The United Nations: Beyond Reform?


Edward J Horgan, Ph.D. - TRANSCEND Media Service

The Collective Insecurity of the International System and the Prospects for Sustainable Global Peace and Justice


This research project sets out to test whether the United Nations is capable of achieving its primary purpose, the maintenance of international peace and security. If not, is the UN capable of the necessary reform to enable it to achieve these purposes and if such UN reform is not possible, does the UN need to be transformed, or superseded or replaced?

The thesis undertook the difficult task of analyzing the UN’s performance from a panoramic global viewpoint, and across the time frame of its existence since 1945, but limited this analysis to the UN’s primary objective. Using a critical approach, it sought to establish the UN’s past performance and future propensity for achieving its primary purpose, by focusing on its overall achievements and capacities. In this respect, this project breaks new ground by adopting a “0” based approach to its analysis of the UN, and concludes with normative recommendations to overcome the UN’s limitations.

Most research into the UN has taken the continuing role of the UN as a given. This project questions whether the UN will ever be capable of adequately performing the primary functions assigned to it under its Charter, and suggests that alternative systems of global governance should be put in place to ensure global peace and justice for humanity. The project is empirically based, is partly informed by this researcher’s experiences and relies mainly on qualitative analysis of data assembled from literature and reports by participants and observers, and some informal interviews. It undertook three case studies in the regions most prone to conflict, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

This thesis argues that for structural reasons, reinforced by the veto over UN reform that the UN Charter provides to its P-5 members, the United Nations is virtually beyond the level of substantial reform necessary to enable it to achieve a satisfactory and safe level of security for humanity. The UN therefore needs to be superseded by more appropriate and dynamic systems of global governance underpinned and overlaid by a comprehensive system of global jurisprudence.

My central arguments, which are supported by the case studies, are that the UN has failed to achieve its primary function of maintaining international peace and security since its foundation. Furthermore, the very existence of this flawed UN presents a blocking mechanism to the development of alternative international/global structures.

This thesis concludes that collective security and peacekeeping, the primary and default mechanisms towards the achievement of international peace and security are inherently flawed and that alternative approaches are necessary. Because the UN is virtually incapable of achieving its primary objective, it should be superseded by enhanced and dynamic systems of global governance and jurisprudence. The UN however should continue to play an important subsidiary role in global governance as the primary international organisation of states, and could be used also to provide an enhanced system of international security policing under the auspices of a global jurisprudence system.

“The United Nations is a subaltern organisation; some have argued it is powerless by design.[i]  –David Rieff

 “The mice will be disciplined while the lions will run free”.[ii]


United Nations reform has been a topic of research and discussion in international relations theory and practice almost since the foundation of the UN. However, no substantial reform of the UN has taken place, and the prospects for such reform appear to be receding in the early years of the twenty-first century. This thesis sets out to analyse the performance of the UN towards the achievement of its primary objective, the maintenance of international peace and security, and the prospects for reform of the UN.

The thesis will show that over sixty years later the analogy of the lions running free is still valid, but in many cases even the mice are now running free.[iii] The governments or regimes in Cambodia in 1975-78, Rwanda in 1994, Republika Srpska in 1995, and of North Korea, the Sudan and Zimbabwe over the past decade, were just some of those that perpetrated crimes against humanity, with relative impunity, without an effective response from the United Nations. The UN and international order, at the beginning of the twenty-first century are in disarray. David Rieff’s analysis of the UN as a ‘subaltern organization’ is reality, by default or design. Reform is urgently needed but the prospects of adequate reform taking place are remote. This thesis will address these issues by carrying out a qualitative analysis of the performance of the UN towards the achievement of its primary function and will suggest normative possibilities towards transforming the international order.

Summary of Thesis Conclusions:

This thesis finds that the system of international relations, including the United Nations that has been in existence since 1945, but which is based on the older Westphalia system, is no longer adequate to ensure a satisfactory system of international peace and security, or to ensure the very survival of humanity. Thomas Turner states that even though the international system is undergoing another transformation stage in the post-Cold War era: “(u)nlike the other transition points 1815, 1918 and 1945 – the end of the Cold War has yet to yield new institution to replace those born after the Second World War.”.[iv] This research recommends that humanity should look to a more dynamic functionalist approach towards the attainment of a comprehensive working peace and common human security system for all humanity’s individuals, based on functional multi-level cosmopolitan governance underpinned and regulated by a constantly evolving, or dynamic, system of global jurisprudence. The Westphalia system and its subsequent developments through the Concert of Vienna, League of Nations and on to the United Nations all developed as a result of catastrophic wars. Following the introduction of weapons of mass destruction in 1945, ostensibly to defend humanity from harm, humanity can no longer afford to wait for violent conflicts to be the catalysts for change. Peace and security gradually developed by peaceful and creative means, rather than the contradiction of attempting to impose peace and security quickly by violent and destructive means, is the only safe way forward for humanity.

The United Nations organisation has been attempting to achieve international peace and security for over sixty years. It has failed to do so and has failed catastrophically in conflicts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. The UN could continue to perform many useful purposes, including providing a forum for member states, and providing an international set of structures in what should be seen a graduated matrix of human societal regulatory structures from the individual and the local to the global. In this age of increasing globalisation, an internationally based United Nations does not provide the necessary levels of authority, independence, neutrality, or structural foundation to achieve peace and security for humanity. A more effective system of dynamic global governance and jurisprudence is needed that will have the capacity and resources to provide comprehensive human security for the vast majority of humanity. This global governance system could oversee an expanded role for the UN in policing conflicts throughout the world. The UN and humanity do not need four or five self-appointed policemen who are curtailing the UN from achieving international peace and security. These ‘policemen’ need to be policed. The veto wielding P-5 states have prevented the UN from evolving to meet the security needs of humanity. Humanity needs the UN to be the world’s policing peace force, but not a collective security armed force. A superior regulatory governance system is needed to oversee the UN and other international systems.

The question posed in the title of this research project – The United Nations – Beyond Reform? –  is intended to be both pessimistic and forward looking. The pessimistic conclusion of the thesis is that the UN is indeed beyond or incapable of being reformed in the timescale needed to ensure a satisfactory level of peace and security for humanity, given the urgent threats facing humanity in the twenty-first century. However, this research project looks beyond the existing limitations of the UN and speculates on what ought to be the system of human security at global level, and how this might be achieved. The concepts of ‘collective security’ and the ‘international system’ implied in the second part of the title – The Collective Insecurity of the International System and the Prospects for Sustainable Global Peace and Justice – have been analysed leading to the conclusion that both collective security and peacekeeping are flawed concepts for the maintenance of peace and security for humanity, and that the international system, such as it is, is already dangerously outdated. The prospects for sustainable global peace and justice are poor in the short-term, but are achievable in the long-term provided that the UN and the present international system are both transformed and superseded by more appropriate systems of global governance and global jurisprudence.


[i] Antonio Donini, et al, Nation-Building Unravelled? Aid, Peace and Justice in Afghanistan (Bloomfield CT: Kumarian Press, 2004), p. xi.

[ii] Attributed to a Mexican diplomat, at the San Francisco Conference at which the UN was founded in 1945.

[iii] This was demonstrated by the anarchy that prevailed in several small west African states at the end of the twentieth century.

[iv] Thomas Turner, The Congo Wars: Conflict, Myth & Reality (New York: Zed Books, 2007), p. 149.

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Extracts from Dr Edward Horgan’s Ph.D. Thesis

Dr. Edward Horgan Is one of the founding members of Veterans Global Peace Network ( which is an alliance of veterans’ organisations and individuals representing former soldiers from many countries who wish to work together for the common purpose of promoting global peace. He is a former member of the Irish Defence Forces and has served as a UN military peacekeeper and has also worked on election observation missions with the UN, OSCE, EU and the Carter Centre. The International Neutrality Project is being established in order to oppose wars of aggression by encouraging as many countries as possible to adopt policies of positive active neutrality whereby genuine defence of one’s own country is allowed but wars of aggression against other countries and participation in military alliances are not allowed. The ongoing crisis in Ukraine is just one example where promoting peace and neutrality is the best alternative to threatening and causing wars of aggression. Positive active neutrality also means promoting global peace and justice. Peace without justice is just a temporary ceasefire.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 14 Feb 2022.

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One Response to “The United Nations: Beyond Reform?”

  1. Grand Design for Universal Peace Education for Global Good Governance through the New UN
    By Surya Nath Prasad, Ph.D. –TRANSCEND Media Service

    Education in all and education for all is a must for justice and peace. Education in all means education for all the five elements, viz. body, vitality, mind, intellect and spirit, universally inherent in every man and woman everywhere without any discrimination. Perpetual integral manifestation of all these elements enables the learners to be just and peaceful. Partial unfoldment of these elements makes them unjust and violent. And non-unfoldment of all these elements leads them to be slaves.

    Man-Making Universal Education for Justice and Peace
    By Surya Nath Prasad, Ph.D. –TRANSCEND Media Service