United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his 2007 acceptance speech to the General Assembly, noted: “The true measure of the success for the United Nations is not how much we promise, but how much we deliver for those who need us most.”
Anyone’s hopes for the UN on key reform issues vary according to the roles they think the organization should play in the new century. In my view, the delivery of better lives for the poor, oppressed and voiceless in all corners of the world, including more effective peacekeeping and humanitarian initiatives, should be the system-wide priority.
By 1965, with numerous states from Africa and Asia joining as members, development issues had become increasingly important, resulting in the creation that year of the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The 1980s, however, were characterized by financial crisis and the retreat of the United States, which triggered a reform of the budgetary process and downsizing. With the end of the Cold War in 1989, a renaissance of the UN was expected; the first half of the 1990s saw major expansion and reforms.
In the late 1990s, secretary-general Kofi Annan energized the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Other initiatives included the revamping of peacekeeping operations. The World Summit in 2005 recognized an international Responsibility to Protect (R2P) populations from genocide within their own borders.
For many years, the most frequently discussed change to the UN structure has been with the permanent five nations (P5) with vetoes on the Security Council (SC). The SC reflects geopolitical realities of 1945, when the UN was founded. Most of the 192 member countries today no doubt do not feel adequately represented on the security council, especially since it’s the key body responsible for world peace under the UN charter.
Europe, which holds barely five percent of the world’s population, still controls two of five permanent veto seats in any given year, not including Russia. China and Russia today abuse their vetoes, or threaten to use them, more than other P5 members, although many accuse the U.S. of doing so as well. The status quo is unfair to countries whose financial contributions to the UN outweigh those of four of the five permanent members.
Japan and Germany for decades have been the second- and third-largest contributors to UN budgets, at roughly 19 percent and 12 percent respectively. The current council membership also denies opportunities to states that have contributed in kind (participation in peacekeeping operations, for example) or by size, or both, to peace and security in world affairs. India and Brazil are notable here.
For a decade, the Group of Four (Brazil, Germany, India, and Japan) have led efforts on security council reform, hoping to benefit from any expansion in the number of permanent members. Others oppose the Group of Four rising from their current second-tier status in the world body. Some of the objectors, including Canada and Spain, are motivated by principle — opposing permanent membership for anyone.
Any amendment requires a two-thirds majority of the overall UN membership (128 of the 192 states in the General Assembly). The only “prescription” that has any chance of passing is one that will persuade two-thirds of the UN member states to support it and not attract the opposition of any of the existing “perm five.” This is probably impossible in the foreseeable future.
There are many demands to make the UN administration more transparent, accountable and efficient. Mark Malloch Brown, former secretary general of the UNDP, advocates “reconnecting merit to make the UN again an international meritocracy.” He believes the UN must stop promoting on the basis of political correctness, and must start to make more use of Asia, Africa and other regions holding many highly motivated professionals. Ambassador Munir Akram of Pakistan, recent head of the G-77, claims: “The major countries, the major powers hold very high positions in the secretariat and support their national interests and refuse to allow the secretary general to cut departments.”
The UN Commission on Human Rights was criticized continuously for the positions it gave to member governments that systematically violated the rights of their own citizens, including China, Libya, Cuba, Sudan, Algeria, Azerbaijan and Vietnam. As a result, Kofi Annan, in the In Larger Freedom report, suggested setting up a new Human Rights Council. In 2006, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to establish the new Human Rights Council. Unfortunately, it seems to be making many of the same mistakes as the commission. The jury is still out. The council recently held elections for new member states and voted in several that violate their own citizens’ human rights. Among them are the Communist regimes of China, Cuba and Vietnam; the Islamic states of Saudi Arabia and Algeria; and finally, Russia. Unless the new human rights body changes its membership selection and a number of other practices, it will inevitably follow its predecessor into the trash heap of history.
Creation of an environment organization
In 2007, a “Paris Call for Action” read by then-French president Jacques Chirac and supported by 46 countries, called for the UN Environment Programme to be replaced by a stronger Environment Organization (UNEO) modelled on the World Health Organization. The sponsors included the EU countries, but not the U.S., China, Russia and India, the top four emitters of greenhouse gases. I believe UNEO is still on the drawing board.
The General Assembly (GA) includes representatives from all member states. It is the chief deliberative, policymaking and representative body; it oversees the general budget, appoints non-permanent members to the Security Council and makes recommendations in the form of non-binding resolutions.
Delegates and other observers say debates in the GA are often tedious and sometimes result in the adoption of repetitive resolutions. Its universal membership, and one nation/one vote policy, allows it, in theory, to be possible for the 128 smallest countries to achieve a two-thirds majority while representing only eight percent of the world’s population.
In 2005, Kofi Annan recognized the need for reform and laid out steps towards a more effective general assembly in his report, In Larger Freedom. An ad-hoc working group was established in 2008 with a mandate to “identify further ways to enhance the role, authority, effectiveness and efficiency of the assembly….” This remains a work in progress.
The UN launched “Delivering as One” in 2007 to improve the delivery of all UN funds in eight pilot countries in development, humanitarian assistance and the environment. Agencies such as UNDP, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Program (WFP) are to co-ordinate work in the field, reduce administrative costs and improve efficiency. The UN is replacing its information-management system with one that will streamline the management of operations, resources and staff; reduce business processes by more than 70 percent and save hundreds of millions of dollars. The new program is intended to ensure the UN meets International Public Sector Accounting Standards.
The UN Secretariat has about 30,000 staff, with about a third at headquarters in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi. They run the bureaucracy of the UN, responding to decisions by the GA and the Security Council. At the 2005 World Summit, leaders committed themselves to strengthening the UN through a series of management reforms. The categories include changing the secretariat’s management structure, reviewing UN mandates older than five years, restructuring the office for internal oversight (OIOS), and establishing an ethics office.
Many of the above-indicated initiatives, in combination or by themselves, seem likely to make the United Nations Organization a better instrument to fulfil the world’s hopes and dreams. Among the numerous books of recent years on the UN, The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American Power, 2006, by James Traub, is the one I’d recommend first to understand what is most needed today to bring the UN up to its full potential.
David Kilgour is a former MP and was secretary of state for the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa.