Top UN official says it is 'not fit for purpose'

President of General Assembly lambasts his own organisation as the crisis in Syria deepens

Nina Lakhani
Monday 05 March 2012 01:00 GMT

The United Nations must urgently reform to stay relevant in a world facing unprecedented conflicts and is not fit for purpose, according to the president of the UN General Assembly.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, the 66th elected president, told The Independent that the ability of five countries to veto Security Council decisions was no longer credible and the outdated system was endangering international peace and security.

Mr Nasser said there was no doubt that the situation in Syria deteriorated after China and Russia vetoed the Security Council resolution, as Bashar al-Assad's government was encouraged by the confusion and disagreement in the international community. Mr Nasser, a career diplomat from Qatar, expressed his annoyance with China and Russia as he could see no reason for vetoing a resolution aimed at protecting civilians from further bloodshed at the hands of the Assad government. The second veto caused shockwaves in the UN as nothing worse than abstentions had been predicted, he said, but it was the latest sign the UN structure and voting system was outdated.

The United States, with help from France, is drawing up a third resolution focusing on securing humanitarian access to the cities worst hit by the violence. Russia and China vetoed the first two, which called for President Assad to stand aside, claiming that the UN should not support regime change. Mr Nasser said: "Because of disagreement from one or two members who have the right to veto, this sent the wrong message to the government of Syria that's why they are not co-operating.

"I am very upset [with Russia and China] because it sent the wrong message and people have suffered and we see its getting worse every day."

He added: "The world has changed; the UN should also reform itself to deal with the issues of today. Sixty years ago who could imagine we'll be discussing climate change, food security, or the world would reach seven billion people, so we need to see a more active and effective UN. In the Security Council today we see many important and powerful countries, emerging powers in the world, which are also playing good positive roles; they want to see themselves given the right recognition for what they are. If the Security Council reflected the whole world in a fair way, then we would see a more effective council."

The United Nations has 193 member states compared with 50 in 1945. The five permanent members of the Security Council, the Government-like body with an annual budget of almost $10bn (£6bn), have not changed since its inception. The need for reform has been recognised for years and came close in 2005, when a proposal to add five more permanent members (without veto rights) was scuppered by disagreements about which countries to include. Lord Owen, the former Foreign Secretary, said: "The only reform that would help is wider representation on the Security Council and a rapid reaction force made up of council members who trained together, with earmarked aircraft that could fly instantly to anywhere in the world. I don't see any advantages of getting rid of the veto, it represents Realpolitik, and allows unfashionable views to be reflected... the US and UK lost a lot of street cred after the debacle of the Iraq war and will now have to work within the constraints of the treaty and work hard to persuade Russia and China; there will be no more cobbled-together agreements."

After 20 years in the UN, Mr Nasser remains passionate about its role as a crucial international force going forward in health, security, human rights and humanitarian crises, but is much more supportive of the General Assembly's system of one country, one vote.

The "Arab Awakening" and Europe's financial crisis illustrate why the UN must reform, he says. "We need a very effective UN and very effective UN Security Council; if this system is not doing what it supposed to do, then we need to look for another system."

UN security council: role and structure

The UN Security Council is the arm of the UN that is tasked with ensuring international peace and security. It met for the first time in 1946. Five countries are permanently represented on the council – the UK, US, China, France, and Russia. These members work alongside 10 non-permanent members, which are elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly.

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