turkeys don’t vote for Christmas”. Absolutely. You know, so it's almost asking too much. Power is never handed over. Never. There is no historical reality where power has been handed over willingly.

Heba Aly

So your hope is really in using that mechanism where it doesn't depend on the P5 ... 

Tim Murithi

Absolutely.

Heba Aly

… in order to push the changes,

Tim Murithi

Absolutely. Otherwise nothing will move forward. And the recent announcements by Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister at the Security Council during the GA, where a resolution was actually, you know, hastily pushed condemning Russia, you know, on its recent war and subsequent annexation of the regions in Ukraine. He said quite explicitly that the Russian Federation no longer has any faith in this body, the UN Security Council, in this institution, that is. That is a pretty profound language, but where's he gonna go? So, either they're thinking of simply just ignoring it, or they have a plan of how to move forward. I haven't seen anything emerging from Moscow, so I shouldn’t again also hold breath there. But it seems like it is a time where there's some degree of convergence that something new should be established. The permanent five are going to look for a system that maintains their privilege. The rest of the countries have to group together to actually ensure that that's not the case. And the best way to do that is to create something where everybody simply moves away from the party, and you leave the permanent five simply holding the can by themselves in their own Council. That's the best model forward. Anything else is going to be subverted by them. That's just the reality.

Heba Aly

So if the whole vision is for a more democratic UN, which is hard to argue with. One of the problems that I think had been cited, and that I can empathise with, is, let's say, starting with the Security Council, it grows grows bigger and bigger. You heard Richard Gowan, I believe it was, saying in the clips off the top, that actually it could grow to be even less efficient, because you would have more states in the room arguing about what to do in crises. And I think the same would apply to a UN Parliamentary Assembly, that you'd have so many cooks in the kitchen, you know, 600 people trying to make an urgent decision and reach consensus. Wouldn't that be impossible?

Tim Murithi

It depends how you’re configuring the modalities which you establish for decision-making. Councils and Parliaments do not necessarily have to always be on consensus. Even the Security Council has a disaggregated decision-making system. It's got nine consenting votes and the votes of the permanent five. And if the permanent five don't vote, then that's a veto. So you just need nine sometimes to make a decision in the Council of 15. So similarly, a World Parliament could have a system of voting that is either a straightforward simple majority or some kind of a disaggregated system. But the decision wouldn't always be made at the plenary, the committees should have some of the significant power: the portfolio committees on peace and security portfolio committee of the world parliament on the environment, on humanitarian intervention on gender based violence, a whole raft of global challenges that we're dealing with, you know, artificial intelligence, blue economy, green economy – all of the issues that the planet needs to address right now. So, we shouldn't assume that it's going to be impossible to make a decision because Parliaments do make decisions all the time around the world. [The] US Congress knows how to make decisions, [the] Canadian Parliament makes decisions, the British Parliament makes decisions, you know, African Parliaments do make decisions as well, you know. So we shouldn't overcomplicate this. The most important thing is to get to the point of actually moving into the step of beginning to talk about change. We're not even there yet. 

Heba Aly

Well we’re doing it here. So that’s a start.

Tim Murithi

The dialogue continues, but the nation states, the 193 countries have not made any significant step to go forward. And in fact, it's quite simple, because [Barbados Prime Minister] Mia Mottley, [Senegal President] Mack Sall, if they sit together and actually say, “Well let’s take this forward,” and they do the background work and you know, and actually lobby two-thirds of the General Assembly, they can get this moving. And Mia Mottley is a seasoned QC [Queen’s counsel], Macky Sall [is] a seasoned politician on the African continent, you know, has strong links within the African Union as a former president of the Assembly of Heads of States, Chairperson of the Assembly of the Heads of State. [With] 55 African countries of the General Assembly, that's already a significant number of countries. Bring a few more from Latin America, Asia, you have your two-thirds present, easily convened, it's almost shocking that nothing is happening. There’s a lot of talk. 

Heba Aly

Why is that? I mean, you've talked about the resistance of the countries that currently hold power? That's understandable. Why do you think those that you've just mentioned aren't doing it? And I wonder if one of the reasons- I mean, if you look at the current context, and the ability of countries to reach agreement today, I think many people fear that if you tried to build something new in this climate, you'd actually end up with something worse.

Tim Murithi

That's been the biggest fear all along. It's a false fear. It is carefully nurtured by the beneficiaries of the system, and it has been pushed in many, many circles. There’s many people who  talk about, “oh, if we didn't have the United Nations would have to invent it tomorrow”. I would say please do not invent the same United Nations tomorrow. Please invent something different, because this thing is actually killing us. Literally. I'm talking about now Africa and people in Africa. There's not only resistance from the beneficiaries of the actual system. There is active subterfuge to prevent such discourse merging, which is why I said, you know, it's great that Biden has said this, [but] Obama said it before and nothing happened.

Heba Aly

But so, coming back to your point about,you know, why doesn't Mia Mottley drive a push for this? Why do you think she isn't?

Tim Murithi

But this is a question for you to put to her directly. It would be amazing. It would be amazing to find out, because I think she's one of the most dynamic leaders we have now in the Global South. I don't know what's holding her back. She's a seasoned QC. She's drafted these agreements before. I don't actually know where there's no movement. We've been trying to reach to the South African government here because Naledi Pandor, the Foreign Minister of South Africa, made an exactly similar case, the president of Kenya, William Ruto made exactly the same case – these are seasoned, even PhD holding politicians, you know, which is a rarity in itself. It's not that difficult to draft- even we could literally draft the General Assembly resolution as Democracy Without Borders, and put it out there for consideration. But the fact that we're not a nation state entity means that we don't have a right to speak. We can put the ideas on the table, and there are tons of them lying all around, but we can't drive the agenda in the General Assembly unless one of the countries literally stand up and actually put their foot forward and build that coalition. 

Heba Aly

So how optimistic are you that this can actually change? You've talked about all these subversive powers. We have talked about the fact that there have been, this conversation has existed for decades. How hopeful are you that a new global world order can be created?

Tim Murithi

Well, we have to be hopeful, because we are human beings. We’re 7.5 billion, maybe rapidly approaching eight [billion]. The planet can actually not survive going down this road. Now we have sabre rattling on the nuclear front. We have leaders that are literally digging their heels and increasing the recruits, increasing the supply of ammunition to this conflagration in Ukraine that could actually dangerously spin out of control with Sweden and Finland joining NATO. Parts of Ukraine have been annexed by Russia. The end is not clear. The endgame is absolutely not clear. And if you're sabre rattling on the nuclear weapons, and believe that this is actually a strategy to win a war, then we are in extremely precarious waters as human beings. And that means that in fact, the only thing we've got is to use our agency to make whatever change we can, happen. Paradoxically, being in such a crisis situation might be a catalyst rather than a hindrance because it was the Second World War and the absolute devastation of the Second World War — 55 million people killed, refugee flows, you know, off the charts — that lead to the establishment of the United Nations. Today our refugee flows are 86 million, 86 million people are being displaced from their homes outside of their countries. That's not even factoring the IDPs. The planet is in [a] climate catastrophe phase, our cost of living is off the charts, food insecurity is rampant, 800 plus million people don't have enough food to eat or even more, I don't know what the exact numbers are. It's clearly a turning point of some sort, and if we don't see it as that, one hopes a little bit of wisdom will prevail in Washington, London, Paris. Beijing, I wouldn't hold my breath and, unfortunately, Moscow I wouldn't also. But, if those three countries, the P3, from the Western bloc, actually decided to take this seriously... The fact that they're having a very tense, you know, standoff with with the Eastern P2, Russia and China, means that initially there might not be consensus, but in a weird way, it might be the basis for us to have a common conversation of what we would like to see replace the current setup.

Heba Aly

This may sound trivial in comparison, in a way, to what we've been talking about, but that need for common conversation – the UN did attempt to do that. Last year, it came up with this big report called Our Common Agenda that had been based on input from 1.5 million people around the world, extensive consultations with civil society and others, to come up with what it calls this path forward around a renewal of our social contract, a new global deal. Does that give you any hope? 

Tim Murithi

Kofi Annan did exactly the same thing, in fact, to I think slightly more effect than the current Secretary-General Guterres. Kofi Annan convinced, convened extensive conversations around, you know, a high level panel on threats and security leading to the 2005 General Assembly agreement in which an outcome document was adopted. Ideas such as responsibility to protect were brought into the equation, the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission was established to accelerate peacebuilding around the world. You know, it's not new. The United Nations has been doing this [since] time immemorial. Every time a new Secretary-General comes in, looks around, sees how he or she can move the furniture around, moves a few chairs here and there. Same party, same music, same controllers, nothing shifted dramatically. I think there's a Summit of the Future also, that is, in fact, supposed to happen. You know…

Heba Aly

Well, it's been already delayed, which was meant to be the implementation step for this new Common Agenda, indeed. It’s been pushed back.

Tim Murithi

If you delay a Summit of the Future, what else are you going to delay, you know, if it doesn't articulate itself? And look, the Secretary-General, paradoxically, has been very, very vocal, and has been saying some amazing things like, you know, some of the out of the box thinking, some of the radical critique of what's happening, but it's clear that absolutely nobody is listening to him. Nobody.

Heba Aly

One final question for you. You know, somebody said their eyes glaze over when you talk about reform because it's been talked about so much and nothing has ever happened. And when you talk about these questions of global governance, they seem so big and so impossible to move. What is one practical starting point today that can push in this direction? We've talked about quite a bit, and even the things you've proposed are also quite big initiatives. Where do you start?

Tim Murithi

Draft resolution, Article 109. It’s extremely simple. I can actually put it together and email it to whoever wants to read it, with my colleagues at Democracy Without Borders. Other NGOs, quite a number of NGOs working in New York have been on this issue for a very long time. 

Heba Aly

This is the one that would trigger the review?

Tim Murithi

100%. 100%. And then see who wants to touch it. 

Heba Aly

The call is out there to all of our Rethinking Humanitarianism listeners.

Tim Murithi 

Yeah, that's it, that’s it, that's all that it takes, because then at least you start the conversation, and then it becomes serious, you know. It becomes deadly serious once the resolution is on the table. But beyond that, it’s simply a lot of hot air, a lot of publications about what should be done, and no physical forward movement. In fact, it's quite strange to observe. The members of the Security Council, almost without exception, all 15 of them, when they take the floor to speak, they all lament about the inability of the international community to do anything about this or that issue. And then you actually start to scratch your head and actually say, who are they talking about? Who else is the international community? Are you waiting for the 7 billion people who are struggling to make a buck to get their food on the table to come and make this thing move? Or… who else are you talking about? So they are talking about themselves, but across the board, every single one of them says the same thing. And you're wondering, “What on earth is going on here?” It's almost like, it literally is like they’re just jabbering uncontrollably about their inability to move. It doesn't make any sense, because they are the drivers. They are the drivers. There is no one else that has ability. Civil society can make a lot of noise and scream until they head to blue, green, yellow. They can write wonderful policy briefs, excellent analytical reports, triple models of this and that, and we actually all have it. I mean, the level, the number of publications is easily more than 1,000 in terms of actually what some of the ideas are, you know, easily. Not only academic, some of the policy relevant ones as well. And nothing seems to be shifting. Since 1992, when Boutros Ghali pronounced the end of the old order and beginning of the new order, he didn't reckon with the fact that the inertia was absolutely massive. Massive inertia. And it's backed by muscular power behind the scenes to browbeat anyone who attempts to generally reform the system that works for those who are in power.

Heba Aly

Well, as you say, maybe we're at a turning point now. So, this provides perhaps a new opportunity. But thank you, Tim, for not only laying out so vividly what the problem is, but also some very concrete ways forward. Thank you very much, Tim, for joining us.

Tim Murithi 

Thank you so much for hosting me and [I] really enjoyed the conversation. 

EXTRO

Tim Murithi heads the Peacebuilding Interventions Programme at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and is a Professor of African Studies at the University of the Free State in South Africa.

Today, we’ll leave you with a clip from Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, speaking at the International Peace Institute on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly this year. And she asks the same question we’re asking ourselves this season – can multilateralism today address our 21st century challenges and guarantee freedoms for everyone? 

If you’ve got thoughts on this episode or the focus of this season, write to us or send us a voice note at [email protected]. And don’t forget to review the podcast to help other people find it.

This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.

This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira

Original music by Whitney Patterson.

And I’m your host Heba Aly.

Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism. 

Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados at the First Kofi Annan Lecture Series Event 

[Koffi Anna said] “It is only through multilateral institutions that states can hold each other to account. And that makes it very important to organise these institutions in a fair and democratic way, giving the poor and the weak some influence over the actions of the rich and the strong.”

My friends, when put this way, questions follow naturally. Questions of effectiveness, questions of what is now commonly called, “fitness for purpose” of international organisations. Questions about the future of multilateralism in a world with an extreme tendency to populism, a rising tide of nationalism, religious sectarianism, and a world that has changed since the institutions of the past, which were supposed to save the world and its people, was established.

Does multilateralism as we know it today, effectively address our common problems of security, inequity and inequality, exclusion, the climate crisis, [and] socioeconomic deprivation? Do they exist to find solutions for “our common future” and deliver the world as we want?

Does it give credence or impetus to “Our Common Agenda?” as our current Secretary-General urges — and I feel for him and his courageous leadership, I feel for him for he continues to be that voice imploring us to take on the Common Agenda. Does multilateralism today as it is being practised enlarge our freedoms – Freedom from want; Freedom from fear; Freedom to live in dignity.

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