On the 18th of August, Oliver spoke at an event organised by the Turkish government on the prospects for the reform of the UN.

The meeting is one of five that will take place in various parts of the globe.

The other panellists were:

  • (Moderator) Kilic Bugra Kanat, Associate Professor, Research Director of SETA Foundation at Washington DC
  • Cagri Erhan, Professor, Rector of Altinbas University, Member of the Security and Foreign Policy Board of the Republic of Türkiye
  • Nursin Guney, Professor, Istanbul Nisantasi University, Member of the Security and Foreign Policy Board of the Republic of Türkiye
  • Paul Reynolds, Author, Analyst

Oliver’s speech is provided below:

Over the years I have met a number of excellent individuals working for the UN, people who have given of themselves generously in the effort to effect real change in areas of conflict and humanitarian crisis.

I have also met a number of ‘risk averse’ time servers, whose presence was part of the problem and not part of the solution. 

The point, I wish to make, is that on one level any institution is as good or as bad, effective or ineffective, as the people who serve it.

But it is equally true to say that the structures and rules of an institution can become self defeating in achieving its goals.

I certainly believe this to be true with regard the UN.

The organisation was formed in 1945 to deliver what can only be described as  a wonderful aspirational vision that grew out of an awareness of the horrors and depravity that people were capable of inflicting upon one another and as a consequence a recognition of the need for a world order based on humanitarian values, universal principles and rules aimed at preventing war, maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights.

Has the UN succeed in realizing such high ideals?

The answer to that depends upon which part of the world you happen to live in? Europe more or less has enjoyed a prolonged period of peace and prosperity.

Many other parts of the world have not been so fortunate. 

Since 1945 there have been over a 100 wars and according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, there are currently 27 ongoing conflicts worldwide. Globally, 822 million people are suffering today from undernourishment.

Around 9 million people die every year of hunger and hunger-related diseases

Poor nutrition and hunger is responsible for the death of 3.1 million children a year.  A child dies from hunger every 10 seconds

Of the 822 million undernourished people in the world, 113 million face acute hunger meaning they are in urgent need of food and nutrients.

I am sure that without the existence of the UN and its humanitarian outreach in places like Gaza, which I know well, these figures would be a lot more shocking.

It also should be acknowledged that the U.N. mainly through its agencies has had success in coordinating global efforts against diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, cholera, influenza, yellow fever, meningitis and COVID-19, to give a few examples.

But that said, the shocking figures that I quoted previously, not only give us the measure of the challenges the UN is facing today but they also underline the impotence of those who govern our world to get their act together.

The United Nations has been ineffective over a number of years in great part because of the structure of the Security Council and in particular the power of veto given to each one of the P 5 members. Time and again we have witnessed an individual county’s or regional power bloc interests rather than the principles and rules of international law determine the UN response to different crises.

No particular country should be invested with such power as to be able to thwart the will of the rest.

The world today is very different from the post war world of 1945. The structure and rules of the UNSC should reflect these changes and be more inclusive of emerging nations. The General Assembly’s power to vote on crucial matters should not require the unanimous consent of the permanent members of the Security Council. How many human lives have been sacrificed because of the shot sighted interests of one or other of the P5 group of countries?

Speaking with senior members in the UN last week in New York, they emphasised the need for greater transparency in the selection process to key appointments.

They also emphasised the need to introduce one term appointments of Secretary General. This, they argued, would help to ensure more decisive decision making and to avoid a ‘risk aversion’ attitude to secure reappointment.

Any reform of the structures of the UN must factor in the human element and ensure that the UN response to any crisis is driven by its founding principles and international law.  The interests of particular countries or individuals should never be allowed to determine the UN response to a crisis.

In a recent interview in the Spanish Daily, El Pais, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, admitted that the EU has applied double standards on the Ukraine crisis, as opposed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

He is quoted as saying: “We are very often criticized for double standards. But international politics is largely about applying double standards. We do not use the same criteria for all problems.” The Ukraine crisis, he added, directly affects Europe.

Meanwhile, in the same interview, Borrell described Gaza, which is the home for over two million occupied people, living under siege and frequent bombardment for the past 15 years, people who lack electricity and drinking water, as an “open-air prison”. But he added that resolving the Middle East conflict “is not in the hands of the EU.”  

Shocking as it may be, I applaud his honesty, in admitting publically that at the international political level country and power bloc interests frequently trump principles. The Middle East conflict is not intractable. It could be solved if there was the international political will to act together to do so. Preventing or resolving such ongoing conflicts is precisely why the UN was established. Its failure in the case of Palestine to apply the norms and values that should be applied underlines the urgent need for reform of the structures and decision making processes that are the root cause of such hypocrisy and impotence.

Little, therefore, will be achieved by changing the present structures and rules of the UN unless we also rediscover the importance of always ensuring that all its decisions are governed by universal principles and not the shorted sighted  interests of individual countries or regional power blocs.