Meeting the Moment: The U.S. and the UN in 2023

UN Strengthening and Reform

Ensuring that the UN is fit for purpose and able to address the growing list of challenges facing the international community is a key priority for both the organization’s leadership and the U.S. Since taking office in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has worked with Member States to implement reform, modernization, and accountability efforts on a number of tracks, including through improvements to budgetary and management processes, creating new performance assessment tools for peacekeeping operations, and redoubling efforts to root out misconduct, particularly cases of sexual exploitation and abuse, by UN personnel. At the same time, UN reform encompasses a much broader set of issues with geopolitical implications. For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reignited long-simmering questions about the role of the UN Security Council in protecting international peace and security, whether its membership should be expanded to be more representative and inclusive, and how to deal with situations where vetoes by the Council’s permanent members prevent the body from discharging its duties. These issues are discussed in further detail below.

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Photo Credit: Greg Nash/Associated Press

Budgetary and Management Issues

Ensuring a UN whose operations are efficient and cost-effective has long been a priority for both the Secretary-General and the U.S. On December 30, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2023 regular budget, which funds many core activities and mandates of the UN outside of peacekeeping. In an important development, the Assembly decided to make permanent a reform that was introduced on a trial basis in 2020 to move the UN from a biennial budget cycle to one that is annual. At the time, the move was touted as a way to ensure that spending and resource decisions are made closer to the point of implementation and based on up-to-date information. This decision proved prescient in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, war in Ukraine, and other international crises that have tested the UN’s programs and financial capacity over the past three years. Moving the UN regular budget permanently to an annual cycle will better position the organization to respond nimbly to unforeseen circumstances and emergencies.

Overall, the General Assembly approved a regular budget of $3.4 billion for 2023, nearly one-quarter of which finances UN special political missions. During debate, the Assembly adopted an amendment to increase funding for human rights monitoring mandates authorized by the UN Human Rights Council, a move that was supported by the U.S. and its allies and opposed by China, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and other countries. For the first time, the regular budget also includes funding for implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, a UN-brokered agreement that is key to protecting global food security and shoring up Ukraine’s economy.

Security Council Expansion and Reform of the Veto

When the UN was founded in 1945, it had 51 members; today, it has 193. The world is not the same as it was 78 years ago when delegates from around the world met in San Francisco to draft the UN Charter, the treaty that established the United Nations. Despite the numerous and significant geopolitical shifts that have taken place in the intervening years, as well as the explosive growth of the UN’s membership itself, the basic structure of the Security Council has changed only once: in 1963, when Member States amended the Charter to expand the number of elected, non-permanent members from six to 10. Moreover, just five countries—China, France, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.—continue to hold permanent seats on the Council and have the power to veto any substantive resolution. This has sparked criticism that the Council’s membership does not reflect current geopolitical realities and that its work frequently serves the interests of a small number of powerful countries rather than “the maintenance of international peace and security” more broadly. These critiques have grown louder recently as Russia has deployed its veto to prevent the Council from taking action on the war in Ukraine, a conflict that violates the principles enshrined in the Charter.

Security Council reform has been on the General Assembly’s agenda since 1979, and over the years, various proposals to expand the Council’s membership have been put forward by different coalitions of Member States. In 2005, the so-called G4 (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) proposed a 25-member Security Council with themselves and two African countries being added as permanent members without veto power. Another group, referring to itself as “Uniting for Consensus” and composed of regional rivals of the G4 including Italy and Pakistan, proposed doubling the number of non-permanent members but leaving the number of permanent seats untouched. The Group of African States, meanwhile, proposed a 26-member Council with two new permanent seats with veto power and five additional non-permanent seats reserved for African countries. Other proposals have envisioned increasing the representation of small-island developing countries or adding a permanent seat to the Council for Arab states.

None of these proposals have advanced, however, because there is still no consensus among Member States about what a revamped Security Council should look like. Adding seats to the Council again would require amending the Charter, meaning any change would have to be ratified by two-thirds of the UN’s membership, including all five of the Council’s current permanent members. Naturally, these P5 countries themselves are divided on this question. China opposes permanent seats for Japan and India, for example, while Russia supports India but refuses to countenance adding Germany or Japan. For its part, the U.S. supports permanent seats for all three countries. In his speech to the General Assembly in September 2022, President Biden took this position a step further, endorsing “permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.” In the near term, however, it appears unlikely that this statement, while significant, will break the logjam in New York.

The Security Council votes on a draft resolution, February 25, presented by Albania and the United States of America, condemning in the "strongest terms, Russia's aggression against Ukraine". The resolution was not adopted with 11 votes in favour, one vote against (Russian Federation), and three abstentions (China, India and United Arab Emirates), due to the veto by the Russian Federation.
The Security Council votes on a draft resolution, February 25, presented by Albania and the United States of America, condemning in the “strongest terms, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine”. The resolution was not adopted with 11 votes in favour, one vote against (Russian Federation), and three abstentions (China, India and United Arab Emirates), due to the veto by the Russian Federation.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Beyond Security Council expansion, there has also been debate in the General Assembly about how to regulate the use of the veto, or at least more systematically name and shame P5 countries that abuse it. In April 2022, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the General Assembly adopted a U.S.-supported resolution that seeks to increase the Assembly’s ability to publicly scrutinize Security Council vetoes. Now, Security Council vetoes automatically trigger a General Assembly meeting within 10 days, where all Member States are given the opportunity to discuss the issue. Speaking in support of the resolution, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield called it a “significant step toward the accountability, transparency, and responsibility” of countries with veto power.

The war in Ukraine also spurred the Security Council to invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution for the first time in 40 years, reviving an alternative pathway for action when the veto becomes an obstacle. Adopted by the General Assembly in 1950 during the Korean War, the resolution states that if the Security Council fails to take action on a particular threat to international peace and security or act of aggression due to a “lack of unanimity of the permanent members,” the General Assembly may take up the matter in an emergency special session “with a view to making appropriate recommendations to Members for collective measures.” While, unlike Security Council resolutions, General Assembly decisions are not legally binding, they can provide a clear statement of international resolve on a given issue, put public pressure on rogue regimes by illustrating their isolation, and help catalyze further action by the international community.

Following Russia’s veto of a Security Council resolution on Ukraine on February 25, 2022, the Council voted on a procedural move (which cannot be vetoed by the P5) to call for an emergency special session in the General Assembly. In keeping with the Uniting for Peace requirements, the General Assembly convened 24 hours later, adopting a resolution by 141-5 later that week condemning the invasion and calling on Russia to immediately withdraw its troops. Since then, the General Assembly has repeatedly resumed the emergency special session to adopt a range of other Ukraine-related measures, including resolutions suspending Russian membership in the UN Human Rights Council, condemning Russia’s efforts to illegally annex Ukrainian territory, and calling for the creation of an international registry to document claims and information on damage, loss, and injury resulting from the war.

Peacekeeping Reform

Since taking office in 2017, Secretary-General Guterres has implemented a restructuring of the peace and security architecture of the UN Secretariat to prioritize conflict prevention and enhance the effectiveness and coherence of UN peacekeeping and special political missions. A key step in this process was the Secretary-General’s Action for Peacekeeping initiative, launched in 2018, which brought together all of the key stakeholders in UN peacekeeping (members of the Security Council, troop-contributing countries, top financial contributors, and countries that host peacekeeping missions) around a set of reform priorities.

Among these reforms, one of the most innovative is the Comprehensive Planning and Performance Assessment System (CPAS), which better enables leadership within a mission to assess and improve performance on the ground. CPAS was piloted in the Central African Republic to help the UN peacekeeping mission there (MINUSCA) coordinate and track its support for implementation of a peace agreement signed in December 2019. By tracking such indicators as the number of conflict-related civilian deaths, children released from armed groups (a commitment under the agreement), and public buildings being occupied by armed groups, MINUSCA has been able to more readily see where its support to the peace agreement is bearing fruit and where it is not. Having worked successfully in the Central African Republic, CPAS is now deployed in eight additional missions.

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse

In recent years, the UN has implemented new policies to address instances of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by UN personnel, including peacekeepers. These measures have been wide-ranging and are summarized below.

  • The UN has appointed victims’ rights advocates, both at UN Headquarters and in the field, who work across the UN system to make sure victims have access to urgent assistance, can file complaints safely and reliably, and get timely information on the progress of their case.
  • Since the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2272 in 2016, the Secretary-General has enjoyed expanded authority to repatriate entire military or police units that engage in widespread or systematic violations. To date, the Secretary-General has utilized these powers in the Central African Republic to send home troops from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, and Gabon.
  • The UN expanded a vetting database in place for civilian personnel to cover all troops and police serving on UN peacekeeping missions.
  • In order to ensure transparency, the UN maintains a publicly available online database of credible allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse made against personnel in field missions. The database provides information on the nationality of uniformed personnel accused of misconduct—a critical element in holding troop- and police-contributing countries accountable for the conduct of their citizens—as well as information on interim actions taken, the duration of investigations, and details around steps taken by Member States, including criminal prosecutions and administrative sanctions.
  • UN investigative entities are now required to conclude their investigations into sexual exploitation and abuse cases within six months, shortened to three months in cases suggesting “the need for greater urgency.” The Secretary-General has taken other steps, too, requiring troop-contributing countries to deploy national investigation officers (NIOs) with sufficient experience and expertise to investigate allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse cases by their personnel. In partnership with Member States, the UN works to support the capacity-building and training of these NIOs. Finally, the Secretary-General has called on troop-contributing countries to establish on-site court-martial proceedings to ensure a quicker judicial process for allegations of sex crimes.
  • The Secretariat has developed a mandatory online training program for all UN personnel on preventing sexual exploitation and abuse.
  • The UN administers a trust fund to provide critical services to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, including psychosocial assistance, medical care, access to legal help, and assistance in establishing paternity claims. The trust fund is financed in part through reimbursement payments that are withheld from troop-contributing countries when allegations against their troops are substantiated. To date, project funding has been disbursed in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Liberia.