Global Policy Forum

Renewing the United Nations System - A Summary


By David Blackwell

World Federalists of Canada
June 1995

A review of Renewing the United Nations System by Erskine Childers1 and Brian Urquhart2, Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, Uppsala, Sweden, 1994, 213 pp.

The object of the present study has been "to analyse the present state of the UN system and to suggest changes and reforms which might allow it to function in a more systematic and effective manner." The study coincides with attention to reform of the overall UN system during the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations in 1995. It looks at the system as it currently is and suggests changes which might gradually transform it "into the effective mechanism of a future world community." The primary focus of attention is on the areas of economic and social cooperation -- addressing "the root causes of instability, violence and insecurity" in the world.

The Introduction recalls how the end of the Cold War led to expectations of a UN renaissance. But this hope has not been realized. Instead, the end of the Cold War has unleashed long ignored political, ethnic, economic and social tensions. The result has been a UN system in greater demand than ever before and often stretched to the limits of its capacity. Modern communications have spread the inspiring concepts of civil, political, economic, and social human rights across the globe, as well as awareness of the gaps between the "haves" and the "have-nots." Adequate policies to address global poverty and deprivation do not exist. Global population is burgeoning and unemployment is growing rapidly. Food security for much of the world is becoming increasingly problematic. Environmental degradation is occurring everywhere and the massive effort needed to avert a "catastrophic breakdown of the planet's ecosystems" has not been forthcoming.

Confidence in the concept of the Western nation-state and its democratic processes is beginning to erode in face of the complexities of managing urbanized consumer societies, demands for more local and provincial autonomy, and its attempted application as a model to wholly different cultures. The unregulated movement of capital around the world is causing national and international financial instability. State frontiers recognized by the UN are being challenged in pursuit of ethnic aspirations. Arms are readily available for use in ethnic conflicts. Socio-economic processes operating beyond any one state's control still await adequate multilateral management. At a minimum, common rules are needed for a market economy to function effectively

Abridgements of national sovereignty are inevitably occurring in the face of commonly recognized needs and inevitabilities, resulting, for example, from transnational economic forces and technology. At the same time, the UN is in a dilemma: needing to respect the sovereignty of the state and to serve as well as the instrument of transnational thinking and cooperation.

The pressures of development, consumerist expectations, and population growth in today's world have intensified competition for natural resources and taken on a North-South dimension. Human migration and displacement due to ecological, economic and political factors have increased throughout the post-Cold War world. Development along the lines of the urbanization model of the North is producing vast cities in the poor countries; and there is no precedent for their management.

Thus, the UN system is operating in a world of much greater complexity and danger than when the UN was founded. In order to tackle the range of urgent problems now demanding coherent attention, the UN's machinery and capacity must be streamlined and strengthened.

Chapter Two describes and looks at the UN system as it now exists. The "system" is less organizationally complex than the public service machinery of even modestly sized countries. The UN civil service staff employed world-wide for all UN operations (51,000-52,000, of which nearly half are employed from extra-budgetary funds) is smaller than the civil service of the state of Wyoming; that of the UN Secretariat world-wide (a little over 9,000) less than the City of Winnipeg's. The world-wide expenditure of the UN, including both regularly assessed and voluntarily contributed budgets, and covering peace-keeping and humanitarian relief, is about $10.5 billion a year -- less than the British Government's annual expenditure on Public Administration and Police. The New York Times consumes more paper in one Sunday edition than the United Nations consumes in a year.

Lack of coordination between the General Assembly and other UN governing organs (Economic and Social Council, Security Council, etc.), on the one hand, and the UN specialized agencies (ILO, FAO, UNESCO, WHO, etc.), on the other, is evident in that representatives of the same national government act inconsistently in the different entities. As well, decisions of the specialized agencies' governing bodies (comprising of national governments' representatives) cannot be altered by a UN governing organ such as the Secretariat. The UN lacks an intergovernmental assembly or council to coordinate the UN system as a whole. An Administrative Committee on Coordination, chaired by the Secretary-General, has no powers of enforcement and is quite inadequate to the task. Ideally, there should be a constitutional change giving the Secretary-General direct authority over the specialized agencies. Realistically, the best to aim for at this time would be non-constitutional improvements to the system -- guided by courage and determination to address major weaknesses and including: mobilization of genuinely system-minded UN staff; provision by member states of clear, uniform, and system-wide policy instructions to all UN governmental delegations; and establishment of an intergovernmental body to make the UN more accountable as a system.

The many attempts at UN reform across the years have suffered from failures: failure to implement measures; negotiated compromises that are inadequate and subsequently difficult to undo; moving boxes on organizational charts without attention to ensuring vital lines of communication and coordination; poor choices of senior UN personnel by national governments; lack of clear job descriptions; inadequate staff training; assigning tasks and funding to institutions on grounds of favouritism rather than appropriateness; and confusion over the meaning of the term "coordination."

Chapter Three looks back at the development of the UN as an aid to understanding why the UN system has not operated as well as it might have. The founders of the UN foresaw the problems of coordinating the UN system evident today and designed measures to address them that are still valid. However, these measures were never implemented. Also, it was originally accepted that the specialized agencies would have their separate legal existence and secretariats -- an important rationale being that if the UN went the way of the League of Nations there would be greater likelihood of saving international collaboration on specialized and technical matters. Today the degree of separateness of the specialized agencies is the UN system's greatest weakness. At the same time the UN Charter provides significant authority to counter centrifugal tendencies. Article 58 makes provision for coordination of policy in the system emanating from the General Assembly and Article 63 for ECOSOC being the working body for coordination of agencies' activities. Article 17 (again theoretically) gives the General Assembly a commanding role in the financial affairs of the agencies. An original intention of the UN founders to house the headquarters of the main UN organs (except the International Court) and those of the specialized agencies in one location also evaporated. The advantages of a single location would likely include: furthering day-to-day personal contact; eventually consolidating the member government representatives in single government missions, thus promoting intra-governmental coordination and coherence vis-a-vis the UN; facilitating policy coordination between regional groups of governments; improving senior personnel selection and management; improving the functioning of the Administrative Committee on Coordination; reducing duplication costs; and facilitating appropriate decentralization of operations to regional, subregional and country levels. The idea of a single UN headquarters location needs to be pursued as a priority.

Chapter Four examines needed UN reform in the context of bridging the divide between wealthy and poor countries and ensuring sustainable development. The redressing of poverty was one of the main objectives of the UN in 1945. Today the "economic and social advancement of all peoples" is at an impasse as evident in the inequities between North and South. The present situation represents an increasing threat to peace and security.

The root causes that have rendered the UN unable to solve problems it was originally designed to solve are: no coherent macro-economic strategy and policy for the world as a whole either exists or is under discussion; there is deep disjuncture between the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions; an inefficient scattering of effort at both the global and the regional and country levels; and the array of separate development funds and programmes lacks logic and coherence. The major industrial powers contend that macro-economic policy belongs with IMF, the World Bank and GATT, all of which they control, and not to the UN's principal organs. However, the UN Charter provides for the UN, in the form of the Economic and Social Council, being the centrepiece for global economic policy. If the necessary level of trust between the rich industrialized and the poor non-industrialized countries were present, issues of macro-economic policy could be addressed through ECOSOC.

A consultative board is required to provide member governments and secretariats with critical appraisals and recommendations to improve the working of the UN system. Board members should be drawn from the Bureau of ECOSOC and from the executive governing bodies of the major agencies. Such a board could make a major contribution to system-wide reform.

Without reempowering the UN under Article 58 of the Charter to formulate global macro-economic policies, the UN can do little to reverse "the current trend towards economic and social chaos." This reempowering has to be a responsibility of the General Assembly. There is also a need for a mechanism to monitor the fulfillment of the Assembly's responsibilities under Article 58.

Reciprocal representation between the UN and its specialized agencies is largely dysfunctional. That between the UN and the World Bank and IMF has collapsed. The present practice in which ministers in the same sector meet at the site of the pertinent specialized agency needs to be replaced by high-level theme meetings of ECOSOC attended by member government ministers of the relevant sectors (agriculture, finance, etc.) and agency heads. The Administrative Committee on Coordination needs enhanced status: reporting directly to the General Assembly instead of to ECOSOC.

The UN Secretariat is not well organized to support the leadership of the Secretary-General in recommending sound macro-economic policy options to governments. Two important reasons for this are the status given to the Bretton Woods institutions and the mediocrity of Secretariat personnel nominated by national governments. An "inchoate mass of unimpressive documents" is produced as a result.

It is essential that the Secretary-General have a top-calibre economic advisor to coordinate the resources of both the Secretariat and the rest of the UN system to assemble economic proposals and ensure their adequate consideration. A far-sighted 1974 proposal for the appointment of a Director-General for Development and International Economic Cooperation and a high-level integrating advisory committee never came to fruition due mainly to opposition from industrial powers.

In 1992 the UN Secretary-General (Boutros-Ghali) introduced promising initiatives. He established a Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development to bring under one line of responsibility and coordination the Secretariat services in economic and social affairs, as well as to develop cooperation with non-governmental organizations, the academic community, and the private commercial sector. However, the staff allocation is likely insufficient for the array of tasks involved. Nor does the new department have coordinating responsibility for a number of key UN economic entities. Also, its head is junior in rank to the heads of the specialized agencies.

The inadequate quality of professional staffing is another important cause of the UN's lack of leadership in global economic policy. The issues of authoritative intellectual leadership and poor salaries (compared to the Bretton Woods institutions, for instance) must be addressed. An interim remedy could be realized if UN agencies seconded highly qualified staff to the UN Secretariat. The serious disjunctures between the UN headquarters and UN economic and social units located elsewhere must also be addressed. Macro-economic global problems and ecological issues must be tackled in a more integrtaed way.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- the "special specialized agencies" -- are generally seen as the most controversial of the multilateral organizations. Wide discrepancies exist between UN principles and the operations of the World Bank and IMF. Under its Special Agreement with the UN, the Bank eschews external coordination, does not pledge provision of regular information to the UN, limits UN attendance at its meetings, and nullifies UN involvement in its budgets. Much the same applies to IMF's Special Agreement.

The World Bank's essential structure as a bank borrowing on commercial markets (except for IDA) rules out the possibility of compliance with the principles, processes and intended coordinating role of the UN. The Bank's major members have not treated it as the prime instrument for multilateral investment. Nor do it and the IMF effectively address developing country indebtedness. Many of the World Bank's projects have been failures and the UN Secretary-General is not invited to meetings. Coordination between the World Bank and the UN could be improved if the Bank were to implement its own Articles of Agreement with the UN and create in each region a council "representative of the entire area" that met regularly with a single regional governing body for UN-system operational work. There is an urgent need for the UN to be equipped with its own non-commercial bank that could respond to the real needs of developing countries.

The UN-IMF relationship is significantly more problematic than the UN-World Bank one. IMF "structural adjustment" has undone painstaking UN work helping build public health, educational, and other infrastructure. The IMF, more than the World Bank, was held out as a multilateral instrument of coherent macro-economic policies designed to achieve the Charter's economic and social goals -- specifically, to promote monetary cooperation, to expand international trade, to further exchange rate stability, to avoid competing currency depreciations, to promote a multilateral payments system, and to assist member countries to correct balance of payments problems, with minimum negative economic impact. All semblance of this role has long since disappeared. Instead, IMF has been characterized as "a somewhat harsh and over-zealous policeman for the poor nations" under G-7 control.

A strong, open, and non-discriminatory trading system is needed to strengthen the capacity of all countries, including the poorer, to access major markets and prevent unilateral retaliatory measures. A properly constituted International Trade Organization is needed to prevent competing regional trade blocks and resolve trade disputes equitably. The 1994 Uruguay Round Trade Agreement may offer little trading promise for the poorer countries. It is appropriate to envisage the global strategies for the work of the IMO and WTO being negotiated and agreed on at the UN. Equitable macro-economic strategies for the globe have been formulated at neither the UN nor IMF. Instead, the global economy "has proceeded inexorably downhill." Pressures for IMF reform are, however, occurring. Reform of the three "missing" specialized agencies is an urgent requirement, including the creation of an equitably governed low-interest lending facility, monetary fund, and world trade organization, following policies established by the General Assembly, with direction from the Economic and Social Council.

Chapter Five examines the working of assistance to developing countries within the UN system. Poverty is the most complex of human enemies. It rebuffs narrow sectoral solutions, devours inappropriate development programs, feeds on protectionism that prevents its victims from earning their way through trade, and is not helped by the diversion of development funds into the overheads of adversaries competing against each other. The modest successes of the UN system to date in fighting poverty are testimony to how much more could be done if organizational obstacles were removed. A tangle of mechanisms is responsible for delivering development aid ($3.4 billion in 1991). Due to high interest rates developing countries have on average been transferring more capital back to the North and to the UN system over the years than they have been receiving. Key problems include developing countries not having the needed help in coordinating development assistance going to them due to: the multiplicity of separate UN authorities involved; the related administrative burden placed on developing countries; pressures related to raising voluntary funds; inadequate attention to quality personnel appointments; operational activities for development too centralized at headquarters' levels; headquarters' level fracturing parallelled at the regional and country operational levels; and developing countries' lack of access to multidisciplinary advice from the UN.

The maintenance of five separate UN funds to disperse 62 cents per capita among four billion people is not justified. Disjunctures in UN development programming are compounded by individual governments allocating nearly $1 billion a year to over a dozen agencies and other elements in the UN system for overlapping and duplicating work. The policies and conditionalities of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund frequently run counter to the development work of other UN entities. Both intergovernmental oversight machinery and Secretariat-level overall management of the system are ineffective.

The system of voluntary financing has generated more compromises of basic UN principles in the area of development activities than anything else and bears reexamination. Some of the adverse effects of voluntary funding are unilaterally imposed conditionalities -- for instance, surrounding personnel appointments, program disruption, waste, and inefficient use of human resources due to funding uncertainties, and inequities in burden sharing among the wealthy industrialized countries.

The operational activities of the system must be brought back fully under the guiding principles of the UN Charter. There should be only one UN systems office in any developing country. Each should be headed by a very high calibre United Nations Coordinator without special attachments to a particular development entity or program and appointed by the Secretary-General. Regional Commissions need to be converted into regional research and operational-support areas of the whole UN system and be incorporated in reorganized commissions. At the global level all UN development funds need to be brought under the working responsibility of a Deputy Secretary-General and be consoliodated in a single UN development authority. Uniform policy must prevail.

Chapter Six examines the UN's machinery for protecting human rights. The negotiation and adoption by 51 to 180 states of the nearly 70 instruments of the International Bill of Human Rights alone justify the UN's existence. The scale of the UN's work in this area has, however, put its machinery under heavy strain. Greater system coherence is needed. The members of the UN are divided on key issues of human rights. The South sees the North's stress on civil and political rights as insufficiently emphasizing economic, social, and cultural rights. Human rights violations are due to a number of factors, including the collapse of societies on which nation-state structures have been imposed from the outside, the erosion of the centralist nation state which encourages more self-determination for minorities, cultural-ethnic tensions released by decolonization and aggravated by forced cohabitation within former imperial boundaries, and socio-economic conditions. One in 18 people is a member of an indigenous group living inside a nation state. The UN's task in the area of human rights is complicated by the UN itself being founded on the twin premises of the sovereign independence of states and the sacrosanct nature of national boundaries.

A new kind of forum -- perhaps named the UN Council on Diversity, Representation and Governance -- at a level above the Human Rights Commission, is needed to devise sensitive options for representation and governance in relation to specific situations and to the growing human rights issues currently confronting the world. The decision of the General Assembly in 1993 to create a high-level UN Commission for Human Rights is strongly supported. The person heading it should be at the next level to the Secretary-General and be able to command the confidence of the UN membership as a whole. High degrees of public accountability and transparency will be needed. He or she must have adequate human and other resources to carry out the task. Problems of coherence in the present human rights machinery need addressing. There is need to establish an International Human Rights Court under the World Court and an adequate UN research capability. Cooperation with the NGO community in the area of human rights greatly needs improving. A mechanism is needed for independently monitoring compliance of the UN system itself with its human rights mandates, including the areas of development and UN operations employing force.

Chapter Seven examines the UN system's humanitarian emergency machinery, with special reference to unresolved major and increasing problem areas. An 1991 General Assembly resolution to improve coordination of UN emergency relief was followed by the appointment of an Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs to head a Department of Humanitarian Affairs -- that is, at the same level or lower than the heads of specialized agencies involved in humanitarian relief operations. The Secretary-General does not have the time to referee the intra-UN turf wars. Coordination with NGOs for purposes of emergency relief is also losing out due to overlapping jurisdictions within the UN. Under the present modus operandi the decentralization needed for effective and efficient emergency relief delivery is not possible. The present Secretary-General's decision to have all the Secretariat departments for political, security and peace affairs, for humanitarian emergencies and human rights, for economic, social, development and international affairs, and for administration and management report directly to him, instead of through Deputy Secretary-Generals, is unworkable. Attention needs to be given (again) to the "extremely uneven quality" of the staff involved in UN humanitarian emergency operations -- a situation due largely to lobbying by donors and diplomats. Remediation must include establishing stringent guidelines for the recruitment of personnel. To address the issue of adequate protection of emergency relief personnel in the field, a distinctive UN Humanitarian Security Police needs to be established.

Chapter Eight examines the reform needs of the machinery of the UN proper (excepting the specialized agencies to which similar considerations in many cases apply). There is too much facile (and often hypocritical) criticism of the UN -- the great bulk of it emanating from industrial countries. What the UN needs is more constructive and knowledgeable criticism of its real problems. The requests for reports from the UN must become disciplined. Delegates need access to complete packages of software that provide past reports on the resolutions and issues at hand and be able to see draft resolutions on their computer screens. As a pilot project member states should have the Secretariat write reports "in the ordinary language of human beings." The system of one country one vote in the General Assembly should stay as is under present circumstances. Deliberation and negotiation throughout the UN system is hampered by serious imbalance in the representational and negotiating capacities of the Northern and Southern member states and needs attending to. The gender equality pledged in the Charter is not reflected in the composition of the UN missions and delegations. The assumption that in gender equality the industrial North is well ahead of the South is not born out in the UN's intergovernmental machinery and sexual stereotyping is still visible in the gender distribution in Assembly Committees. Lobbying by UN civil servants of government delegates needs to cease and the independence of both entities be reestablished.

If the functioning of the General Assembly is to improve, the specifics and causes of concerns about the size of the Assembly's annual agenda and the repetitiveness of agenda items need clarifying. Failure to allow sufficient time for their business has held back reforms of both ECOSOC's and the Assembly's machinery. Proper management systems to coordinate the work of the specialized agencies could greatly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the GA and ECOSOC. The operation of General Assembly committees should provide regular times to pose questions directly to the Secretary-General as a built-in feature. Headquarters' responsibility should be limited to overall global interregional policy and programming, plus aggregate oversight and accountability, i.e. to responsibility for the global dimension only. Proper decentralization of operational development activities is needed to effect this. Reform of the functioning of the UN system requires treating integrally through the UN intergovernmental machinery the entire flow of business. For purposes of member government awareness, an internationally respresentative team of professionals should identify the business flow problems of the UN system and provide suggestions to resolve them. The present use of highly compressed calendars for the sessions of UN bodies is economically inefficient. The failure of the member states to demonstrate coordinated and coherent national policies towards the UN and the specialized agencies requires collective examination.

Chapter Nine examines the financing and related management of the UN system. Both are in serious need of attention. In 1992 the UN's regular budget was $1.18 billion (U.S.) and estimated world-wide expenditure through the UN system was $10.5 billion (three and a half times less than U.K. citizens spend on alcoholic beverages a year or 0.0007 percent of the GDP of 24 industrial countries). $10.5 billion represents an expenditure of $1.90 per human being alive in 1992 compared to $150 per human being spent on military expenditures. That thirty-nine percent of the total was for emergency work in peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance attests to the failure of the present system to address the root causes of problems effectively -- for instance, UNHCR being responsible for about 1 million refugees in 1951 and in 1992 for some 19 million, plus another 25 million displaced persons. Problems with the UN system's budgets include lack of transparency due to the regular assessed budgets usually not being expressed in annual terms and the failure of member governments to implement an original commitment to achieve a UN-system consolidated budget. The UN Secretary-General and other executive heads are deficient in not publicly rebutting facile and hypocritical allegations about UN finances and management. The volume of financial abuse in the UN pales beside that of different levels of member state governments world-wide.

The UN's Internal Audit Division is severely understaffed (having a ratio of auditors to total staff barely one-third the ratio in the U.S. government). The UN's ability to pursue those charged with misuse of UN funds through national jurisdictions needs strengthening. Conflict of interest rules need drawing up (e.g. a manager in a UN assistance fund should be prohibited for five years from taking a position in an institution that has received assistance from the fund).

In mid-1993 unpaid assessments by member governments had accumulated to $2.23 billion and only 47 member states had fully paid their regular budget assessments. The U.S. owed $834 million (two-thirds) and the Russian Federation $598 million. The greater New York region gains over $900 million a year in net income from the UN's presence. The payment of regular assessments is obligatory in international law. The U.S share of the regular budget in 1993 was $310 million. Assessments for both the regular UN budget and peacekeeping operations have their own formulae. The Russian Federation owed about half of the unpaid peacekeeping assessments in arrears. The UN's recurring risk of bankcruptcy is due not to mismanagement of funds but to the deliberate non-payment of assessments by a few member states. Assessments must be paid in $U.S.. Implementing the recommendations of a 1993 report on UN financing would help ensure stable financing of the UN at at least present levels. The formula of assessment of contributions on relative capacity to pay as agreed on in 1945 needs firm adherence to by UN member states. The UN's unhealthy financial dependence on the U.S. should be reduced (though circles in the U.S. could see this as reducing U.S. influence). A 10-12 percent ceiling on UN budget contributions by a single member state is of key importance to the health and stability of the UN.

Ways of raising additional funds for the UN include levies on arms sales, transnational currency transactions, international trade (or sectors of it, e.g. polluting materials, mineral raw commodities), and international air or sea travel, an annual "United Nations Communications Day" with levies on all postage charges and telephone calls accruing to the UN, and an annual UN lottery. Any such additional funding must be transparently accountable to citizens. The increasingly needed reorganization of the UN Secretariat includes establishing a position at the level of Deputy Secretary-General responsible for administration and management.

Chapter Ten addresses the quality of the UN civil service. There has been a decline in the quality and morale of the UN civil service for many years for which member state governments bear the major responsibility. Practices have continually violated Charter provisions on the independence of the UN civil service. A candidate for the post of Secretary-General must be acceptable to the five permanent members of the Security Council. A "gentleman's agreement" gives the five permanent members plus (now) two other economically strong member states the five top Secretariat posts below the Secretary-General and Secretaries-General are expected to accept the nominations of these countries for these posts. Remedies (that apply also to the specialized agencies) include governments' abiding by their pledge under Charter Article 100.2 and using a geographically and gender balanced roster of thoroughly screened candidates of top quality and integrity as the main basis for recruitment. Most terms of office, including the Secretary-General's, are open-ended and thus leave incumbents seeking reappointment open to political pressures. Top quality UN personnel leadership is essential to remedying matters. The present procedures for appointing the system's executive heads would not be tolerated in most countries for any important public or private organization.

Pay freezes have meant inability to attract high-quality professionals to the UN due to better renumeration (and job satisfaction) elsewhere. Pay is much higher in the Bretton Woods institutions than elsewhere in the UN system. "A cynicism virtually unknown in the early days of the United Nations pervades the working environment." Non-management employees have little protection from managerial cliques. Restoring the quality and morale of the UN civil service must start with a change in the attitude of member state governments. There needs to be an independent audit of the competence and need for current officials at mid-professional and higher levels; and member governments should share the costs of warranted terminations. There is a need for a common-system UN Staff Training College and for a proper career development program. Recertification should be required for permanent staff every 7-10 years.

That the UN civil service is dominated by nationals of developing countries is a myth. The Secretariat "is in standing violation of the Charter in abjectly failing" to be an equal opportunity employer as to gender. (The same applies to most other parts of the UN system). There is a need to publish job descriptions before filling them as a deterrence to poor choice and member-government pressure. All UN staff must have "the requisite measure of protection from imperious behaviour by poorly-chosen supervisors."

Chapter Eleven examines citizenry involvement in the UN. "We the peoples" introduction to the Charter is followed by the "swiftest delegation of authority in the history of constitutions" ("Accordingly, our respective governments ... have agreed ... ."). The Charter provides for ECOSOC consultation with NGO's on matters pertaining to ECOSOC competence and about a thousand NGOs have official consultative status. However, the Charter makes no provision for consultation with the General Assembly or Security Council. A number of the specialized agencies have NGO links. Certain governments include NGO representatives or parliamentarians in their delegations. But no political forum exists for the world's peoples in the UN system. UN global conferences have provided better entry points for NGO's. A new dynamic between the UN system and "the peoples of the United Nations" has been stimulated by: recognition by NGOs of the importance of multilateral machinery in addressing environmental and economic issues; the decision of the expanding human rights NGO community to assert itself in relevant UN bodies; NGO involvement in humanitarian relief and UN recognition of the importance of this; the mobilization of the international women's movement; and increasing involvement by the world parliamentary community. Underlying such developments are the expansion of the democratic idea, growing popular concern for human rights, and an increasing sense of solidarity among young people globally brought about by entertainment.

Inadequate UN public information budgets have reinforced popular unawareness of the UN. The established media tend to view the work of the UN as unworthy of attention except when it pertains to high profile events. An informed citizenry is needed to ensure governments' support of UN-related work. The growth and disparity of the NGO community in recent years necessitate improved strategies for carrying out its work more effectively and ensuring better UN access and representation.

The time has come to reexamine the idea of a peoples' world assembly as proposed by Ernest Bevin in 1945. A peoples' assembly must: be democratic; provide for citizens of member countries to have a specific organ in the UN; have a genuinely useful role in the UN's intergovernmental process; have legal status as a UN body; have a regular and adequate budget; and adopt its own program of work. The most impressive model available to date both in terms of evolution and functions is the European Parliament (which has itself endorsed the idea of a UN Parliamentary Assembly). For there to be a fully global assembly of workable size, governments of very populous countries may have to agree to a sliding scale requiring increasing numbers of citizens for each additional representative. The proportional representation method of elections would strengthen the assembly's democratic base. Examining and identifying means of additional finance for the UN could be an early priority for an assembly.

Chapter Twelve overviews the dire need today for reform of the UN system. The set of institutions forming the UN is the only one addressing the problems and needs of humankind as a whole. The fundamental characteristics of these problems demand attention. Their world-wide causes and effects cannot be resolved by individual or even regional groupings of states. They have multiple socio-economic and political causes and effects that free market forces alone cannot resolve. Failure to adequately address disparities between the industrialized and developing countries and the pressures on natural resources has meant relentlesly increasing human and financial costs. The root causes of these problems can be effectively tackled only by internationally agreed and implemented policies that provide "win-win" solutions.

By the beginning of the 1980's, with the aid of an almost unbroken series of megaconferences, the international community had completed the first ever comprehensive data on the globe's human and environmental condition. The holistic character of problems was brought into relief and with it the need to build a true global partnership to resolve them. But effective action has failed to materialize. The basic instrument for such action is in place in the form of the UN system -- a system which, however, needs much updating and strengthening.

Chapter Thirteen lists detailed recommendations for UN reform. These derive from the needs analysis presented in this study and extend the recommendations already identified. Most of these recommendations can be implemented without amending the Charter or the constitutions of the specialized agencies, although the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly under Article 22 would subsequently entail a Charter amendment.

1 Erskine Childers (Ireland) retired in 1989 as Senior Advisor to the UN Director-General for Development and International Economic Cooperation after 22 years as a UN civil servant. He has worked with most of the organizations of the UN system at all levels and in all regions.

2 Brian Urquhart served in the United Nations Secretariat from 1945 until his retirement in 1986. He worked closely with five Secretaries-General and was Under Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs from 1974 to 1986. He has authored several books and is currently Scholar-in-Residence in the International Affairs Program at the Ford Foundation.

More Information on UN Reform
Back to Introduction on UN Reform


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C ß 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.