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Realizing UtopiaThe Future of International Law$

The Late Antonio Cassese

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199691661

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199691661.001.0001

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The United Nations: No Hope for Reform?

The United Nations: No Hope for Reform?

(p.38) 4 The United Nations: No Hope for Reform?
Realizing Utopia

Philip Alston

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Utopia is a notion that is inevitably in the eye of the beholder, but the assumption of this analysis is that a strengthened and more efficient UN has the capacity to contribute in essential ways to more effective global governance arrangements. This chapter identifies various steps that would promote the type of realistically utopian reform that this volume seeks to identify. They include the following. Amending the Charter to eliminate the Trusteeship Council and ideally also the Economic and Social Council; ensuring sustainable financing for core UN activities. Promoting a ‘One UN’ approach to on the ground service delivery, but complementing this with a more consultative approach to local actors. Becoming more media savvy. Making vastly better use of new information and communications technologies; moving towards a ‘smart’ and knowledgeable Secretariat. And finally, devoting more resources to three substantive areas (electoral assistance; development of a police rapid response capacity; tackling corruption at the national level).

Keywords:   UN reform, Trusteeship Council, Economic and Social Council, ground service delivery

Utopia is a notion that is inevitably in the eye of the beholder, but the assumption of this analysis is that a strengthened and more efficient UN has the capacity to contribute in essential ways to more effective global governance arrangements. With some notable exceptions, most discussions of UN reform have taken up vast amounts of time and energy and generally yielded all too little. Nevertheless, there are significant reforms that could be undertaken if key states would back them and defeatism should not be permitted to prevail. This chapter identifies various steps that would promote the type of realistically utopian reforms that this volume seeks to identify. They include: (i) amending the Charter to eliminate the Trusteeship Council and ideally also the Economic and Social Council; (ii) ensuring sustainable financing for core UN activities; (iii) promoting a ‘One UN’ approach to on the ground service delivery, but complementing this with a more consultative approach to local actors; (iv) becoming more media savvy; (v) making vastly better use of new information and communications technologies; (vi) moving towards a ‘smart’ and knowledgeable Secretariat; and (vii) devoting more resources to three substantive areas (electoral assistance; development of a police rapid response capacity; tackling corruption at the national level).

1. Introduction

Utopia is a relative concept. One person's utopia is the next person's nightmare. This is clearly the case when one thinks of a utopian future for the United Nations. For some it would conjure up desirable images of a smoothly functioning system of global governance, possibly overseen by a global parliamentary assembly or peoples’ chamber. For others, the less powerful the UN is the better, either for essentially nationalist or sovereigntist reasons1 or because of a conviction that only decentral (p.39) ized local solutions are really sustainable as responses to many of the major challenges confronting the world community.2 Even if we assume that there is a strong and unavoidable need to strengthen global governance mechanisms in a very wide range of areas, the question still remains how central the UN should be to such a vision and how it should relate to more diffuse and less-encompassing specialist regimes and more or less structured networks.3

For experienced UN-watchers there is often an element of reform fatigue, epitomized by the endless and so far fruitless debates over Security Council reform, which has bred a deep scepticism about the feasibility of almost any far-reaching institutional reforms of the organization. For them, utopia begins to take the form ofminor institutional adjustments, the creation of new bureaucratic units of one type or other, and the fashioning of new procedures that are assumed to have a chance of succeeding despite the fact that earlier efforts are widely considered to have failed. In short, the triumph of hope over experience.

The point is that utopia is in the eye of the beholder. The very idea of setting up a United Nations organization in the aftermath of the Second World War was utopian in many ways. The notion that all states would be treated equally in terms of their sovereign rights, that the use of force would be definitively outlawed, that a diverse array of functional international agencies in the economic and social fields would be established, and that their efforts would be coordinated in a systematic and meaningful way by an Economic and Social Council, and the plan to establish a Military Staff Committee consisting of the Chiefs of Staff of each of the Security Council's permanent members which would be able to coordinate, mobilize, and oversee the use of armed force: all this was utopian.

How much of this has really failed? How much more utopian do we need to be, or is it a matter of resiling from failed utopias to see the more mundane and banal needs of building an effective world organization? The answer, perhaps predictable when an author sets up such a choice, is probably a little of each. In other words, we need to acknowledge the failure and perhaps the unworkability of some of the utopian aspects of the existing Charter arrangements but we also need the infusion of a new dose of utopian thought inspired not just by the same ‘never again’ sentiment that moved the ‘united nations’ in 1945, but by a recognition of the new challenges and opportunities confronting the international community in the twenty-first century and the capacity of the UN to contribute significantly to their solution.

2. Defining the United Nations

The UN is many things to many people. To the poor in almost any least developed country the UN is the provider of last resort in emergencies requiring food, health (p.40) care, shelter, and basic protection, and in the worst cases it may be seen as the provider of first resort. To American conservatives it seems to be a very powerful actor that has the capacity to ride roughshod over state sovereignty and to compel governments to do various things that they do not wish to do.4 And to many in developed countries outside the United States it is a useful talking shop which also has the potential to tackle a range of problems that nations cannot deal with effectively on an individual basis. In 2004 a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change identified the following areas as those in relation to which many in the international community expect the UN to take a lead role: ‘poverty, infectious disease and environmental degradation; war and violence within states; the spread and possible use of nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological weapons; terrorism; and transnational organized crime.’5

In order to make sense of the topic of a realistically utopian role for the UN in the twenty-first century we need to recognize two different levels of analysis: (i) the various entities defined as coming under the umbrella of ‘the UN’ for these purposes and (ii) the different roles that the UN proper plays. In terms of the entities covered, the most basic distinction is between the UN family, which includes all the many specialized agencies and other bodies that coexist under a very broad umbrella (such as the International Labour Organization, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, as well as the international financial institutions and many other agencies), and the UN itself defined as the UN Secretariat and the institutions and other functions that are funded, at least in part, from the regular UN budget. In terms of the second level of analysis we can distinguish at least three different principal functions: (i) a forum for debate, discussion, and decision; (ii) an actor to undertake a variety of specific functions such as peacekeeping and human rights promotion; and (iii) a catalyst to action by a diverse range of groups including civil society, national governments, local actors, corporations, and others. In addition to these levels of analysis there is an additional distinction to be drawn between the substantive outcomes and the processes and institutional arrangements through which the UN has sought to address them. This chapter cannot hope to address the substantive outcomes achieved, and is thus confined to examining the possible institutional arrangements that might contribute to promoting meaningful outcomes in the respective areas.

3. The never-ending reform process

To paraphrase Churchill, rarely have so many plans for reform been put forward by so many over such a long period of time and yielded so little. This is not the (p.41) place to review those well-intentioned endeavours.6 Suffice it to note that the most recent comprehensive set of proposals was put forward by Kofi Annan in 2005. Referring to the UN's sixtieth anniversary as a historic opportunity, he called for what he termed the most sweeping overhaul in its history. Two years earlier, he had established a High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change which presented a lengthy and detailed set of recommendations in December 2004. Its report was premised on the need for a new consensus on a greatly expanded notion of collective security that included the need for far-reaching measures to address new and dramatic challenges.

By 2011, the talk about ‘historic opportunities’ and ‘critical crossroads’ in relation to UN reform had all but vanished. Thus in a statement that could hardly have been more low-key or less utopian, Annan's successor, Ban Ki-moon, told the General Assembly after his re-election to a second term of office that ‘[t]here is a great deal of work ahead. Millions of people around the world are looking to the United Nations with hope. We must answer their hopes with action.’ At the same time Ban announced an austerity drive involving a 3 per cent cut in the organization's biennial budget. This ratcheting down of both the rhetoric and the aspirations reflects not only the personality of the respective UN leaders but also the lowered expectations of the times. Utopian optimism is in small supply.

But a realistic utopia cannot be built overnight and a reformed and revived UN remains critical to the future of global governance. Before turning to consider the main issues that have preoccupied would-be reformers in recent times it is appropriate to set some parameters. Perhaps the most important starting point relates to reasonable expectations. We thus need to acknowledge that the UN has never been, and will never be, the only game in town in relation to a great many of the most pressing challenges facing the international community. Nuclear non-proliferation provides as good an illustration as any in this respect. While the UN has a complex set of institutional arrangements for discussing nuclear issues, much of the recent work has been undertaken outside it. Bilateral discussions between Russia and the United States, and regional discussions between the European Union and the states that emerged from the former Soviet Union have been of vital importance. In addition, in April 2010 the United States convened 47 states to a first Nuclear Security Summit, in Washington DC. That process generated a range of specific commitments that have been monitored not by the UN but under the auspices of the United States.7 It is generally assessed to have been relatively successful to date8 and follow-up summits are envisaged. The UN itself remains relevant in terms of broader discussions over the future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but (p.42) significant breakthroughs are likely to come from outside that framework. By the same token, the Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency have been the principal fora for efforts to discourage Iran's nuclear weapons programme. The same sort of pattern of UN relevance and marginality can be found in relation to a great many other regimes or sectors. The lesson is that we need to remember that the UN's role is not necessarily the central or deciding one in relation to a great many of the matters that are on its agenda, but that it nonetheless does make a contribution.

The notion of limited expectations when reflecting on the UN's potential was well captured by Dag Hammarskjöld's comment in 1954 that the organization was ‘not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell’.9

We turn now to examine the principal issues of institutional reform that have been part of recent debates.

4. Options for institutional restructuring

Most of the UN reform literature has dwelt on proposals to create new institutions, to eliminate or fundamentally transform existing ones, or to make them more effective, more representative, and more efficient. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that too much time and energy have been devoted to such issues and too little to the consideration of more creative and more feasible alternative approaches. We shall return to those below, but no chapter on UN reform would be complete without an overview of the key institutional debates. Since the Security Council and the UN's human rights programme are both dealt with in separate chapters in this volume, those issues will not be considered here.

Before examining the principal problems it is important to acknowledge that the UN has, in fact, been reasonably adept at responding to a wide range of new and emerging issues through the creation or expansion of institutional capacity. For example, it has responded relatively rapidly to the various waves of enhanced environmental awareness beginning in the late 1960s and continuing into the twenty-first century by organizing highly effective international conferences, establishing a new agency (UNEP), generating important legal standards for dealing with a wide array of threats to environmental well-being (ozone, desertification, endangered species, deforestation, climate change, pollution of regional seas, etc.), and providing important scientific inputs into the climate change debates. It has been at the forefront of efforts to promote gender equality, to combat racism, to combat terrorism, to recognize and defend the rights of indigenous peoples, to combat torture, to reduce the spread and use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, and has established or expanded institutional arrangements for overseeing these initiatives. A comprehensive list would be very long, and even more boring, but the point is simply that there has been no shortage of institutional initiatives. Whether they have been as effective as (p.43) they might have been, and whether overlap and duplication have been part of the process, are issues considered below.

The focus of most discussions of institutional reform has been on some of the principal Charter organs, namely the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, and the Trusteeship Council. I explore each of these, except for the Security Council, in turn.

The General Assembly is the most democratic of the major bodies in the sense that all states are represented and can have their say on virtually any issue. It is easily dismissed as a ‘talking shop’, but such pejorative language misses the point that the promotion of ideas and the legitimation of emerging norms constitute potentially vital roles.10 The long and arduous journeys of the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept, of the principles of the rule of law and democratic governance, of gender equality, and most recently of respect for the sexual-orientation preferences of individuals, all serve to illustrate the importance of these functions. Endless calls for agenda streamlining, for greater dialogue, and for more substantive debates have made little headway over a long period.11 Calls for the Assembly to be replaced by a body of representatives elected in proportion to countries’ populations are both utopian and entirely unrealistic. The more achievable utopia would see the General Assembly seeking to expand the range of inputs into its deliberations, making greater use of independent experts acting in its name, and opening up avenues of cooperation with civil society and with national power structures. A relatively simple starting point would be to authorize a Parliamentary General Assembly (PGA) to consist of one to three existing members of parliament from each state. The PGA would not require a Charter amendment, would (initially) exercise only advisory powers, and would provide an important complement to the work of the General Assembly itself. The equivalent parliamentary assemblies created by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) provide an example of the strengths and weaknesses of such bodies.

President Obama told the General Assembly in 2010 that the Group of 20 (G20) had become ‘the focal point for international coordination’ in response to the global economic crisis12 and it is now widely acknowledged that it has performed a crucial role in this regard. But even when accepting this reality, UN actors still tend to insist that the Assembly should nonetheless play a central role. Thus, for example, in 2011 the President of the General Assembly argued that economic matters should remain the sole preserve of the General Assembly, which, with its 193 states Members and its system of ‘One state, one voice’ is, par excellence, the democratic forum at the global level. It is therefore important to find ways of legitimizing the decisions that were taken by the G20. (p.44)

But as Weiss has noted, it is difficult to challenge the G20’s legitimacy when it represents 70 per cent of the world's population, 80 per cent of its trade, and 90 per cent of its Gross Domestic Product.13 The bottom line is that the General Assembly can remain an important forum, and can express its views on economic and financial matters, but there is little point in suggesting that it should be the central player that it could never be in such matters.

The most significant institutional reform to emerge from the 2005 process was the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission. The High-Level Panel harboured high-level hopes that such an initiative would serve an important early-warning function in relation to conflicts and that it would help to plan the contributions of the international community in the context of post-conflict transitions. But in designing the institution states watered down these goals to the point where the Commission became an advisory body, playing a coordinating role in bringing the key funding and troop-contributing states together with the representatives of the small number of states selected for attention. In 2010, Ireland, Mexico, and South Africa undertook a five-year review of the Commission's performance and warned that it had reached the proverbial crossroads, requiring either a serious recommitment to peace-building or settling for a very modest role. The report suggested that the Commission had failed to accord significant national ownership to the states being assisted, had achieved inadequate civil society involvement, had adopted unduly complicated procedures, had not been especially effective in mobilizing resources, had achieved little coordination with the international financial institutions, and had been largely ignored by the Security Council.14

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has always provided a major challenge to would-be reformers. Even in 2011 UN leaders were suggesting that the challenge is to strengthen it, to enable it to coordinate agency and programme mandates more effectively, and to make it ‘an essential actor in global economic governance’.15 But the reality is that the marginalization of ECOSOC began very early on in its existence. It then gathered speed as the Bretton Woods institutions became ever more powerful and as the World Trade Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and a plethora of other specialist bodies dealing with trade, finance, intellectual property, and other economic issues flexed their muscles. The High-Level Panel graciously only went so far as to concede that ECOSOC would never become ‘the centre of the world's decision-making on matters of trade and finance’, and that it would never be able to direct the programmes of the various UN agencies. But this was a deep understatement. In a rational world ECOSOC would probably be put humanely to sleep, but the immense resistance to eliminating any UN body led the Panel to struggle valiantly to find a plausible role for it. It suggested that the Council should provide (p.45) normative and analytical leadership, primarily through a new Committee on the Social and Economic Aspects of Security Threats. It could also take on the role of monitoring states’ development-related commitments, and become a ‘development cooperation forum’ with an agenda built around the Millennium Declaration.16 But the Panel's aspirations for the Council were hopelessly unrealistic and failed to take account of its principal shortcomings, which were a lack of any real source of power or authority, a lack of control over any resources, an absence of substantive expertise, and a deadly bureaucratic and statist culture. But even more unrealistic was the General Assembly's response. It not only ignored, and thus rejected, all of the Panel's suggestions, but reaffirmed the Council's role ‘as a principal body for coordination, policy review, policy dialogue’17 and so on. Given how little ECOSOC had achieved in any of these domains in recent memory, the Assembly did little more than provide evidence of its own inability to recognize existing shortcomings and promote even mild reforms in situations in which radically more is needed. An insightful diplomatic critique of ECOSOC's performance that echoed many of the criticisms expressed here concluded by suggesting that the Council could at least be transformed into civil society's ‘portal of entry’ into the UN.18 But the question then becomes why civil society would want access through a portal that leads nowhere in terms of influence or significance, and what it could usefully do with any such access.

The problem remains that the UN and its supporters are unable to face the reality that it no longer has a significant role in relation to matters of major economic or financial importance. In addition to the revitalization of the International Monetary Fund in the wake of the global financial crisis that began in 2008, and the continuing strength of agencies such as the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization, groups entirely outside the UN structure have come to play the central roles in such matters. The most prominent example is the G20 consisting of the old G8 (United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, and Russia), along with four other OECD members (Australia, Mexico, South Korea, and Turkey), and the most influential of the developing countries (Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa), along with the European Union.

The Trusteeship Council has been out of work since 1994 when Palau, the last of the UN trust territories, became independent. In fact it should be seen as a singularly successful UN organ because it accomplished in full the extensive responsibilities entrusted to it in an entire chapter of the UN Charter. While former Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali called for the Council's elimination, his successor picked up on states’ apparent reluctance to do so and instead gently promoted a proposal by Malta that it be given new responsibilities relating to the environment (p.46) and areas of the global commons such as the oceans, atmosphere, and outer space. Other alternatives have also been proposed, including that it be used to address the plight of so-called ‘failed states’, but it seems unlikely that any such proposals will garner much support.19 The precedent of actually terminating a major UN mandate because of the successful completion of its work would seem to be a highly desirable one, but the stumbling block remains the difficulty of securing a Charter amendment in order to do so.

The Charter has been amended only three times. All amendments occurred between 1963 and 1973 in the immediate aftermath of the massive influx of new members in the wake of decolonization, and each related to the size of the Security Council or ECOSOC. It has since been assumed that any further amendments would be impossible to accomplish, in part because of divergent political preferences, and in part because of the logistical difficulties involved in getting close to 200 states to pursue their own constitutional and other processes in order to agree to any amendment.

5. Broader challenges

The proliferation of agencies and other institutions has been a major problem for the UN, as has the seemingly inexorable expansion of each agency's mandate and range of activities. It has been suggested that this is partly due to an ideology according to which more international institutional expansion is good by definition, as well as to the flexibility of the law governing international organization which is said to do little to impede ‘organizational wishes to expand and procreate’.20 But because of the strength of the vested interests that tend rapidly to take over any international organization and to prevent either fundamental reforms or closure, the easiest way to deal with failure is to propose another organization which ends up being more or less superimposed on top of or beside the existing arrangements.

This then exacerbates another of the UN's major failings: its inability to coordinate disparate but closely related activities, and to rationalize overlapping and even directly competing programmes. Too little has changed since Robert Jackson's justly famous 1969 report in which he referred to the UN ‘machine’ as unmanageable, slow, and unwieldy and compared it to a ‘prehistoric monster’. It was, he said, a machine without a brain.21 The recent creation of UN Women as an agency to replace several significantly overlapping programmes is a positive example but one that was made feasible mainly because of the relatively low stakes involved (minor agencies with small budgets) compared to the major political pressures that could be generated in relation to an issue of fundamental importance (gender equity). It can be contrasted with the achingly slow progress (p.47) towards building a unified UN development profile. Competition among agencies with large budgets, significantly different constituencies and expertise bases, and almost entirely incompatible notions of their own self-interest in relation to reform, has led to the maintenance of a highly fragmented UN presence in the field in relation to development. There is no shortage of rational justifications for this fragmentation, such as the ability of a more diverse set of agencies to mobilize a larger range of actors, the building up of particular forms of expertise that might otherwise be marginalized or drowned out in a more unified system, the advantages of competition among ideas, personnel, and programmes, the provision of choice for governments, the ability to deal differently with different ministries at the national level, and so on. But, when all is said and done, it is almost inconceivable that anyone who has witnessed the day-to-day reality on the ground of an alphabet soup of UN agencies competing with and sometimes undermining one another could opt to maintain the existing system rather than moving towards a more ‘utopian’ system of centralized overall authority combined with a rational division of labour.22 While seasoned observers seem resigned to riding on the never-ending merry-go-round of pseudo coordination driven by agency self-interest and turf battles,23 it is governments that must be persuaded that they and more importantly their citizens are losing out badly under the current system.

6. Reforming the Secretariat

The UN Secretary-General and the staff under his or her direction constitute one of the principal organs of the organization set up by the Charter. In the early years, the principal challenge was thought to be to secure an independent and impartial Secretariat. As the organization expanded and developing countries came to make up the great majority of the membership, the representativeness of the Secretariat became the main concern. That principal is, however, a two-sided coin. On the one side is the need to ensure that the UN is truly representative of the diversity of the world's peoples, cultures, and values, while on the other side there is the desire on the part of the elites to ensure access to their ‘share’ of the plum jobs that the UN has to offer at all levels. Much neglected in this emphasis on independence and representativeness are the qualifications for the particular tasks that need to be performed.24 Because of the need to struggle against nepotism and other forms of favouritism in recruitment, the UN has developed rigid, time- (p.48) consuming, hierarchical, and highly inefficient personnel policies that rarely result in the appointment or promotion of very highly qualified individuals. Where the World Bank likes to style itself as ‘the knowledge bank’, the UN almost prides itself on having little room for original thinking, high-level knowledge production, or probing research. The result is a very high percentage of reports that are devoid of genuine research and substantive policy analysis, and are replete with banalities. There is a fear of confronting states with views that do not conform to those that have been expressed in advance, and a tendency for analytical reports to serve the primary purpose of justifying conclusions identified in advance. Where serious probing analysis is needed, the UN turns to extremely expensive and time-consuming ‘high-level panels’ and the like. We consider in the final section below the type of measures needed to break through this culture of producing stale, predictable, often undigested, and generally superficial reports.

7. Some elements for a realistically utopian reform of the UN

The list that follows ranges from major efforts to amend the Charter and thus to change the basic structures, through various specific reforms of the way in which the organization functions, to several suggested substantive issues that need to be given greater attention in the years ahead.

1. A major effort to secure Charter amendment should be undertaken, although it would have to be entirely separate from efforts to restructure the Security Council since the latter have almost no chance of being accepted and have so far been used to hold hostage other initiatives. Some commentators acknowledge the need for a ‘dramatic transformation [rather than] minor tinkering’,25 but others continue to counsel against any such efforts.26 An endeavour to achieve a realistic utopia would surely confront such defeatism. The proposed amendment should eliminate the Trusteeship Council, either eliminate or fundamentally revise the functions of ECOSOC, elevate the Human Rights Council to the status of a principal organ, introduce a Parliamentary Assembly to operate side by side with the General Assembly, and state an obligation on the part of the Secretariat to promote transparency and accountability. While a much more extensive wish list could be drawn up, any more ambitious plan would surely fail.

2. Steps need to be taken to provide an assured and constant source of financing for core UN activities. Well under half the overall UN budget comes from the assessed contributions paid by states. The remainder must be raised from voluntary contributions. While these will always be important, they are never assured and they inevitably contribute to an uneven patchwork of programmes. To the extent that they fund what are in reality core programme expenses, they are a highly (p.49) inefficient way to run an organization, and raise major problems of donor influence. Many proposals have been made for global taxes to be levied on everything from international monetary transactions (the so-called ‘Tobin tax’), air travel, internet usage, arms sales, and natural resource extraction activities. The United States has been the most adamant opponent of such initiatives,27 but a serious commitment to a strong multilateral component of a diversified global governance regime will require a change of direction in this regard.

3. The effort begun immediately after the thaw brought by the fall of the Berlin Wall to create a single UN entity at the country level needs to be enhanced and developed. It was given a strong push by the High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence in 2006,28 but the initiative seems to have stalled. Suggestions by some commentators to abandon such efforts in favour of even greater decentralization and individual agency competition, according to the principle of subsidiarity,29 seem to be a recipe for exacerbation of the existing system of fiercely self-interested competition which does little to ensure optimal delivery of services on the ground to those most in need. It also weakens the UN's overall influence and encourages divide and conquer strategies on the part of government officials. Moving towards a ‘One UN’ approach in this regard is an indispensable element of a realistic utopia.

4. Directly linked to the development of the ‘One UN’ approach is the need for the UN to develop more effective mechanisms for consultation at the country level. The UN and its agencies in many developing countries too often tend to function as independent fiefdoms. The alternative is not to become the handmaidens of the government of the day but to develop authentically consultative approaches in determining priorities and choosing among alternative approaches to programme delivery. While the rhetoric of participation is well developed, the reality of UN operations on the ground is often far divorced from it. There is also a need to build sustainable constituencies at the local level. While it is true, as the proponents of the power of civil society are keen to point out, that there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of NGOs that engage with the UN through consultative status mechanisms and attendance at meetings, there needs to be a much more deliberate outreach to grassroots level groups which act as ‘agents’ and ‘pressure groups’ in relation to the work of the UN in the field.

5. The UN needs to become more media savvy.30 The vast majority of UN press releases are so dull they would not keep the average reader awake for more than a minute, let alone capture his or her attention. They are often bureaucratic documents of record, produced for the sake of it. The problem is partly the hypersensitivity of member states to anything remotely critical or insightful, but the problem also reflects the compulsive self-censorship of most officials and their addiction to blandness. They would not recognize a news story if they fell over one. The result is that the UN's message is poorly communicated, as is knowledge and understanding of the results achieved. A new strategy will require four elements. The first is (p.50) a change of mentality on the part of the Secretariat. Transparency is indispensable, bad news is not to be avoided at all costs, colourful language is essential, and meaningful information and commentary are needed. Perfunctory statements should be distinguished from real news. Secondly, the UN has to learn the lesson that personalities get coverage, not institutions. Kofi Annan and Jan Egeland, for example, always had something newsworthy to say and received a commensurate degree of coverage. Thirdly, the internal publicity machine can only do so much. The major source of publicity will inevitably be the external media and the UN needs to do more to cultivate and facilitate their interest in what is happening at the UN. Fourthly, the UN needs to start making effective use of the new media, in all its diverse forms. But a lumbering and inflexible public relations bureaucracy is not conducive to such initiatives.

6. The UN, along with diplomacy in general, still needs to be brought into the twenty-first century in terms of taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by new information and communications technologies. Many more ‘meetings’ should be held by satellite link, more consultations need to take place through new and emerging social networking approaches, more innovative approaches need to be adopted to the use of electronic language translation programs, and more meetings need to be broadcast in order to expose them to the real world, warts and all.

7. Secretariat reform is undoubtedly needed in a great many areas, including enhanced transparency, more effective oversight, and more systematic accountability. Significant steps have in fact been taken in these directions in recent years. But perhaps the biggest challenge is to transform the culture of the UN that assumes that high-level research and analysis, or knowledge promotion and dissemination, should be an indispensable function of the UN. It will only be achieved if more effective targeted recruitment takes place, more flexible contractual arrangements are introduced, specific demonstrated expertise rather than formal qualifications are valued, and a more sustained effort is made to draw upon external expertise in a systematic fashion. The Human Development Report stands as a tribute to what can be achieved, even under UN auspices, when there is a serious commitment to high-quality analysis and a preparedness to let the researchers go where their analysis takes them, rather than where their political masters would like them to go.

8. I turn now to three substantive issue areas in which the UN should become more involved. The first of these is electoral assistance. The organization already plays an important, although still rather fragmented and muted, role in this area. It needs to be given a higher political priority, perhaps through the appointment of a UN High Commissioner for Elections who can speak with authority and mobilize resources. Such an initiative would need to be accompanied by a stronger commitment on the part of all states to accept a degree of election monitoring as a matter of course.

9. A second substantive area is the development of a police rapid response capacity. Too often there is a focus on military intervention in situations in which more effective and better trained policing is what is really needed. Military intervention inevitably has very negative connotations in terms of concerns over sovereignty and an ability to work constructively with the political authorities in a situation. (p.51)

10. The third and final substantive area is the need to do more to tackle corruption at the national level. A vast number of the principal challenges that the UN confronts—from civil wars to famine and general mortality—are due primarily to unhindered corruption on the part of key elites. An excellent place to begin is to act on the recommendation by Global Witness to appoint a high-level expert group to ‘review international experience of responding to self-financing wars and draw up a comprehensive strategy for tackling them’.31 The Security Council regularly confronts these issues and in some contexts, such as that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, has established important mechanisms to explore and track the economic and other interests that fuel conflict. Given the ubiquity of resource-driven wars and the suffering and exploitation that accompanies them, this should become a major focus for the UN in the immediate future.


(1) See, eg, D. Gold, Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005) (The UN is ‘singularly unsuited to preserving global order’ and ‘has utterly failed to achieve its founders’ goals: to halt aggression and assure world order…’.)

(2) S. Zifcak, United Nations Reform: Heading North or South? (London, New York: Routledge 2008).

(3) See generally G.C.A. Junne, ‘International Organizations in a Period of Globalization: New (Problems of) Legitimacy’, in J.-M. Coicaud and V. Heiskanen (eds), The Legitimacy of International Organizations (Tokyo, New York: United Nations University Press, 2001), 189.

(4) See generally B. Schaefer (ed.), ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). In reviewing this Heritage Foundation-sponsored critique of the UN Doug Bandow of the equally conservative Cato Institute wrote in the Washington Times on 29 December, 2009: ‘The last best hope of mankind. So the United Nations has been termed. If that's true, we should abandon hope.’

(5) Report of the High-Level Panel, UN Doc. A/59/565, 11.

(6) For a systematic and highly informative overview see Zifcak, n 2.

(7) The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Highlights of the National Commitments made at the Nuclear Security Summit, 13 April 2010, available at 〈http://www.whitehouse.gov/tacprof-press-office/highlights-national-commitments-made-nss〉.

(8) It has been estimated that some 60 per cent of the national commitments undertaken were honoured within a year of the first summit. See ‘Promises, Promises: A Progress Report One Year after the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit’, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 6 April 2011, available at 〈http://www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/columnists/fissile-materials-working-group/promises-promises-progress-report-one-year-af〉.

(9) B. Urquhart, Hammarskjöld (New York: Knopf, 1972), 48.

(10) See R. Jolly, L. Emmerij, and T.G. Weiss, UN Ideas that Changed the World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009) arguing that ideas frame policy agendas, mobilize new coalitions, and eventually become embedded in institutions.

(11) For an accurately depressing review of such endeavours see Zifcak, n 2, 38–57.

(12) ‘Obama's Remarks at the United Nations’, New York Times, 23 September 2010, available at 〈http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/us/politics/24obama-text.html〉.

(13) T.G. Weiss, ‘Fundamental UN Reform: A Non-starter or Not?’, 2 Global Policy (May 2011) 196, 199.

(14) Review of the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture, UN Docs A/64/868 and S/2010/393 (2010).

(15) ‘UN General Assembly President urges flexibility as UN debates stronger role in global governance’, UN News Centre, 28 June 2011.

(16) ibid, n 5, paras 274–8.

(17) GA Res. 60/1 (2005), para 155.

(18) G. Rosenthal, ‘Economic and Social Council’, in T.G. Weiss and S. Daws (eds), The Oxford Handbook on the United Nations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) (hereinafter ‘Oxford UN Handbook’), 136, 146. The ‘portal of entry’ metaphor comes from the Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations, UN Doc. A/59/354 (2004).

(19) See generally R. Wilde, ‘Trusteeship Council’, in Oxford UN Handbook, n 18, 149.

(20) J. Klabbers, ‘The Changing Image of International Organizations’, in Coicaud and Heiskanen, n 3, 221, at 245.

(21) R. Jackson, A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System (UNDP, 1969), iii.

(22) In 2010 the Funds Project published the results of an extensive survey of key actors, overwhelmingly from the global South, which showed some 70 per cent of respondents favouring a reduction in the number of UN agencies and the appointment of a ‘single overall global head of the UN development system’, and almost 80 per cent calling for a single development system representative at the country level. See The Future of the United Nations Development System: A Global Perceptions Survey (2010), available at 〈http://www.fundsproject.org/wp-content/uploads/funds-report-april2010.pdf〉.

(23) J. Fomerand and D. Dijkzeul, ‘Coordinating Economic and Social Affairs’, in Oxford UN Handbook, n 18, 561, 579.

(24) See generally ‘Reinvigorating the International Civil Service’, in T.G. Weiss, What's Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It (Cambridge: Polity, 2008), ch. 8.

(25) ibid.

(26) E.C. Luck, ‘Principal Organs’, in Oxford UN Handbook, n 18, 653: ‘The institution evolves and adapts to changing circumstances and needs more rapidly than it adopts structural reform. In the final analysis, that is the way the founders wanted it. In all probability, they would be pleased’, ibid, 670.

(27) J. Laurenti, ‘Financing’, in Oxford UN Handbook, n 18, 675.

(28) Delivering as One (New York, NY: United Nations 2006).

(29) Zifcak, n 2, 192.

(30) For an excellent critique see B. Crossette, ‘Media’ in Oxford UN Handbook, n 18, 275.

(31) Global Witness, Lessons UNlearned: How the UN and Member States Must do More to End Natural Resource-fuelled Conflicts (London: Global Witness, 2010), 42.