In Australia this year we have heard, and will continue to hear, about the centenary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. But 2015 is also the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the 70th birthday of the United Nations.

On 7 February 2015, The Elders – an organisation founded by Nelson Mandela, chaired by Kofi Annan and made up of prominent elder statesmen and women from across the globe – marked this anniversary by releasing a statement calling for reform of the UN’s structure and processes. It is entitled ‘Strengthening the United Nations’ and is part of a wider push to make the UN ‘fit for purpose‘.

The Elders’ targets are the veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, who think of their special status ‘almost as their natural right, sometimes forgetting that it is above all a responsibility’. They present four proposals to strengthen the UN and make it ‘fit for purpose in the 21st century’.

A new category of members

The Elders address a common roadblock to reform of the Security Council: if there are to be new permanent members, who should they be and what powers should they have? The proposed solution is a compromise:

Let the states which aspire to permanent membership accept instead, at least for the time being, election to a new category of membership, which would give them a much longer term than the two years served by the non-permanent members, and to which they could be immediately re-elected when that term expires. This would enable them to become de facto permanent members, but in a more democratic way, since it would depend on them continuing to enjoy the confidence of other member states.

This is the most radical of the Elders’ proposals and the only one that would require amending the Charter of the United Nations (Charter).

A pledge by existing permanent members

As the first words of the Elders’ statement remind us, the UN was founded ‘to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (from the preamble of the Charter). However, too often has the Security Council’s ability to properly address war and humanitarian crisis been deadlocked by the use of the veto one or more of the permanent members. To address these failings, the Elders call for a pledge from existing permanent members to use their veto in a more transparent and principled way:

States making this pledge will undertake not to use, or threaten to use, their veto in such crises without explaining, clearly and in public, what alternative course of action they propose, as a credible and efficient way to protect the populations in question. This explanation must refer to international peace and security, and not to the national interest of the state casting the veto, since any state casting a veto simply to protect its national interests is abusing the privilege of permanent membership.

And when one or more permanent members do feel obliged to cast a veto, and do provide such an explanation, the others must undertake not to abandon the search for common ground but to make even greater efforts to agree on an effective course of action.

A voice for those affected

The Elders want to open doors on the decision-making of the Great Powers, and ensure that the voices of those affected by their decisions are properly heard in Security Council deliberations. They suggest an expansion of the existing ‘Arria formula’, whereby Security Council members hold consultative meetings on an issue with civil society representatives. Whereas meetings under the Arria formula are usually only attended by minor functionaries, in the future they should be a crucial part of the decision-making process, so that the Council’s:

decisions are informed by full and clear knowledge of the conditions in the country or region concerned, and of the views of those most directly affected.

A new process for choosing the Secretary-General

Finally, the Elders call for the process for the election of the Secretary-General selection to become more open and transparent. Currently they say that ‘for 70 years the holder of this post has effectively been chosen by the five permanent members of the Security Council, who negotiate among themselves in almost total secrecy’. But the Charter gives the power of appointment to the General Assembly, not the Security Council (who merely recommend a candidate to the General Assembly).

They call for a new process, where multiple candidates are proposed by the Security Council, ignoring gender and regional origin. In order to implement this new process, they:

suggest that the next Secretary-General be appointed for a single, non-renewable term of seven years, in order to strengthen his or her independence and avoid the perception that he or she is guided by electoral concerns. She or he must not be under pressure, either before or after being appointed, to give posts in the Secretariat to people of any particular nationality in return for political support, since this is clearly contrary to the spirit of the Charter. This new process should be adopted without delay, so that the United Nations can make full use of it to choose the best person to assume the post in January 2017.

This is a strong call to arms for reform of global governance at the highest level, and it comes from a group of men and women who have dedicated their lives to the project of global peace. Australia was a founding member of the UN in San Francisco, and Australians like H. V. Evatt were integral actors in its formation. Australia recently concluded a two-year term on the Security Council, during which it achieved important feats. If the time for reform of the UN is now, it is hoped that Australia will step up and exhibit the same leadership as it has at other key times in the UN’s history.