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The 2024 UN “Summit of the Future”: An Opportunity to Revisit the UN Charter

  • The crises before the international community call for meaningful consideration of strengthening the international order.
  • The Secretary-General has called for such a process through his “Our Common Agenda” report and the upcoming Summit of the Future in 2024.
  • The UN Charter, in Article 109, foresaw the need for such a process. The authors propose one constructive outcome of the Summit of the Future would be an agreement to hold an “Article 109” convocation “for the purposes of reviewing the present Charter” prior to 2030.

The crises humanity is facing today require a new kind of international arrangement. One that does not pit the domestic needs of States against each other nor against global responsibilities. One that allows for the abundance we have created to be better distributed across the world. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the very end of the Summary of his Our Common Agenda report, states that he “will ask a High-Level Advisory Board, led by former Heads of State and Government, to identify global public goods and other areas of common interest where governance improvements are most needed, and to propose options for how this could be achieved.” Recently, his proposed Summit of the Future, “to forge a new global consensus on what our future should look like, and what we can do today to secure it,” has been announced for 2024.

What our future should look like

While there may be differences of emphasis, most surveys of public opinion suggest that there is already a broadly held international consensus on what kind of future we want. It is a future in which ours and future generations will be free from the calamities and dislocations associated with accelerating climate change, in which we will have found enduring ways to reduce the tensions and geopolitical risks associated with destructive nationalisms which have caused so much suffering and conflict over the past century. Indeed, to put behind us forever the fear of a nuclear holocaust. It is a future in which the economic advancements we have made are shared more equitably across all populations, in which social cohesion is strengthened, human rights are fulfilled, and in which all have sufficient food on their plates, a roof to sleep under, and a free education to benefit from. And it is perhaps a future in which our concepts of security will have evolved from an undue focus on military preparedness and the buildup of weapons to one in which we conceive of security as being fundamentally about human welfare and the need to formulate public policies in ways that contribute to improve human wellbeing. Indeed, the UN’s 2030 Agenda and supporting Sustainable Development Goals already provide a comprehensive vision of what that future should look like.

A proposal for improved governance

We would like to propose a way to enhance our chances of securing that future and, indeed, to make the proposal outlined below a central part of the deliberations during the Summit of the Future, now scheduled to take place in 2024. But, before we go into the details, some important historical background.

In an earlier article, some of the history of the UN veto was reviewed and why it was so poorly received by many of the delegations assembled at the San Francisco conference in 1945 when the UN Charter was adopted. Earlier that year, at the Yalta conference, the Dutch delegation had warned that giving the veto power in the Security Council to a select few countries would make the organization largely useless in disputes between great powers, or in conflicts involving a close ally of a great power. There was something unwholesome about giving the veto power to countries which were themselves parties to a dispute. Cord Meyer, a member of the US delegation in San Francisco, would later comment on the weak moral grounds implicit in the inclusion in the Charter of a principle which would create a situation where “a major power can violate every principle and purpose set forth in the Charter and yet remain a member of the Organization by the lawful use of the veto power expressly granted to it.”

Mexico and eight other Latin American countries assembled in Chapultepec at the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace held in February/March of 1945 strongly objected to the veto. Australian Judge Herbert Evatt—later president of the General Assembly in 1948—and New Zealand Prime Minister Peter Fraser likewise expressed dismay at the inclusion of the veto and led a group of 17 nations in their opposition to it during the San Francisco conference.

It was in response to their strongly voiced opposition that the delegates assembled in San Francisco agreed to include in the Charter Article 109 stating that “A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purposes of reviewing the present Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any nine members of the Security Council.” While the Article’s second paragraph went on to state that any proposed amendments to the Charter coming out of that Conference to be subsequently ratified by members would still require the consent of the veto-wielding countries (United States, Soviet Union, China, United Kingdom and France) the article opened the door for a future consideration of the appropriateness of the Charter in light of changes which might have taken place since the adoption and ratification of the Charter as agreed in San Francisco.

Against this background, in his own assessment of the importance of Article 109, Georg Witschel, a renowned German diplomat, commented that “it was a major factor in overcoming the resistance of many small and medium-sized States to the ´Yalta formula’ stating the right to veto in San Francisco. The prospect of a review conference in the foreseeable future, when the cards could be reshuffled, gave them consolation and hope.”

Article 109 was not only a way to placate the many members who were upset at being presented with a fait accompli, with the key elements of the Charter having been earlier agreed to by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. It was also a way to address the sense, widespread among those who had followed closely the debate in the period 1942–45 about the kind of UN which should be created, namely that the UN Charter, as conceived, was an inadequate response to the devastation of World War II and its 60 million casualties. In the view of many, the organization would fail to live up to the noble ideals in the areas of peace and security identified in the Charter’s Preamble and spelled out in its numerous articles. In the final vote, once the United States and the Soviet Union made it clear that without the inclusion of the veto there would be no United Nations Charter, 15 nations abstained and two (Colombia and Cuba) voted against it, out of 51 signatories.

The Article 109 conference, expected to take place within a decade from the time of ratification of the Charter has never taken place. As with other elements of the Charter, it remains a dead letter, a victim of the onset of the Cold War and the general sense of inertia and paralysis that has been a permanent feature of UN reform efforts, to say nothing of decision making within the Security Council, which remains largely ineffective at a time when a range of global catastrophic risks threaten our future, risks which reflect problems the solutions to which are not possible outside a framework of much stronger international cooperation.

A proposal for the Summit of the Future

Many of us, strong supporters of the idea that global problems are best addressed in a multilateral setting of cross-border cooperation, would very much like to avoid a familiar scenario where the forthcoming Summit results in laudable words on a page, but limited impact in the real world. One way to avoid this is to renew the spirit of Article 109 and call for the holding of a General Conference—sooner than 2030—to put forward proposals for reviewing the Charter considering the problems we face today, 77 years after the Charter was adopted. So, a key deliverable of the Summit would involve seizing the moment and agreeing to hold such a convocation, without prejudicing its eventual outcome. Consultations and peaceful deliberations might shine a light, in a dark world, about “what our future should look like” and what we can do to secure it.

“We have organizations for the preservation of almost everything in life that we want but no organization for the preservation of mankind. People seem to have decided that our collective will is too weak or flawed to rise to this occasion. They see the violence that has saturated human history and conclude that to practice violence is innate to our species. They find the perennial hope that peace can be brought to the earth once and for all a delusion of the well-meaning who have refused to face the `harsh realities´ of international life—the realities of self-interest, fear, hatred, and aggression. They have concluded that these realities are eternal ones, and this conclusion defeats at the outset any hope of taking the actions necessary for survival.” – Jonathan Schell, in The Fate of the Earth (1982)


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