Mona Khalil on Guest Blogger Series “Where is the UN now ?”

Mona Khalil : “I have been examining Global Vision’s questions about the status and stature of the UN with a measure of sadness. Yet the fact that the answers still matter enough that it is necessary to pose these questions gives me some hope and inspiration.”

How close are we to a successful UN ?

It seems these days that failure rather than success – scandal rather than serviceMAK-Image-III-300x245 — define the UN’s  news stories  — from the cholera and sexual exploitation in Haiti to the failure to protect civilians in Syria — from the unresolved conflicts lingering on the Security Council’s agenda to the latter’s failure to hold the worst perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable.

The few successes the UN has had under Ban Ki-Moon’s unfortunate tenure—namely the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement–  are at risk of being lost due to the shrinking budgets and crippling postures of an inward-turning United States.

The appointment of a new Secretary-General by a seemingly revitalized General Assembly has yet to bring forth any tangible improvement. Time is not on our side as conflicts are escalating, tides are rising and the numbers of refugees and migrants are growing exponentially.

What does an effective UN look like?  What needs to change for an effective UN?

An effective UN is a Security Council that stands up to aggression, occupation and genocide with the same tenacity and persistence as it does to terrorism, nuclear proliferation and piracy. 

An effective UN is one that works proactively to prevent and resolve conflicts and is not satisfied with passive approvals of cyclical mandate renewals without measuring concrete progress or having tangible consequence.

Tragically, the two superpowers of the end of the last century shattered the post-WWII legal order at the start of this one. Sadly, the greatest casualty of the erosion of the international legal framework is the principle of distinction between civilian and military targets as evidenced by the millions of civilian lives lost — whether as a result of the intentional barbarity of terrorists or by the often callous disregard for proportionality by regular and irregular armed forces.  An effective UN is therefore one that puts the sanctity of human life at the center of every decision it makes and every action it takes — regardless of the source of the threat.

Above all, an effective UN is one that hears from and answers to “WE THE PEOPLES” in whose name the UN Charter was adopted.

Which group is most strategic for effecting change in the UN? What can people in the international system do to make the system live up to its purpose?

For the UN to be effective, all of us have to do our part. The intergovernmental organs have to meaningfully fulfill their respective constitutional roles. Most importantly, the UN Security Council must act quickly and decisively to prevent and stop wars, to protect civilians and to end impunity.

The General Assembly — with the UN Human Rights Council – must fulfill the promise of self-determination to all recognized peoples and hold Member States equally accountable for their violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Member States in turn have to fulfill their Charter obligations and respect each other’s rights and above all each State must fulfill its solemn duty to protect its population from physical harm and to preserve its citizens’ human rights and socio-economic well-being regardless of their ethnicity or faith.

The UN Secretariat must fulfill its mandated activities with competence, impartiality and integrity – and must dedicate its efforts and reports to speaking truth to power and exposing the UN’s own shortcomings and Member States’ violations with transparency and meaningful accountability.

Regional arrangements and other intergovernmental organizations must act in accordance with UN values and in support of UN efforts to promote sustainable development, uphold human rights and preserve peace and security. Non-governmental organizations and civil society at large must help the UN on the ground and must bring to the UN’s attention all gaps and failures in the UN system and call for action if and when the UN fails to address them.

Each individual with the means and the reach must raise awareness of human rights violations and developmental deprivations and do whatever he or she can to contribute to a better and safer life for him or herself, for  his or her family, for his or her nation and above all for his or her share of our shared planet.

What actions are most strategic for effecting transformation in the UN?

In the name of preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States – individual States and intergovernmental organizations have mooted the voices of the peoples most affected by internal conflicts and international crises. They have done so at their own risk and to their own detriment.

The one most important change is therefore to open the UN’s meetings and minds to those most affected by the conflicts and crises on the various organs’ respective agendas. When the UN talks about peace and security, it must hear from  the state and non-state parties alike.  When the UN resolves to end decolonization and promote self-determination, it must let those whose rights are denied daily on the ground the fundamental right to be heard at least once a year in its halls. When the UN says it strives to improve the human rights and standards of living of all peoples, it must include the voices of indigenous peoples, youth and ethnic minorities in its deliberations.

This is not just the just thing to do – it is also the most practical thing to do — for who better than those most involved and most affected to help the UN understand and resolve these conflicts and crises.


Mona Ali Khalil is a Legal Advisor at Independent Diplomat (ID). She is also a Fellow at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. Prior to joining ID, Ms. Khalil served with the UN for 22 years including as a Senior Legal Officer in the UN Office of the Legal Counsel (2009-2015) and in the IAEA Office of Legal Affairs (2005-2009). She has a B.A. and M.A. in Middle East Studies from Harvard University and an M.S. in Foreign Service and Juris Doctorate from Georgetown University

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