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May 18, 2004

Revitilizing the United Nations: A Modest Proposal

As the Coalition forces in Iraq await the announcement by UN special advisor Lakhdar Brahmini, on exactly who the Coalition will be turning Iraqi sovereignty over to at the end of June, the time seems right to revisit the question of what is the United Nations and how is it constituted?

How we got to where we are today

When the UN was founded at the end of the Second World War in 1945, it had 51 members.   And they were all real countries.   The smallest UN member, in terms of 1950 population, was Luxemburg with a population of 300,000.   The median UN member had a population in 1950 of 7.6 million.   Not huge, but a real country.   Here is the list of charter members:

Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia. Brazil, Belarus, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, United States of America, Uruguay, Venezuela, Yugoslavia

Over the years, as decolonization progressed, countries split apart, and one thing led to another, the UN grew to its current level of 191 member states.   Today, there are 42 member states of the UN that have total 2002 populations of under one million people: 

Swaziland, Fiji, Cyprus, Timor-Leste, Guyana, Comoros, Bahrain, Djibouti, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, Solomon Islands, Luxembourg, Cape Verde, Suriname, Malta, Martinique, Brunei Darussalam, Bahamas, Maldives, Iceland, Barbados, Belize, Vanuatu, Samoa, Saint Lucia, Sao Tome and Principe, Saint Vincent/Grenadines, Federated States of Micronesia, Grenada, Tonga, Antigua and Barbuda, Kiribati, Seychelles, Dominica, Andorra, Marshall Islands, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Monaco, San Marino, Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu

In other words, 42 UN members (accounting for 23% of the voting members) have populations smaller than the 50 largest US metropolitan areas.   Put still another way, the 31 most populated members of the UN account for 80% of the world's population and yet have only 16% of the votes at the UN.

Similarly, the UN Security Council was composed of five permanent members, with veto powers, representing the five victorious powers in WWII:  The US, UK, USSR, France, and China.    The UNSC also has ten members elected by the General Assembly for two year terms, those members do not have veto powers.

While this structure may have been appropriate nearly 60 years ago when the UN was founded, it is clearly out of step with the modern world.    For one thing, the General Assembly, which was intended to be the "populist" body in the this global assembly, representing the interests and aspirations of the majority of mankind, is full of what English historians would have called "rotten boroughs".    For example, the government of India, which represents a population estimated at 1.05 billion in 2003 and is a vibrant democracy, has one vote in the General Assembly.    Similarly, Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,305 people, also has one vote.    This is democracy?!

How to fix it

My suggestion is simple: let's change the voting system in the UN General Assembly so that countries' votes are weighted by their populations.   Under this system, the 31 largest countries would comprise more than 80% of the votes in the General Assembly:

Population and voting percentage of the 31 largest countries in the UN

Furthermore, let's overhaul the UN Security Council to reflect the current balance of economic and military power.    I would suggest increasing the number of permanent council members to eight and including five members elected by the General Assembly.    Also, I would eliminate the veto power of the Permanent Members, but allow the General Assembly to overrule the UNSC upon a two thirds majority vote.    Proposed new permanent members of the UNSC:


I would argue that a UN, thus reconstituted, would better reflect both the economic and military realities of the modern world as well as the humanistic goal of representing each country according to its human population.    Furthermore, with serious countries (that is to say countries that have both sizeable populations and significant economies) firmly in control of the UN bureacracy, it might be easier to create both a more responsive, and responsible, global political body.

May 18, 2004 at 01:38 AM | Permalink


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1) A new UN needs teeth.
2) Behavior should influence 'membership in good standing'.
3) Accountability.

To give it 'teeth', I think I'd allow security council members that have contributed _troops_ a veto. Keep upping the troop/equipment requirement.

You can't have craziness like Syria, Sudan, Libya as arbiters of the Human Rights commission or the Disarmament committee. Substantial violations can't be swept under the rug in the interest of pretending everyone's nice.

The Freedom of Information Act applied to the UN might go a long way towards accountability - but it sort of assumes sanity/loss corruption than is the norm in, say, France.

Posted by: Al | May 18, 2004 8:47:30 PM

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