2015 Vienna Seminar Examines the UN at 70

On May 6-7, the International Peace Institute organized the 45th annual Vienna Seminar. The conference debated the fitness of the United Nations at 70 and discussed ways to enhance multilateralism and attracted over one hundred diplomats, military officers, representatives of inter-governmental organizations, students, academics, journalists and representatives of civil society who took part in six sessions on a wide range of topics connected to the theme of how to make the UN more “fit for purpose.”

The seminar began by highlighting that the UN was established in a different era, one that was facing a different set of challenges than exist today. Furthermore, the number of member states has almost quadrupled since 1945, creating greater diversity and complexity. Another major difference is that in the past, most threats to international peace and security came from states, whereas today many challenges stem from non-state actors, transnational networks, or flows (such as money, people, diseases, cybercrime) that do not respect borders.

A wide range of threats and challenges were highlighted, including pandemics, inequality, urbanization, climate change, resource depletion, forced migration, terrorism and organized crime. It was observed that successfully meeting these complex and often inter-related challenges requires states to work together. “There is no alternative to multilateralism,” said one participant.

At the same time, it was noted that the international system–particularly the UN–has not been able to adapt fast enough to the changes brought about by globalization. Nor has it been able to bring peace to a number of countries including Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Ways were discussed on how to improve global governance, humanitarian responses to crises, and peacekeeping.

Concerning health and humanitarian issues, it was observed that it is essential to break down silos, improve coordination, and focus on long-term structural reforms that strengthen national capacity and resilience rather than focusing mostly on short-term, international crisis responses.

It was stressed that issues should not be looked at in isolation. Examples given included the link between weak governance and poor health care (as in the case of Ebola) or the nexus between energy, water and food security.

There was a lively discussion on the risk posed by radicalized youth, and by the Islamic State (also know as Daesh), and why young people join such extremist movements.

The tragedy of forced displacement was a particularly hot topic of debate. According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, there are now a record-high number of some 52 million refugees worldwide, many of them children living in refugee camps. A warning was given that if their needs are not addressed soon, they will be a lost generation. The specific problem of dealing more effectively with forced displacement across the Mediterranean was also discussed.

A session was devoted to the topic of conflict prevention and crisis management. It was noted that despite the fact that the UN was established, as it says in the charter, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” insufficient attention and resources are devoted to preventing and preparing for crises. The precedent of the UN Preventive Development Force (UNPREDEP) was recalled, and a plea was made for more preventive deployments.

Peacekeeping–a traditional theme of IPI Vienna Seminars–was debated, with a particular focus on how to deal with armed non-state actors, how to make more effective use of technology, the strengths and weaknesses of hybrid missions, as well as the legitimate and appropriate use of force.

Institutional change was also discussed. One participant suggested that Security Council reform should be approached in a more radical way, namely to create regional Security Councils. Another, from the Elders, suggested a more transparent and representative method for choosing future Secretaries-General. Several participants cautioned that it will be hard to enhance multilateralism at a time of serious geo-political rivalries, for example in relation to the Middle East, South China Sea, and Ukraine.

It was also stressed that the United Nations tends to be reactive and that more needs to be done to anticipate and adapt to change.

Some participants cautioned that perhaps we expect too much from the UN. It was also pointed out that there is a serious mismatch between the increased tasks that the UN is expected to carry out, and the pressures for zero growth by some member states.

Carrying on a 45-year tradition, the meeting was co-hosted by IPI together with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Defence and Sports. In addition to marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, this year is also the 60th anniversary of Austria’s active engagement in the UN. The seminar took place in the historic Marble Hall of the Austrian Federal Ministry for Integration, Europe and Foreign Affairs.

Watch the high-level panel, “Is the UN Fit for Purpose?”:

Related coverage:
The U.N. at 70: Is It Still Fit for the Purpose? (Inter Press Service, May 14, 2015)