Doug Miller

Citizens of the world want UN reform

Friday, April 8, 2005.
This is a challenging time for the United Nations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan with the recent release of the report into the oil-for-food scandal and no doubt, fresh attacks from Washington.

However, as they say in American football, "the best defence is a good offence" and last week's proposals for a renewed UN by Mr. Annan is a promising start. Our global surveys of both average citizens and civil society leaders show strong support for many of Mr.Annan's proposals. Indeed, our findings suggest his reform plan may be overly cautious.

Our BBC World Service poll released Mar. 21 found two in three citizens (64 per cent) across the 23 countries surveyed want a significantly more powerful United Nations operating in world affairs. Seven in ten (69 per cent) want to expand the Security Council's permanent membership beyond the current five countries. And six in ten (58 per cent) of the 23,000 citizens surveyed want the absolute veto power of permanent Security Council members abolished (something not addressed in the UN's plan).

This call for the democratization of the UN is even more powerfully made by leaders of civil-society organizations worldwide. In a survey of 1,000 of these leaders that we recently conducted for the King Baudouin Foundation, with support from the Rockefeller and Mott foundations, a recurring theme from respondents is the need to loosen the tight control of the UN system currently exercised by a few powerful nation-states.

While last week's UN reform plan includes extending the permanent membership of the Security Council, civil-society leaders call even more strongly for making the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization accountable to the United Nations, and for creating a Civil Society Forum of non-state actors so they can play more direct and constructive roles in the UN. Neither of these are directly addressed in Mr. Annan's plan.

This research also shows that deep reform to the workings of the UN Secretariat itself will be essential. Stakeholders across all sectors, especially those having regular interaction with UN agencies, are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with its operations and current impact in the world. They call for reforms aimed at greater operational efficiency, program innovation, as well as transparency and accountability. In short, the UN must become a 21st-century organization. The good news is that people care enough to want the very best.

Our research presents an even greater challenge to the UN. For the first time in history, one citizen in five across the world strongly identifies with being a citizen of the world ahead of being a citizen of a home country. Further, most university-educated citizens recognize the need for more global rules and global governance to enforce those rules.

One of the most surprising findings from our King Baudouin Foundation survey was when we asked for the ideal form of global governance in the year 2020. Leaders of non-governmental organizations were as likely to choose "the emergence of directly-elected world government" as choose "a reformed and strengthened United Nations."

Clearly, we're at a historic moment in the evolution of the world-governance system. The question is whether the Secretary-General is in a strong enough position to push through his reform plan in spite of expected opposition from the Bush administration. Our research suggests he is.

As the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches so eloquently said before the Iraq invasion, "There are two super-powers in the world: the United States and global opinion."

Our BBC World Service poll shows that even in America, a solid six in ten citizens want a significantly more powerful UN operating in world affairs, and a similar number are even willing to have Security Council rules changed to enable a U.S. (or other member's) veto to be overturned if all other members are unified in an opposing view.

Clearly, the unilateralists in the U.S. administration are overplaying their hand. With all their talk about spreading democracy in the world, the "greatest democracy in the world" can hardly oppose a measured democratization of the UN system to better reflect today's world, especially when this is supported by a majority of its own citizens.

Doug Miller is president of GlobeScan Incorporated, a public opinion and stakeholder research consultancy with offices in London, Toronto and Washington.

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail online edition April 8, 2005.

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