The United Nations is exhausted. Conflicts that might once have responded to mediation—as in Namibia in the late 1980s, El Salvador in the early 1990s, and Timor-Leste at the turn of this century—are now marked by nihilistic, sometimes genocidal brutality beyond the effective reach of UN envoys. Budgets for life-saving humanitarian relief—desperately needed in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where millions of refugees are on the move—are dwindling to near-bankruptcy. There are more UN peacekeepers on the ground than ever before, with 124,746 military and civilian personnel deployed in 16 operations in West and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti by the summer of 2015. Yet UN troops, now working with modern weapons of war, face greater dangers, both to their own lives and to the people they are sent to protect. More than 1,600 peacekeepers have died in these current missions. Democratic governments are stumbling under the weight of strongmen or dangerous nationalist movements. In an unsettled world, women suffer worsening violence and abuse, while numerous governments still deny basic rights and dignity to LGBT people.
The 70-year-old international organization needs to be rejuvenated. Fortunately, a year of great possibilities lies ahead, if member governments are serious about keeping their promises. Significant changes are on the calendar in 2016: A new secretary general will be elected, a new global-development policy will fall into place, and a climate-change agreement that long eluded member nations will begin to test countries’ commitments to averting catastrophic global warming. An independent expert report released in June 2015 proposing radical changes in the institutional structure of UN peacekeeping is on the table, along with the fate of the Peacebuilding Commission, which has failed to live up to expectations. Members of civil society—nongovernmental organizations and experts from every region—are taking more assertive roles in these debates, signaling that the “We the peoples” for whom the UN Charter was written are becoming more active participants in the UN process.
And developing countries are taking on bigger roles in designing global programs that in past decades were delivered top-down from the secretariat and other UN agencies working in the field. What these players in the Group of 77—now numbering more than 130 developing countries, a solid majority in the UN General Assembly—will do with their rising influence is one important question. Another is whether the powerful permanent members of the Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—will make a concerted effort to avoid the deadlocks that stymie critical decisions on global crises, such as on Syria. (After four Russian vetoes, the Security Council offered some hope for an end to that crisis on December 18, when it adopted a resolution laying out a path to peace and the possibility of a transitional government in 2017. But the central issue of whether President Bashar al-Assad would have any role to play in the process was left unmentioned, and plans for a cease-fire were vague.) The Security Council may even consider restricting the use of the veto, which only those five nations have the power to use. It’s an unlikely move, but one that is much discussed in the ongoing, contentious discussions about Security Council reform and enlargement.
But the most critical decision to be made in the coming year will be the choice of a secretary general to replace Ban Ki-moon, a former foreign minister in South Korea who has held the position since 2007. A genial, even courtly gentleman whose stewardship of the office has generally been valued as honest, capable, and well-intentioned, Ban has often stayed in the background, surrounded by loyal colleagues, except at ceremonial occasions. He has made some good appointments and others that are puzzling, preferring candidates as low-key as he is. This has made his office and several important UN agencies virtually invisible at a time when the system most needs bold direction. More than some of his predecessors, Ban has bent to the will of influential governments, which lobby for—or demand—the naming of their chosen (and not always qualified) nominees for important posts. For example, the appointment of Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, as administrator of the UN Development Program has all but removed this critical agency from public view. To some extent, the same is true of UNICEF, whose executive director, Anthony Lake, an American national-security adviser under President Bill Clinton, was a puzzling choice to head an agency for children. At UN Women, a still-shaky new agency, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African with scant feminist credentials, was named executive director. And though Ban initially had a good record of hiring women, he recently replaced some notable ones with men.