More Democracy Needed at the United Nations

The latest scandal surrounding the designation of Iran as the incoming President of the UN Conference on Disarmament is part of a long pattern at the United Nations. A country under sanctions by the United Nations as well as the European Union, the US, South Korea, and Japan for breaching its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will now be chairing the UN’s committee on reducing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. The sad fact is that this is a recurring pattern. Countries that do the opposite of what UN members intend are able to get representation on policymaking bodies. In turn, they use their influence to change the agenda and deflect attention from their own shortcomings. In order to resolve this problem, UN bodies need a dose of democracy: more competitive elections and term limits will invigorate these bodies, making them more effective in the years to come.

Despite the vision of UN bodies engaged in ceaseless meetings, they actually do not meet all that much. The Conference on Disarmament only meets for 24 weeks per year. It is no accident that the US and Canada will be boycotting the four weeks during which Iran will be chairing the Conference. It is difficult to point to recent concrete achievements of the Conference. While it has played a leading role in prohibiting chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, both the Landmines treaty and the newly negotiated Arms Trade Treaty were negotiated outside its auspices. It is rather safe to say that the four weeks with Iran as chair are certain not to see any important developments.

The same type of ‘bad apple’ pattern exists on the UN Human Rights Council. The Council was created after reforms to the UN Human Rights Commission, because it was staffed with many countries with poor human rights records. While this problem has ameliorated, just this past year, the Human Rights Council still counted China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia as members. Having countries with poor records as members of the committee ensures that they are less likely to be investigated by their peers, but also that their allies are, in turn, less likely to be investigated.

The good news is that reforms can help solve these problems. By making office-holding more valuable, this creates incentives for like-minded countries to seek membership as well as leadership positions and make their time in these bodies count. Two types of reforms are essential. First, membership in select policy making bodies needs to be based on competitive elections. Human Rights Council members are selected on the basis of elections by the General Assembly. The problem is that countries run as one of five regional slates, and in most cases, the number of candidates for each region and the number of seats are equal. Since 2007, only six times out of 30 can it be said that elections to the Council are truly competitive. If elections are competitive only 20% of the time, with Africa and Asia not fielding a single competitive slate since 2007, how can we make sure that countries with poor human rights records are unable to get representation? The Secretary General needs to make sure that competitive elections to UN positions are a priority.

The Conference on Disarmament also underscores this point. Its membership was created by fiat with 60 member states. While opening the Conference membership up has been a topic of discussion, it is doubtless a reform that it is years away. This is a barrier to the effectiveness of the Conference if non-member countries lack an avenue to advance issues of concern, and it is no wonder that the body has languished in recent years.

Second, leadership positions need to be selected by election rather than by rotation. The crisis regarding Iran came about because the Presidency is rotated not elected. For what it’s worth, North Korea also held this post in 2011. Elections for leadership positions will require countries to become more active in the Conference. Countries can no longer bide their time until the leadership position falls to them. More importantly, they are less able to use their appearances in leadership roles as propaganda back home.

The World’s Opinion Page

Help support Project Syndicate’s mission.


The last reform is the most controversial. The three aforementioned states on the Human Rights Council: China, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia, are not on the Council this year. They weren’t voted off; the Council has a rule limiting participation to two consecutive terms. These countries, then, won’t be eligible for re-election until 2015. For those regions that don’t use competitive elections, then, the term limit rule is an important backstop that ensures that members whose preferences diverge from the rest of the body aren’t able to get perpetually re-elected. Term limits have value in this case. By placing a clock on a country’s time on the Council, it ensures that they need to put in effort to advance their preferences. If more UN bodies used term limits, it would make office holding more valuable and ensure that the body would be more representative of the broader UN membership.

These reforms are not easy to advance, but the costs of inaction are great. Failing to advance a democracy agenda within the UN merely adds to its image as an organization that does little. More importantly, the increasing number of incidents like Iran and the Conference on Disarmament makes US support more precarious, as this issue is cheap fodder for foes of multilateralism. Adopting a democracy agenda within the UN, then, will help forestall the corrosion of support for international organizations within the US Congress. At a time in which international cooperation is crucial to advance US interests, this is an important and necessary step.;
  1. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

    Angela Merkel’s Endgame?

    The collapse of coalition negotiations has left German Chancellor Angela Merkel facing a stark choice between forming a minority government or calling for a new election. But would a minority government necessarily be as bad as Germans have traditionally thought?

  2. Trump Trade speech Bill Pugliano/Getty Images .

    Preparing for the Trump Trade Wars

    In the first 11 months of his presidency, Donald Trump has failed to back up his words – or tweets – with action on a variety of fronts. But the rest of the world's governments, and particularly those in Asia and Europe, would be mistaken to assume that he won't follow through on his promised "America First" trade agenda.

  3. A GrabBike rider uses his mobile phone Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

    The Platform Economy

    While developed countries in Europe, North America, and Asia are rapidly aging, emerging economies are predominantly youthful. Nigerian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese young people will shape global work trends at an increasingly rapid pace, bringing to bear their experience in dynamic informal markets on a tech-enabled gig economy.

  4. Trump Mario Tama/Getty Images

    Profiles in Discouragement

    One day, the United States will turn the page on Donald Trump. But, as Americans prepare to observe their Thanksgiving holiday, they should reflect that their country's culture and global standing will never recover fully from the wounds that his presidency is inflicting on them.

  5. Mugabe kisses Grace JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty Images

    How Women Shape Coups

    In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place in the aftermath of the military's overthrow of President Robert Mugabe. But who the eventual winners and losers are may depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.

  6. Oil barrels Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images

    The Abnormality of Oil

    At the 2017 Abu Dhabi Petroleum Exhibition and Conference, the consensus among industry executives was that oil prices will still be around $60 per barrel in November 2018. But there is evidence to suggest that the uptick in global growth and developments in Saudi Arabia will push the price as high as $80 in the meantime.

  7. Israeli soldier Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

    The Saudi Prince’s Dangerous War Games

    Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is working hard to consolidate power and establish his country as the Middle East’s only hegemon. But his efforts – which include an attempt to trigger a war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon – increasingly look like the work of an immature gambler.