The Politics and Potential of United Nations Reform

By Jess Gifkins, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Politics and International Relations, Leeds Beckett University.


Over the summer, Politics and International Relations at Leeds Beckett University hosted a workshop on reforming the United Nations last month, in collaboration with the University of Leeds. The workshop focused on the UN’s capacity to respond to mass atrocity crimes which draws from an agreement made by all UN member states in 2005, known as the ‘responsibility to protect’ or ‘R2P’. This agreement is about national and international responses to the worst of the worst crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ethnic cleansing. The workshop considered different types of UN reform that could enhance the UN’s ability to respond effectively to these atrocities.

Calls for UN reform are referred to as ‘common wisdom’; there is widespread agreement on the need for reform, but not on the type of reform. Nowhere are the question of reform more contentious than in the UN Security Council, with a variety of proposals on expansion of permanent or elected members, with or without veto powers. A recent comprehensive survey concluded that most proposed formal reforms to the UN Charter are infeasible. Given this, there is growing interest in reforms to the working methods of the United Nations. The UN is more adept at informal change than it is at formal reform. With this in mind, the workshop considered the questions of ‘UN reform’ in an expansive manner, encompassing debates on formal reform in addition to debates on practices and working methods from the perspectives of both practitioners and academics.

Key aspects of reform that were considered in the workshop were: the Women, Peace and Security agenda; debates on the ‘responsibility not to veto’; unarmed civilian peacekeeping; conflict prevention; and the role of the UN Secretariat. In line with current literature, participants were generally sceptical about the prospects for reform of the UN Charter, and instead focused on the prospects for changes to working methods and incremental reform.


I presented two papers. The first was a collaboration between Jason Ralph and myself on the use of practice theory to understand decision-making within the UN Security Council. In this paper we argued that there are dangers in separating practice theory from normative theory, an approach used by some current literature in International Relations. By separating these concepts there is a risk that the diplomats who achieve their objectives are held up as ‘competent’, even if the practices used to ‘win’ create obstacles for future negotiations and for the protection of civilians. Instead, we argue that practice theory analysis should consider normative implications, otherwise it risks reifying existing power structures. Our paper has since been accepted for publication in the European Journal of International Relations (open access).

The other paper I presented was on the politics of agenda-setting in the UN Security Council. This paper analysed the barriers to early warning of the Darfur conflict, the impact of framing on the legitimation of Darfur as an agenda item, and divisions within the UN Secretariat on how to interpret and respond to the Darfur conflict. Framing the conflict as analogous to the Rwandan genocide had certain pernicious effects on the international response, such as diverting resources to repeated assessments on the question of genocide at a time when people were dying from preventable illness, however this simplistic framing did elevate the crisis politically and helped legitimate Darfur as an agenda item within the Security Council. This paper is a chapter of a monograph I am writing on the Security Council’s response to the Darfur conflict.

The workshop brought together academics and practitioners (both virtually and in person) from many different countries, and was made possible by funding from the ESRC, as part of the ESRC Seminar Series on the Responsibility to Protect and Prosecute. There are audio recordings of the event available.

Photo credits: James Pattison


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