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What Does Reform Mean?
UN reform focuses on three fundamental elements of the UN system: the organization’s basic authority and objectives as embodied in the Charter; the composition and role of the Security Council as the "board of directors", and the procedures and structure of the bureaucracy.

Significant amendment—much less expansion—of the UN’s authority and the role of the Security Council are not instinctively popular with many, West or East, North or South. But changes in international norms regarding human rights in particular have altered attitudes towards the role of the UN. The Covenant on Human Rights, and the resolutions passed at recent UN-sponsored conferences on the environment, women, development, and human rights have expanded expectations.

At the same time, various organizational reforms have resulted in de facto expansion of the organization’s authority. For instance, expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance operations have introduced the UN into the internal political affairs of individual countries—from Cambodia to East Timor—to a degree inconceivable only a few years ago. In Cambodia, a UN peacekeeping success story which has tended to be forgotten in the breast beating over Somalia, the UN in essence introduced the concept of UN governance of a failed or collapsed state by the international community. In Kosovo and East Timor the UN has expanded that concept by installing formal international trusteeship regimes in the territory of recognized sovereign states. De spite official demurrals, the acceptance of the concept of humanitarian intervention based at least partially on the concept of an active human rights role for the UN has clearly expanded the authority of the international organization.

A major bureaucratic change in the secretariat was effected by the rationalization and expansion of the political and peacekeeping elements of the central secretariat by the creation of the departments of Political Affairs, Peacekeeping Operations, and Humanitarian Affairs. This triad now constitutes a crisis management system for the secretary-general and the Security Council. The two political departments have rationalized and expanded the organizational capabilities of the UN in the peacekeeping and conflict mediation fields. These include day-to-day executive direction of peacekeeping operations, centralized management of logistical and technical matters, planning, intelligence, and information operations. This real expansion of competence was largely due to the pressure and contributions (money, technical assistance, and personnel) from a small number of countries, most notably the United States. Unfortunately, the progress in this area was compromised by complaints about the number of seconded (and cost-free) military officers from Western countries and fallout from the controversy over the assessment debt policy of the United States. This one step backward was masked by the decline in UN peacekeeping in the late 1990s, but has become an issue once again with a new rise in demand for peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention since 1999. This concern was the subject of the Brahimi Panel report on UN peacekeeping released in August of 2000.

In the economic and social areas of the UN there was another very deliberate attempt to expand UN's authority. This was launched in the first instance by the Nordic countries in the mid- and late-1980s, driven by a concern that resources for economic development were drying up and that the UN’s poor reputation and performance in that area needed to be reversed, both to get the most out of available resources, as well as to prevent further erosion of support. The Nordic initiative, supported by most Western countries, was an effort to restructure the UN in the economic and social areas, in both the inter-governmental and Secretariat organs. It became linked with the interest in expanded peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance and the consequent need to beef up the UN’s capabilities in these areas.

These various reform initiatives were supported and pushed largely by Western or developed countries. Some delegations from the Group of 77 (Non-Aligned Movement) were also interested in various elements of reform for the same reasons as Western counties, but as a group (they constitute well over two thirds of all UN members) they were cautious. They were worried that UN reform might gore only their oxen (economic development and their long standing demand for an increased transfer of resources without political ties)—this while expanding the possibilities for Western interference in their affairs through expansion of the UN’s authority for peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and support for human rights. Further, many of the Western concerns about the existing UN (management and personnel practices, administration of funds, widely disparate assessment obligations) refer to practices which either did not bother G-77 countries or positively pleased them. The charges that the UN was an inefficient manager of money provided by Western countries (especially the United States), a refuge for unqualified officials from Third World countries, and a generally useless "talking shop" were all viewed quite differently by those countries. UN reform, therefore, like everything at the UN, is a matter of perspective, dialogue, accommodation, and compromise.

As a result, reform in the economic and social area was less successful. Being very concerned about declining public support for official development assistance, donor countries have been seeking significant organizational reform to deal with widespread allegations that UN economic and social development assistance, which is where the Nordics put most of their emphasis and the United States has traditionally put substantial sums, is little more than a slush fund for corrupt leaderships in Third World countries: "taxing the poor in the rich countries for the benefit of the rich in the poor countries." Tighter control, more transparency, better governance, and more market oriented policies were sought. Not surprisingly, Third World governments were less than enthusiastic about this movement and instead reiterated their long-standing demand that increased transfer of resources—without ties—was owed by the industrialized world. UN reform of the economic and social areas as pushed by the West was seen by them as a ploy merely to cut back on the already insufficient level of assistance.

More was achieved in the general managem ent area with the establishment of an inspector general (Office on Internal Oversight Services) and certain reforms in the budget and personnel areas. This area has received the most media and Congressional attention, as it has been directly tied to the question of the American financial contribution to the UN budget. In 1977 the position of deputy secretary-general was created, something long sought by the United States.

Despite resistance, there has been some "slow and painful" progress in the inter-governmental area, mostly in the centralizing of activities and oversight in the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the trimming of some of their subordinate bodies. Still of limited importance, but potentially promising, is the movement towards greater cooperation between the UN agencies and the Bretton Woods organizations.

It is in the third and most political area—the composition and role of the Security Council—that the least has been achieved . Expansion of the Council became a major topic of discussion in the second half of the 1990s, and the United States among many member states has stated its official support for expansion. However, the general interest in expanding the SC disintegrates into warring factions as soon as specifics are broached. How many permanent new members are to be considered? Will they also have the veto power? Should the present permanent members retain their veto? And finally, who will be the new permanent members? The latter question immediately raises the prospect of regional competitions in every part of the world. Few observers expect any meaningful progress in this area in the foreseeable future.

Cutting across all these areas, the secretary-general appointed a special commission to study UN peacekeeping operations—arguably the central responsibility of the United Nations in the contemporary world. The commission—the Brahimi Panel on UN Peace Operations—produced a well-receive d report in late August 2000 which both outlines internal UN reorganization proposals and, more important, clearly challenges member states to provide the necessary coherent and consistent political will. The Clinton Administration proclaimed its support for the Brahimi report recommendations, but fulfillment of that promise will obviously depend upon the current administration.

U.S. Policy on Reform
The difference between what has been accomplished and what is being sought can be seen by reviewing a spring 1996 U.S. Government compilation of the various reform proposals put forward by the U.S. Mission to the United Nations over the preceding years:

  • General Assembly: cut the agenda in half, restrict resolutions, consolidate and/or eliminate committees such as the Palestinian Committee
  • ECOSOC: create a small executive committee to oversee all UN economic and social bodies and programs; consolidate subordinate bodies; improve collaboration with the Bretton Woods institutions
  • UNCTAD and Regional Commissions: prioritize, rationalize, concentrate, cut back staff and range of programs
  • Development Funds and Programs: reinforce UNDP’S lead role, aiming at ultimate evolution toward a single, integrated UN assistance agency; make appropriate changes in the management of UN development funds
  • Humanitarian Relief: expanded coordination among various agencies and bodies under HA leadership
  • Human Rights: strengthen the role and capabilities of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center.

Specifically directed towards dealing with the charges of "fraud, mismanagement, and malfeasance" are the U.S. Government proposals for organizational changes in the administration or management area of the secretariat. These included:

  • restructuring and trimming of staff and departments,
  • introducing a "sunset" policy for programs,
  • installing an inspector general system throughout the whole UN system, and
  • creating the post of deputy secretary-general.

In January 2000, the U. S. Department of State issued a fact sheet on UN reform, claiming that "the US drive to reform the UN and affiliated organizations had contributed to a number of concrete achievements representing a solid start toward greater efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability in the UN System." Specifically these achievements were:

  • a greater dedication to a "more transparent, responsive, and consultative approach to management;"
  • the UN’s budget was cut for the first time ever in the 1996-97 biennium, and the gains continued in subsequent years;
  • a UN internal inspector general’s office was established;
  • the UN’s ability to mount and manage peacekeeping operations was "drastically improved," and the Security Council "adopted a more rigorous approach to evaluating peacekeeping proposals;"
  • "streamlining efforts are taking hold" in the large specialized agencies;
    and
  • the Secretary-General’s "Track Two" package of management reforms has received UN members’ approval and is being implemented (e.g., around 900 unneeded staff positions have been eliminated).

Vietnam Reconsidered, Vol. III, No. 1
From Post Cold War to Post Westphalia, Vol. V, No. 1
Transitional Governance, Vol IV, No. 1

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