UN reform according to the Holy See.


Kofi Annan’s proposals.

The reform of the United Nation has been discussed for a long time. The celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the establishment of the UN – on June 26, 1945 – represented a good opportunity to further analyse the issue of reform. The Secretary General, Kofi Annan, himself in an article published in the American magazine “Foreign Affairs”,[1] had expressed this hope and had also promised too much when he foresaw, on the occasion of the 60th Session of the UN General Assembly in September 2005, important news that, after the event, can be considered as excessively optimistic. Kofi Annan had suggested, in that article, the creation of a new intergovernmental body, the Peace building Commission. This is how he defined it: “The commission would be a forum in which  representatives from donor countries, troop contributors, and the country being helped would sit together with leaders  from other member states, international financial institutions, and regional organizations to agree on strategy, provide policy guidance, mobilize resources, and coordinate the efforts of all involved”[2].

As to the use of force, whenever every other attempt has failed, the Secretary General explains that “Article 51 of the UN Charter preserves the right of all states to act in self-defence against an armed attack. Most lawyers recognize that the provision includes the right to take pre-emptive action against an imminent threat; it needs no reinterpretations nor rewriting […]. We must also remember that state sovereignty carries responsibilities as well as rights, including the responsibility to protect citizens from genocide or other mass atrocities. When states fail to live up to this responsibility, it passes to the international community, which, if necessary should stand ready to take enforcement action authorized by the Security Council”[3].

As to Human Rights, Kofi Annan suggests to transform the Commission for Human Rights into a true Council for Human Rights.

With reference to the delicate issue of the Security Council Reform, Kofi Annan hoped that the September 2005 Summit would choose between the two models on the table to increase the members from 15 to 24: one model provides for 6 new permanent members and 3 non permanent ones; the other model envisages 9 permanent members. None of the two models extends the right to veto to more than the current 5 members.

The two UN reform scopes.

The theme of the UN reform envisages two fundamental scopes of application. The first one concerns authority and efficacy. Many observers highlighted that, all things considered, the UN have never been able to implement their war prevention actions and has turned out to be a huge bureaucratic machinery. The second aspect concerns aims, or better, the consistency of the UN with the objectives originally stated in the 1945 Charter. The consistency issue concerns democracy and human rights. Many UN member states are not democratic and, not only they do not protect human rights, they do not even consider them. On the issue of human rights, the Holy See has often disagreed with the UN position during the International Conferences  held in Cairo (1994, conference on population and development) and in Beijing (1995, conference on women). The Holy See has set for an “inclusive” concept of human rights,  objecting to the UN’s “narrow” view. Human rights have to be intended in their full sense: the right to life cannot be denied by virtue of an ideological concept of “reproductive health”. Indeed, there is also been someone, like Michel Schooyans from the University of Lovanio, who in numerous publications explicitly objected to the UN that they had moved away from the original – objective and universal – concept of human rights, gradually drifting towards a conventional and relativistic view.

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What is the position of the Holy See with respect to these issues? Various important elements can be learned from three recent and extremely outstanding official contributions: a) the speech by Mons. Agostino Migliore, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, on September 23, 2005[4]; the speech by the Secretary of State Angelo Sodano[5] on the occasion of the High Level Plenary Session held on September 13-16, 2005. It is worth making reference, despite the fact that it is quite outdated, to the speech by Mons. Agostino Migliore on October 5, 2004 on the occasion of the 59th Session of the UN General Assembly [6].

Universal duties

The United Nations are founded on the capacity to make common good: this is what its “authority” and the instruments used stem from. It is crucial, therefore, that member States share the Charter’s common values: freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for the creation, shared responsibility. These values give rise to duties, within which rights are then inscribed. Mons. Migliore says: “The international community appears to have forgotten  that not only essential human rights but also human duties underpin the Declaration. These duties establish the framework in which our rights usually entail responsibilities”. Hence responsibilities are taking upon and the conviction emerges that we belong to only one human family. According to Mons. Migliore, “a greater sense  of universal human duties would benefit the cause of peace, because awareness of our mutual responsabilities acknowledges duties as essential to a social order”.

Against the relativist drift taken by the concept of human rights, Mons. Migliore recalls that “certain values are so fundamental that they can find support in the moral and philosophical traditions of cultures. For that reason, such universal principles or basic human rights are undeniable. In their essential core, they have to be universally recognized and must be operative ‘erga omnes’”.

No UN reform can do without this renewed vocation to the service of an objective and universal “human good”.

Reform of UN bodies.

With reference to the delicate issue of the reform of UN institution, the Security Council in particular, Mons. Migliore gave two crucial indications.

The first one is that all UN members are juridically equal. The most developed States, however, have greater responsibilities and, therefore, should contribute more to the common good. Decisions, however, shall be taken with the largest possible consensus. “It is clear that, for practical reasons, non all the bodies of the United Nations can be arranged on the model of the General Assembly. This does not mean, however that the set of principles and criteria just mentioned are not applicable to the Security Council, quite the opposite. In restructuring this body, one might consider that its composition should reflect, as far a possible, a representation of the world population”. Interpreting these indications, one can say that the Holy See desires a gradual enlargement of the Security Council, so as to adjust it to a greater representation. It does not believe that its complete democratisation be necessary. Not because it wants that the power remains in a few hands, but because of the principle that if all states are equal, it is also true   that not all the states are able to take upon themselves the same responsibilities.

The second one indicates that the subsidiarity principle is the best way  to “connect the global and the local”, as also the Commission of the UN-Civil Society Relations also declared. The United Nations are not a super-state, “the United Nations’ essential purpose is to create world conditions in which the public authorities of each nation, its citizens and intermediate groups, can carry out their tasks, fulfil their duties and claim their rights with greater security”.

Peace prevention and the “responsibility to protect”

The UN derives its moral authority from its objective of guaranteeing peace; consequently, its failures in this field also hinder its credibility. Cardinal Sodano, in fact, asks: “Give us a modern institution, capable of taking resolutions and enforcing them. This is an insistent appeal issued to us by men and women who are disheartened by promises made and not kept, resolutions adopted and not enforced.

The Holy See agrees with the establishment of a Peace building Commission, proposed by Secretary General Kofi Annan, to foster a culture of conflict prevention. In this sense, “reaching and even exceeding the Millennium Development Goals remains an obligation”.

The Holy See, however, calls for an in-depth consideration of the “ issue of the use of force to disarm the adversary: The responsibility to protect stems from a very important juridical and political concept. It is inscribed, in its essential core, in the principle of pre-eminence of the dignity of each man and woman before the State and ideological system”. As you can see, there is the need to continue the in-depth analysis of the duty of “humanitarian interference”, stated and taken up several times by John Paul II and that today is better defined and relaunched with the concept of “Responsibility to protect”.

Stefano Fontana

[1] K. Annan, On Reforming UN, “Foreign Affairs”, May-June 2005, pp. 63-74.

[2] Ibid, p. 68 [the translation from English is ours]

[3] Ibid., p. 68.

[4] “L’Osservatore Romano”, October 1, 2005 issue, p. 2.

[5] “L’Osservatore Romano”, October 1, 2005 issue, p. 7.

[6] “L’Osservatore Romano”, October 16, 2004 issue, p. 2.