Chinese Leadership On U.N. Reform

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Above Photo: Kevin Gong/ Flickr

6 Jan 2017 – There have been a number of periods when proposals for new or different United Nations structures were proposed and discussed. The first was in the 1944-1945 period when the Charter was being drafted. Some who had lived through the decline and then death of the League of Nations wanted a stronger world institution, able to move more quickly and effectively in times of crisis or the start of armed conflict.

In practice, the League of Nations was reincarnated in 1945 in the U.N. Charter but the names of some of the bodies were changed and new Specialized Agencies such as UNESCO were added. There was some dissatisfaction during the San Francisco negotiations, and an article was added indicating that 10 years after the coming into force of the Charter a proposal to hold a U.N. Charter Review Conference would be placed on the Agenda – thus for 1955.

The possibility of a U.N. Charter Review Conference led in the 1953-1954 period to a host of proposals for changes in the U.N. structures, for a greater role for international law, for a standing U.N. “peace force”. Nearly all these proposals would require modifications in the U.N. Charter.

When 1955 arrived, the United States and the Soviet Union, who did not want a Charter Review Conference which might have questioned their policies, were able to sweep the Charter Review agenda item under the rug from where it has never emerged. In place of a Charter Review Conference, a U.N. Committee on “Strengthening the U.N. Charter” was set up which made a number of useful suggestions, none of which were put into practice as such. The Committee on Strengthening the Charter was the first of a series of expert committees, “High-Level Panels” set up within the U.N. to review its functioning and its ability to respond to new challenges. There have also been a number of committees set up outside of the U.N. to look at world challenges and U.N. responses, such as the Commission on Global Governance.

While in practice there have been modifications in the ways the U.N. works, few of these changes have recognized an expert group’s recommendations as the source of the changes. Some of the proposals made would have strengthened some factions of the U.N. system over the then current status quo – most usually to strength the role of developing countries (the South) over the industrialized States (the North). While the vocabulary of “win-win” modifications is often used, in practice few States want to take a chance, and the status quo continues.

Now, with a new Secretary General who knows well how the U.N. works from his decade as High Commissioner for Refugees, U.N. reform is again “in the air”. There are an increasing number of proposals presented by governments and by non-governmental organizations associated with the U.N. The emphasis today is on what can be done without a revision of the Charter. Most of the proposals turn on what the Secretary General can do on his own authority. The Secretary General cannot go against the will of States – especially the most powerful States – , but he does have a certain power of initiative and can make changes under the cover of “better management”.

One of the most complete reform proposals has just been issued for discussion at the U.N. by the Government of China in a 27-page document. (1) Many of the proposals are very similar to suggestions made by the Association of World Citizens. The Chinese text has no footnotes as to what documents were read before writing the paper, so we will not suggest that they were “borrowed” from world citizens. We can only say that great minds go along the same avenues!

The Chinese proposals are divided into three major categories:

  1. Strengthening the conflict resolution, peacekeeping functions of the U.N.
  2. Strengthening the capacity of the organization to promote economic and social wellbeing while at the same time protecting the environment.
  3. Strengthening the management aspects both at U.N. Headquarters and in the field, strengthening the cooperation among U.N. Agencies, regional government organizations and new institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The paper begins with its aims and spirit.

The world is undergoing major developments, transformation, and adjustment, but peace and development remains the call of our day. The trends of global multi-polarity, economic globalization, IT application and cultural diversity are surging forward; and countries are becoming increasingly interconnected and interdependent. Yet, the world faces growing uncertainties and destabilizing factors as well as interwoven global threats and challenges that keep cropping up. Against this backdrop China is ready to work together with other countries to forge a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation, to build a community with a shared future for mankind, and to build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity.”

The Chinese proposals merit close attention. Most are not radically new. The proposals are very “State-centric”. The role and capacity for action of non-governmental organizations is never mentioned. However, it is not so much the proposals themselves as the timing which is important. The reform of the U.N. has become a major policy issue. No other great power has put forward such a comprehensive set of proposals and none seem likely to do so. It is likely that given the large place given to a greater say in development policy and practice for the countries of the South, most of the 134 States which are considered “South” will support the Chinese proposals and not present counter proposals. China is not currently tied down in regional armed conflicts, and there is a strong “win-win” spirit in the presentation. Thus we can look to Chinese leadership on the U.N. Reform agenda.


  1. Available through the Passblue website of independent analysis of U.N. issues in a 3 January 2018 article by Kacie Candela
  • Robert H. Stiver

    Good report; thank you. May China find success. The world will be better for it.

    A really apt comment was made today at another site I regularly visit. I take the liberty of copying and pasting its essence here:

    …a statement…from China’s constitution –
    ”China consistently opposes imperialism, hegemonism and colonialism, works to strengthen unity with the people of other countries, supports the oppressed nations and the developing countries in their just struggle to win and preserve national independence and develop their national economies, and strives to safeguard world peace and promote the cause of human progress.”

  • Like all political processes, any reform of ‘global governance’ (I use that term with many reservations) is only likely to follow the will of people everywhere if/when we ever discover and unify behind a common will. We are one human family and one planet with shared common needs. In that context, everything else, including nations, economic and political systems is negotiable. What we really need is not so much a United Nations as a United Peoples of the Earth to lay the foundations of a global culture that respects all individual needs and also respects the carrying capacity of the Earth in relation to our best technical understandings of how to remain sustainable. The unsystematic and haphazard Terra-forming of the Earth by humanity is well underway. We can argue about the drivers of human behaviors that are generating such chaos but not for much longer. Without a sound scientific understanding of consequences as the basis for arriving at a unified course of action, we will remain on course toward global catastrophe.

  • Robert H. Stiver

    Well stated! Thank you.

  • Jon

    While I welcome the Chinese initiative, I look at reforming the UN much the same way I look at “reforming the Democratic (sic!) Party–that is, too far gone to be salvaged. What if the non-nuclear states formed a brand new organization, using the initial UN Charter and subsequent progressive modifications as a basis, but without the veto powers and eliminating the hegemonic “security council” where important decisions are currently made. Yes there is a need to account for different population densities, but that is a fine tuning.