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opinion

Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989-1993. Fen Hampson is distinguished fellow and director of the Global Security & Politics Program at CIGI, and Chancellor's Professor, Carleton University.

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Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion was right to raise questions about the process that led to the recent appointment of the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Palestine. It lacked transparency or an open discussion about candidate qualifications. But this is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems that plague the United Nations.

As Canada "re-engages" with the UN, including a run for a Security Council seat in 2021, it should carefully examine a recent assessment in The New York Times by Anthony Banbury, who just retired as a UN assistant secretary-general. He underscores that major reform at the international body should be at the top of our re-engagement agenda.

While holding firmly to the UN values he strove to defend over a 30-year career, Mr. Banbury offers a depressing catalogue of incompetence, malfeasance and gross misconduct on missions ranging from earthquake relief (Haiti) to peacekeeping fiascos (Mali, Central African Republic) to the Ebola crisis. His verdict is that "thanks to colossal mismanagement, the United Nations is failing."

Its bureaucracy is depicted as sclerotic, incapable of providing necessary expertise in a timely fashion and unable to discharge or discipline incompetent performers, notably those leading rogue, peacekeeping missions. The lack of accountability at the UN stems from the fact that decisions on administration are driven more by political expediency than by the values its espouses.

The track record of the UN and many of its agencies is checkered at best. The UN Commission on Human Rights issued a withering report on violations by North Korea but there were no repercussions. Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, violated the most basic principle of the UN by seizing Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine, but the UN simply turned a blind eye. Despite a sporadic consensus on Syria, the violence persists; the massive flight of refugees has overwhelmed UN agencies and threatens the fabric of Europe.

However, some of the UN's other specialized agencies clearly do invaluable work, especially in the areas of aid and humanitarian assistance. But more often than not, the 15-member Security Council is gridlocked, unable to rise above sharp divergences of interests among the Big Three permanent members – the United States, China and Russia. The other members of this outdated relic are bit players at best.

Mr. Banbury's analysis and the dismal state of affairs more generally at the UN present a clarion call for major reform. The size and scope of political diversity at the organization may defy any real attempt at change. Too many entrenched practices and people have a vested interest in preserving the shambolic status quo. The UN may not yet be nearing the fate of its League of Nations predecessor, but life support of some kind would be in order.

Selection of the next secretary-general offers the opportunity for new leadership but the lowest-common-denominator process of selection among the Big Three for the appointment inevitably emphasizes bland over brilliant. Neither drive nor determination are high on the list of essential attributes. In any event, the challenge is beyond the capacity of a single individual and will require a concerted effort by some member states.

A complete revamp of personnel policies and practices should be a top priority, along with tighter accountability controls. A full reconstruction of the Security Council with membership that befits 21st-century realities, designed for effective executive action, rather than paralysis, is also overdue.

If Canada intends to help restore some lustre to the organization, it should champion reform and use its financial contribution (the seventh-largest even under the "dark" Harper days) as leverage to instill genuine reform and encourage others with similar concerns to follow suit.

Better days from the past provide little guide for the future, while fine rhetoric about principles and values does little to mask serious flaws in performance. A campaign for real reform may not win many votes for our Security Council aspirations but it might be an act of "responsible conviction" and could help reposition the UN to meet some of its basic goals.