UN Charter revision as the foundation for peace

Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Geneva, Switzerland

(based on a collective project with Augusto Lopez-Claros and Maja Groff)

Paper presented at the
European Center for Peace and Development (EPCD)
International Round Table on
Peace and Democratic Multilateralism
Belgrade, Serbia, 27 October 2017


The UN Charter has fundamental flaws that have hampered its role in maintaining peace, and other important provisions that have never been used, including for charter reform. Some proposals for charter revision could include democratizing the General Assembly with legislative powers concerning security and the global environment, replacing the Security Council with an Executive Council, establishing a second chamber for civil society, and giving the International Court of Justice binding jurisdiction for dispute settlement. If a large majority of governments support charter reform but a few insist on blocking it, the majority could simply adopt a new charter and abandon the old one, just as the UN replaced the League of Nations, leaving recalcitrant governments the time to see their interest in joining the new organization.


While people deeply fear war and long for peace, it has always seemed beyond reach in a world filled with ego, struggles for power, corruption and aggression. Today, advancing technologies make warfare increasingly dangerous to the survival of the human race, and reckless political leaders are on the rise. The risks are too great to wait any longer to put in place effective mechanisms for global dispute resolution. The ultimate definition of national sovereignty is the sovereign right to make war in defence of national interests. In the absence of any trust between states, the more powerful win. This concept of national sovereignty in which war is the final recourse to impose one state's will on others must finally yield to the requirements of an increasingly united world system.

To achieve peace, nations will have to give up this right to make war in exchange for effective mechanisms of collective security and the peaceful settlement of disputes. This will only happen with the gradual development of relevant international institutions and processes to build confidence in their effectiveness in reducing national insecurity. Carefully coordinated disarmament could accompany this process. Only when there is trust that justice will be done will states give up this prerogative. States also have to become trustworthy regardless of internal changes in government, which implies a collective sense of moral responsibility.

After the failure of the League of Nations, the vision of the founders of the United Nations was to create in the UN Charter a mechanism for collective security. However, the political compromises that ensured the victors of World War II a veto power in the Security Council, and the refusal to give the Council the independent means to enforce its decisions, have left the UN powerless to intervene in too many cases where force has been used in disputes between states. The provision for a review of the UN Charter at most after 10 years has been ignored. After the hopeful years when there was talk of a "peace dividend" after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risks of war and violence seem to be increasing. The lessons of the two previous World Wars seem to have been forgotten.

The United Nations exists, so it would be senseless to return to international anarchy. We need first to identify what are the basic requirements for peace, and the flaws in the UN Charter and international practice that prevent it from being effective in securing peace on earth. We can then ask how to explore building an international consensus among states and the peoples of the world to renew and strengthen the international mechanisms for collective security and dispute settlement. These reflections are based on a joint project with Augusto Lopez-Claros and Maja Groff which should eventually lead to a book on the subject.

Requirements for the peaceful settlement of disputes

We have considerable experience today of the requirements for effective governance at the national level, from which we can extrapolate to the international level. Legislative, executive and judicial functions are all necessary. International legislation is presently negotiated by governments in the form of international conventions that are only binding on the states that sign and ratify them, with separate conferences of the parties and secretariats, and usually no relationship between them. Clearly we need a mechanism to prepare legislation binding on all states, with some coherence in the texts adopted. The General Assembly, restructured as a more representative body, could take on this legislative function. The UN Secretariat and the Specialized UN Agencies and Programmes already have some executive functions to build on, and these should be developed and improved where necessary. There is an International Court of Justice, but its decisions only apply to states that agree to submit their cases, so it needs to be given binding jurisdiction over all states, just like courts at the national level.

Admittedly, many national governments today do not function effectively or are captured by dictatorial leaders, special interests and corruption, and many people fear that a global government would be similarly dangerous, only on a larger scale. Proposals for charter revision must take this legitimate fear into account by incorporating the necessary safeguards. The first would be stronger democratic control, with increased representativeness and accountability in decision-making. The charter should include a bill of individual human rights, and also an explicit declaration of national rights and responsibilities, laying out the ethical foundations for governance. The scope for international governance should be limited to those areas requiring a coordinated global approach, including dispute settlement and peacekeeping, protection of the global environment, and management of areas and resources beyond national jurisdictions like the atmosphere and the high seas. Following the principles of subsidiarity and unity in diversity, decision-making should be left to the lowest appropriate level of governance for each problem, and a great variety of solutions adapted to each culture and situation should be encouraged.

Some elements of charter revision

It is not possible to go into details in this short overview, but some elements are obviously important.

First, the UN Charter itself has provisions for charter revision that have never been used. Once there is sufficient government support, this mechanism should be activated. Second, the principle of national sovereignty at the heart of the United Nations should be modified to accept the primacy of the global common interest in peace and sustainability, with mechanisms to define that global common interest. An excellent recent example is the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals. This should be extended through modification of the General Assembly as a legislative body representing people as well as governments, and empowered to adopt legislation in the global interest that would be binding on all countries. It might be interesting to create a second chamber as an advisory body representing civil society which could make proposals and comment on legislation.

There is wide acknowledgement that the veto power of the five permanent members of the Security Council has frequently paralyzed UN action to maintain peace in the world, as these members use the veto primarily to defend their own national interests. This veto should be eliminated, along with the consensus rule that frequently allows one state to block any real action by the great majority. The need to acknowledge wide differences in the populations of states could be addressed through some weighting of membership in the General Assembly. The Security Council could be replaced by a broader Executive Council with relevant management responsibilities. Both in these bodies and in the Secretariat, mechanisms should ensure balanced representation of the regions of the world, the states of different sizes, and the variety of cultures and peoples, to ensure all the diverse perspectives are heard and taken into account in decision-making.

A major failing in present international arrangement is in their implementation, which is largely voluntary. No system of law can function if members are free to ignore it. A tax arrangement will not work if paying taxes is voluntary. This is the fundamental weakness of a system founded on national sovereignty in a world now globalized. Across the UN, existing agreements and mechanisms need to have procedures for enforcement. Some form of international taxation will also be required to fund international governance. The present opportunities for the wealthy and for private enterprises to escape from paying their fair share of common responsibilities, whether national or international, need to be eliminated.

With specific reference to maintaining world peace, the UN needs procedures for binding dispute settlement, with relevant means of enforcement. These are mentioned in the UN Charter, but are still largely voluntary, except for the Security Council. The provisions for a rapid response military force at the disposition of the Security Council have never been activated. To prevent aggression, the strengthened UN needs its own standing security force of a size to balance any national force. A staged plan for mutual disarmament would allow the gradual reduction of all military forces, and free up resources for more constructive uses in a real peace dividend. Where arbitration and other dispute settlement mechanisms fail, the International Court of Justice should have binding jurisdiction.

As mentioned above, these binding powers need to be balanced with safeguards for national autonomy and subsidiarity, and be restricted to the UN's global responsibilities, as set out in the Charter and defined by the General Assembly, with eventual continuing charter revisions as necessary. A perfect system of governance cannot be created overnight, but will need to evolve through constant learning and accumulated experience, as confidence in the system increases.

How to get there

Most fundamentally, global governance must be founded on trust and trustworthiness. States must trust that decisions are really taken in the common interest. People must trust that their human rights will be protected, and that they will be able to develop their full potential to contribute to society. Governments must be trustworthy and make every effort to fulfil their obligations to their citizens and to the international community. Trust takes time to build, and is easily lost. Everything described here must be founded on justice for all and designed to build trust in the new mechanisms being established. Sacrifices should be shared equitably, and no one should be left behind.

All this could be accomplished by an act of consultative will in a conference of all states, if enough governments are prepared to take if forward. The alternative will be to wait for a catastrophe to force the transformation on us, as occurred with the two World Wars. The longer we wait, the more likely the second alternative will be. If the great majority of nations decide to move forward with UN Charter revision, with only a few hold-outs (most likely the permanent members of the Security Council with their veto), a second option would be to create a new charter and organization and abandon the old one, as happened with the League of Nations. Assets and subsidiary bodies could be transferred, and the few hold-outs would be left holding on to an empty structure until they decide to join the new one.