A Commentary on
"Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform"

A policy brief prepared by the South Centre at the request of the Group of 77



I. Introduction

II. The Challenge Facing the United Nations

III. What Role for the United Nations? Remembering the basics

IV. Comments on some of the specific proposals advanced in the Report

V. By way of a conclusion

Annex: Principles on UN reform


I. Introduction

The UN Secretary-General’s report "Renewing the United Nations: A Programme of Reform" (UN document A/51/950, referred to as the Report in the text below) represents a significant contribution to modernizing the organization and improving its functioning. It is also a welcome attempt to help overcome the chronic institutional crisis and regain a degree of normalcy for the United Nations.

It is important to appreciate that the UN "reform" process so far has been largely driven by the pursuit on the part of a few developed countries of a clear objective and strategy. In pressing for reforms, their underlying aim has been to downsize the UN and modify its mandate and priorities to conform with their own preferred view of the UN’s roles and future course. This strategic objective has been backed up by a raft of specific proposals. Moreover, a steady financial tourniquet has been applied to the organization, jeopardizing its functioning and generating uncertainty and an atmosphere of siege.

The Report appears on the whole to have been successful in addressing the views emanating from key countries in the North. It was promptly acclaimed and given support by the developed countries. The developing countries, on the other hand, while generally welcoming the Report, were disappointed that the reform package did not always appear to take sufficient heed of their views, sensitivities and concerns.

In view of the considerable pressure being exerted to adopt the Report’s contents as a package without adequate opportunity for questioning, debate or negotiations, developing countries began to work out a common position which while aiming to be constructive would also pinpoint those specific measures which they found objectionable. In this context, the Group of 77 approved a set of general principles on UN reform at its ministerial meeting in September 1997.

This commentary has been prepared by the South Centre at the request of the Group of 77 in order to assist their continuing efforts to elaborate a detailed group position. It articulates, among other things, some of the underlying concerns of the countries of the South which are not always explicit in their submissions but which inspire and motivate their general and specific reactions to the evolving pattern of change in the UN and to the proposed reforms. It also proffers observations on some of the specific reform proposals in the Report.


II. The Challenge Facing the United Nations

As the millennium approaches the basic political and institutional challenges for the organization can be summed up as follows:

    1. Is the United Nations to be excluded for all practical purposes from having a significant voice and role in matters which are critical for the present and the future of humanity, in particular for the countries and peoples of the South? And is it to be increasingly transformed into an instrument virtually controlled by the most powerful nations to promote their geopolitical and economic interests, and the corresponding global regimes and disciplines?, or
    2. Is the UN to be properly mandated, financed and equipped to pursue as a democratic, pluralistic organization, the multiple complex tasks enshrined in its Charter, working to offset the mounting unilateralism inherent in the current highly asymmetrical world order? And should the organization contribute creatively to defining, shaping, and managing a world order which both resolves longstanding problems and meets the new challenges faced by the international community?

The real issue at stake, therefore, is whether the UN should be surrendered pragmatically to the economic and political realities of the moment, or whether its democratic inspiration and comprehensive mandate should be defended against all the odds. This is ultimately a challenge to its broader membership, and especially the developing countries who are the most affected and concerned by the current trends, and who, as a group, represent the overwhelming majority of humankind.


III. What Role for the United Nations? Remembering the basics

The general thrust of the Report can be criticized for several of its implicit and explicit policy assumptions especially in its introductory part, and their potential implications, under present power relations, for the future role and course of the UN. Owing to their importance and the fact that they are at the root of the concern felt by the developing countries regarding the possible implications of the proposed reforms of the UN, these assumptions need to be highlighted.

A. The "end of the road" or "the best of all possible worlds". The Report seems to assume or imply that the world has changed radically and irrevocably for the better, such that no fundamental problems now beset and divide the international community. In other words, North-South differences and controversies have been overcome, and there is full consensus on policy concerning global arrangements and the policies to sustain them. This view is common in many, mostly Northern pronouncements and is essentially an ideological and self-serving one. Two underlying assumptions that accompany it have particularly significant implications for the future mission, focus and priorities of the UN and the content of its work.

It is clear from their various reactions that, on the whole, developing countries do not subscribe to this vision. Among other things:

B. "Doing what it does better than others" or marginalizing the UN from economic matters. According to the Report, the UN should focus on those activities or aspects of activities "that it does better than others". This comparative advantage argument is often used to suggest that the UN should claim no major role concerning vital aspects of the functioning of the global economy. The implication is that, to the extent that these matters are to be dealt with multilaterally, they should be left to other institutions and mechanisms which, it is claimed, perform these functions better. These, one assumes, are the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, and the purely North mechanisms such as the Group of 7 and the OECD. In these institutions, the countries of the North are in full control and, in the case of Bretton Woods and WTO where the developing countries also take part, there is little or no effective dissent or questioning of the existing arrangements, and collective action by the South is wholly absent or virtually so. It can therefore be inferred that the UN is to be further distanced from involvement in some of the main issues on the global economic and indeed political agenda. While such a policy may be an attempt to accommodate to the current realities of economic and political power, it is clearly contrary to the UN Charter and to the very purpose and inspiration of the organization.

C. Providing UN goods and services. A theme which crops up in the Report is that the UN is a service organization in the business of selling its products and services in the global market place of policy and public opinion. While it is agreed that promoting the image and work of the UN is of signal importance, the pursuit of a market-based strategy, if taken to its logical conclusion, would lead to a situation where only those products and activities that can be measured (for example, operational areas), or that "sell well" or "can be sold" will be undertaken. Where no consensus can be found and there is a fundamental political controversy, the implication is that the UN will cater to the needs or wishes of those who are able to pay the most, which by definition will be those powerful few countries with global influence. Vital issues and concerns which do not "sell well" because those with resources are not interested in "buying", as they do not wish to see UN involvement in such matters, will thus become excluded from the UN’s range of activities. Adopting the currently popular imagery and terminology appropriate to the world of business could lead to an erosion of the UN’s fundamental purpose and agenda.

D. Managing the South or asymmetrical loss of sovereignty. Among the reforms proposed are measures to strengthen the institutional arrangements to deal with complex humanitarian emergencies and human rights. This reflects the growing pressures by some countries in the North for the UN to deal primarily with social and political crises in the South and to assume a greater role and responsibility vis-à-vis "failing" or "misbehaving" states of the South, including shaping their internal governance and political structures. The potential erosion of the sovereignty of some member states by initiatives carried out under the banner of the UN (itself increasingly subject to the influence of a few member countries whose "sovereign" actions remain for all practical purposes beyond criticism), highlights the growing asymmetry within the organization. Moreover, at the behest of the major powers, crucial aspects of global affairs (which often are among the root causes of the crises and chronic problems affecting different parts of the world) and which involve the policies, actions and behaviour of these countries of the North are kept beyond the effective purview of the UN. The organization and the Charter thus risk being bent to accommodate the current realities of power and wealth, in effect introducing a tiered membership reflecting these realities. It can hardly be in the interests of humanity that the UN be "geared up" to promote democracy in the South but make little or no effort to achieve the same at the international level with respect to the management of global affairs, and indeed the operations of the UN itself.

E. Tailoring the UN agenda and work to the financial resources available or vice versa? Another implicit premise, namely that the agenda, work mandates and capabilities of the organization must be tailored according to the resources made available by member states is in principle hardly objectionable. In practice, however, it exposes the UN to the risk of unilateral imposition of limits on its work by one or a few of the most powerful member states. Yet, today’s global economy with its vast wealth is certainly capable of sustaining global organizations and mechanisms with adequate and guaranteed funding so that they can fulfil their collectively agreed tasks and functions in an atmosphere of normalcy rather than crisis. Though it may be necessary for the organization to live with some of the current financial constraints, securing adequate and expanding funding for the agreed tasks at hand and in order to meet the requirements of an expanding and increasingly complex multilateral agenda should remain a priority and a guiding objective for the UN.

The above issues are of substantial importance for the nature and direction of the United Nations. In what is in effect a highly uneven playing field, particularly in the currently unipolar world, special safeguards and checks and balances need to be instituted and continuing efforts made to enable the organization to avoid being dominated through money and power and to prevent the marginalization of the great majority of its membership. Otherwise, the basic mandates and intended characteristics embodied in the Charter are likely to be lost.


IV. Comments on some of the specific proposals advanced in the Report

Attention was drawn to policy matters above because these are often forgotten when institutional details are discussed or go unrecognized when couched in the normal language of diplomatic discourse. This policy framework is therefore a necessary point of reference for the comments below on certain of the proposals made in the Report. These comments are particularly intended for those familiar with the Report, and preferably should be read in conjunction with the Report, whose structure and headings they broadly follow. The commentary does not dwell on issues relating to legislative precedent, resolutions, decisions or rules of procedure, nor does it address such issues as which of the reform measures and proposals need to be approved by the General Assembly or which are within the prerogative of the Secretary-General to undertake.

A word of caution may be appropriate before commenting on the specific proposals made in the Report. The Report conveys the impression that the "new" UN emerging from the proposed reforms will be much improved and hence more successful than the present UN. This may have some advantage for purposes of marketing the Report, especially to a sceptical public in countries conditioned to think of the UN as the source of little that is good. Nevertheless, this may give rise to excessive expectations from the reforms and suggest that the obstacles to improved institutional performance have been completely removed.

Furthermore, raising expectations regarding the capacity of the reforms to totally transform the situation may place an excessive burden of responsibility on the Secretary-General and his staff. For to achieve greatly improved performance and delivery in the period to come will remain very difficult, when de facto the Secretary-General and staff are likely to continue to be under-financed and ill-equipped to act. Moreover, as a large part of the responsibility for the state of the organization lies wholly with governments, many problems are not likely to be resolved by institutional and management measures alone.

It is therefore important to bear in mind the fact that the future organization will not necessarily be dramatically different or improved. Moreover, global parliamentary diplomacy is by nature complex and has certain inbuilt "inefficiencies". For example, years of research, thinking and debate may take place before a concept, policy or institution takes a mature shape. While institutional and management reforms can contribute to a more efficient conduct of business, they do not prevent the emergence of political and other substantive issues or controversies which can affect the orderliness of the work and functioning of the organization.


Strengthening leadership capacity in the Secretariat

The various measures proposed in the Report for strengthening the Secretary-General’s role and leadership capacity are to be welcomed. Several issues, however, need to be raised.

1. Senior Management Group. The establishment of a Senior Management Group will clearly bolster the capacity of the Secretary-General to manage the organization. However, the Secretary-General will need to take special precautions, and to assure the UN membership, that such a Group will not become an internal mechanism which gives added influence over the work of the Secretariat, and thus of the organization, to those few countries who by virtue of their power have staked a claim to a permanent right to certain key posts in the Secretariat for their nationals. The necessary steps should therefore be taken to ensure that the incumbents of posts that would be included in the Senior Management Group would in future be appointed by drawing on the broader membership of the UN. Moreover, as a matter of principle, no more than one national of any country should sit on the Senior Management Group and it will be necessary to ensure that nationals of the P5 members of the Security Council do not come to dominate its composition. It will also be necessary to ensure that the Group does not become a bottleneck or obstacle to the work of the Secretariat, instead of facilitating and energizing its work.

2. Deputy Secretary-General. The proposal to establish a post of Deputy Secretary-General is a long-overdue step to strengthen the UN secretariat and increase the effectiveness of the office of the UN Secretary-General. However, it is important to have a clear definition of the DS-G’s functions. The Report implies that a DS-G would focus on areas of major concern such as complex emergencies and the transition from peacekeeping to post-conflict peace-building, and on longer-term development concerns, as well as on activities and programmes that bridge functional sectors. In this context, however, it is worth recalling the fact that a post of Director General for Development and International Economic Co-operation had been established by the UN General Assembly but that it was abolished by the last Secretary-General without consulting the Assembly. Development issues -- the central and principal area of UN activity -- should indeed figure among the main responsibilities of a DS-G and the essence of the mandate of the aforementioned Director General should figure prominently in the newly proposed office. Within this broader framework, a DS-G could also perform functions related both to complex emergencies and activities which require intersectoral and inter-institutional coherence. The Secretary-General could well do with direct high-level support in both these spheres. Such a workload and responsibilities may, however, be excessive for a single individual. In any case, it would be difficult to find an individual possessing all the necessary talents, knowledge, skills and experience to manage, lead and excel in both operational activities and political affairs, and in the multidimensional and highly complex domain of economic and social development. An alternative solution would be to establish two DS-G posts, one concerned primarily with the political sphere including humanitarian affairs, while the other would focus on development and economic issues, including sustainable development.

3. Strategic Planning Unit. The proposal to establish a Strategic Planning Unit (SPU) in the office of the Secretary General is also of major potential significance. The global agenda is very broad, and the issues and disciplines increasingly complex and sectoralized, though in fact interrelated. The task of deriving a global overview and providing leadership and ideas on how to tackle the challenges presented by an increasingly integrated world economy -- responsibilities of the Secretary-General’s office which is located at the very apex of the international community -- is therefore an extremely difficult one. In addition, therefore, to providing the Secretary-General with the necessary policy back-up on a daily basis, the SPU could assist the Secretary-General with the strategic and longer term thinking needed for developing this global vision. The Group’s needs to assemble the best brains and its composition should also be such as to ensure representation of the diversity of views and geographical groupings characterizing the international community, and its composition should be reported on to the General Assembly on a regular basis. Adequate financial resources should be secured to facilitate the unimpeded functioning of the SPU, which would constitute a think-tank linked to a worldwide network which draws on experts working in all fields of human activity. If handled appropriately, the establishment and functioning of the SPU could assist the UN in its efforts to reestablish itself as a central and premier force in global analysis and creative thinking, retrieving the intellectual excellence and influence that it once had before being forced into institutional decline by the policies of some governments. A critical mass of talent is required to enable the proposed SPU to accomplish its task effectively. The under-staffing and under-budgeting which is the order of the day would prejudice the chances of its success, and may turn it into yet one more mechanism that has failed to perform its role adequately, with the UN, as usual, bearing the blame.


Enhancing strategic direction from the General Assembly.

The General Assembly is the supreme organ of the United Nations. Yet over the years it has seen its importance diminished and its role eroded. It bears an increasing workload and manages complex proceedings while suffering a financial squeeze and political downgrading by major countries. The proposals made in the Report of the Secretary-General are meant to help the General Assembly re-establish its pre-eminence, though the call for greater conceptual and institutional coherence in the Assembly seems to overlook the diversity among the membership and the attendant conflicting views.

1. Focusing legislative debates. The Report proposes that the UN General Assembly and its main committees organize their work partly on a thematic basis in order to address various issues in depth. This proposal is a constructive one, provided that it does not inhibit the Assembly’s deliberative and policy functions, or limit the scope of its agenda. However, the implication that this approach could replace traditional UN world conferences may not necessarily be a useful one. This proposal may simplify management and reduce costs and will no doubt please those that have been opposed to the proliferation and frequency of global UN conferences. But the international community should also be able to avail itself of such conferences since the thematic and policy focus they provide has no adequate substitute. Therefore, global UN conferences should continue to be held on truly important global issues. Indeed, the topic proposed for the first high-level one-week segment of UNGA, that of "international financing for development", is of such fundamental importance that it calls for a major UN conference. Despite various initiatives to this effect over the years such a conference could not be held, while a number of conferences on other topics were convened. Were a high-level segment of UNGA to be held on this topic, it would nonetheless represent an important step forward.

2. Streamlined agenda. The proposal for streamlining the agenda of the UN General Assembly, and the idea of introducing a thematic approach in the work of its committees, are in principle welcome. However, this is something which needs to be approved by governments who often do not share the same opinion on what should be included or taken off the agenda. The proposal to entrust the Chairpersons of Committees with the responsibility for drafting simple decisions for adoption by the General Assembly could also be useful in some instances. This, however, may not prove practical in those cases where disagreements exist, and where some member states consider that the full Committee, rather than the Chairperson, should undertake the task.

The aim of streamlining the agenda is to enable the General Assembly to do its work more efficiently by improving the proceedings. But reducing the regular GA session by 3 weeks should not be decided on purely in the interest of streamlining. Indeed, the global agenda is very "crowded" and moves in a dynamic fashion, which in principle would call for a General Assembly to devote all the necessary attention and time to its pending work in order to respond adequately to its mission and mandates.

3. Sunset provisions. The proposal to include "sunset" provisions, that is setting specific time limits, for initiatives that involve new organizational structures, and/or major commitments of funds is also functional and would contribute to improved institutional dynamism. It should be understood, however, that the termination, like the renewal of an organizational structure or commitment of resources, should not be deemed automatic and would be acted on only with the explicit decision of the Assembly.

4. Results-based budgeting. Budgeting in the UN has become the subject of increasing political controversy and conflict among the member states, frequently on North-South lines, and budget measures have imposed increasing constraints on the work of the organization. Results-based budgeting is advanced in the Report as a way out of some of the difficulties resulting from what is alleged to be excessive micro-management by the General Assembly. There are, however, two potential problems with this approach. First, it would reduce the role of the Assembly -- the collectivity of the United Nations -- in budget making, though leaving the possibility for powerful countries to exercise influence through other means. Second, it would place the UN Secretary-General in the potentially difficult position of being held responsible for delivering specified results within the relevant budgetary constraints in many fields where such direct relationships are difficult or impossible to establish.

Results-based budgeting may be easier to implement in a national setting and in a context of underlying policy consensus than in the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly may, nevertheless, be able to evolve its own specific ways of both providing policy-guidance and maintaining broad control, while enabling the Secretary-General to carry out his or her work in a simpler and more effective manner, in particular in those areas which do not raise difficulties for the broad membership. Results-based budgeting should perhaps be first undertaken on a pilot basis for a limited period in certain carefully chosen areas, so that the Assembly could in due course review the matter on the basis of lessons derived from such practical experience and take the appropriate decisions.

5. Restoring the Charter-based division of functions. The Report argues that the Assembly has adopted a number of practices, including those in relation to high-level appointments, that have constrained the Secretary-General’s ability to administer the Secretariat. At the same time, on a number of other important substantive and policy issues, the Assembly has not provided adequate guidance to the Secretariat. Proposals in the Report by the Secretary-General to achieve a better defined division of functions between his office and the General Assembly are welcome. It needs to be noted, however, that the broader membership of the UN is attempting via the General Assembly to exercise some leverage and to offset excessive influence of a few powerful countries of the North on the inner workings of the organization. The prerogatives of the Assembly cannot be diminished, and efforts need to be made both to institutionalize the mechanisms and safeguards to shield the Secretariat from the domineering influence of a few powerful countries, and to improve the co-operation and communication between the Assembly, i.e. the membership as a whole, and the Secretariat.


A "dividend for development" and a "development account".

A major proposal made in the Report, that to establish a "development account" from the expected savings of $200 million made through administrative improvements, increased efficiency and reductions in overheads is a useful initiative, assuming that such savings are not achieved at the expense of the work of the organization. The Assembly should be informed in detail how the savings have been achieved. It should consider specific ways in which the funds in the account could be deployed so as to strengthen the work of UN on development-related matters, and also the longer-term prospects for replenishment of the account.


Reaching out to the civil society.

The Report announces the intention of making arrangements to ensure that various UN entities become more open to the outside and work closely with civil society. This well-intentioned goal of democratizing the work of the UN needs to be approached with care, for there is an inherent risk that the measures taken may, in practice, have an unintended effect. A wide range of bodies and activities deemed to constitute civil society in developed countries are well-funded and well organized at both the national and international level. There is therefore deep concern that efforts to involve civil society more widely and intensively may further consolidate the North’s dominance in the organization, and also allow private money and corporate power to have undue influence on UN proceedings.

The definition of "civil society" has in fact given rise to good deal of controversy between the North and the South, as has the role of big business, including TNCs from the North, in the work and proceedings of the UN. The definition of civil society used in the Report is too loose and all encompassing, grouping, for example, the mass media and business, both of which are mostly private profit-making actors often with global reach, together with social movements and public interest groups such as indigenous peoples.

Transnational business already exerts a considerable influence on the policies and work of the UN, partly through very close ties with governments in the North. If the UN continues to be starved of core funding from governments, and transnationals are allowed to help fill the financial gap, their influence will increase accordingly. With direct access, as "civil society", powerful business interests would have an additional means of pressing their special interests at key junctures in the policy process and of influencing the secretariat.

This matter assumes added policy significance in this age of "globalization" in which the UN has become a forum for promoting global policies of increasing relevance to transnational actors. It should be appreciated, however, that the North has kept the issue of the socio-economic impact of TNCs and their accountability off the UN agenda, while working hard to secure a direct role for TNCs in the work of the UN. This glaring asymmetry needs to be rectified, and only in this broader context should arrangements be worked out for a balanced and carefully delimited consultation with the business community.

Thus whatever efforts are made by the UN Secretary-General to incorporate civil society into the UN, they should be made within the parameters of what ECOSOC and the General Assembly define as civil society and within appropriate procedures. The business community, North and South, including the medium and small business sectors, should, like other communities and groups, have access to UN proceedings and work through their collective representation and through standard procedures established for this purpose. The specific proposals in the Report to establish a UN Enterprise Liaison Service, separate from the existing UN NGO Liaison Service, and to establish mechanisms for continued dialogue between representatives of business and the UN, merit special attention by the Assembly, as they may amount to granting an institionalized entry point to North-based big business via the back door.


Instilling a culture of communications.

The UN’s image is of critical importance and it is vital that its work is known and understood by the world’s citizens. However, in moving towards a more media-oriented approach, the UN should avoid becoming media-driven or a victim of the tyranny of the media. This is no mean task for an organization with such limited resources at its disposal for communications work.

The many measures proposed in the Report would improve the UN’s communications delivery, though the suggested closure of UN information centres in a number of developing countries may not necessarily contribute to this goal.

A key matter that needs to be addressed with great care with regard to the new emphasis to be given to the UN’s communications policy concerns the nature of the communications policy to be pursued. This involves careful deliberation on such matters as the kind of messages that the UN should be communicating and whether these should differ according to different geographical constituencies. It also involves consideration of the policies to be adopted in instances where there is continuous hostile media coverage of the UN and its activities. Whatever else, it is clear that the UN’s media messages should be derived from its work and its mission, not from what sells in the North-dominated information market place and domestic policy arenas in a few developed countries.

It is therefore important that the General Assembly carefully scrutinize the details and policy implications of the new communications strategy which will be put forward by the UN Secretary-General.


Core Activities.

The underlying theme of Report, namely that the reform should contribute to achieving greater unity of purpose, coherence of effort and agility in response to situations as they arise is to be welcomed.

1. Peace and security. On the whole, the measures proposed seem to point broadly in the right direction in organizational and management terms. The proposals made promise to go some way towards improving the UN’s capacity to plan, conduct and manage peace-keeping more efficiently and successfully, and for setting up the capabilities which would make its responses more predictable and assured.

It is positive too that the report highlights the fact that there is a need for comprehensive and integrated approaches with respect to peace-keeping activities on the ground where the organization’s capabilities are deployed.

It would, however, also be appropriate for such approaches to be applied at other levels, namely to the cause-effect relationships within the larger scheme of things, and in particular to the relationship between global economic processes and development and problems at the local level, where UN peace-keeping interventions may be called for. Such links do not in general receive the appropriate attention in the work of the UN, and there is an obvious disjuncture between the purely political and the economic/social spheres of its activity.

Thus the UN needs to focus more attention on how to prevent those conditions and situations arising which generate conflict, including those structural causes which result from the current world economic and political order and the policies and actions of the international community, especially its most powerful members. Only through such a comprehensive approach can peace-keeping attain its full meaning.

In discussing peace-keeping activities, the Report refers to "willing states" and those with "relevant capabilities" which tends to imply that peace-keeping should become a reserved domain for only a handful of states. This highlights one of the main challenges for the UN, namely how to make peace-keeping more democratic and participatory and to prevent it from becoming a tool for the unilateral pursuit of policies by a few powerful countries. This matter is closely related to the reform of the Security Council which, as a separate matter, is under consideration by the General Assembly.

The Report mentions the need to address the issue of UN imposed economic sanctions, their impact and effectiveness, and the objective criteria to be employed in deciding their application and termination. This is indeed a welcome proposal. In practice, and to all intents and purposes, this instrument has been used entirely against countries in the South, and has been under the control of a handful of countries from the North. It is high time that this matter be given serious consideration by the General Assembly, including that of sanctions resorted to at will unilaterally and as of right by some of the most powerful states.

With regard to the proposals concerning disarmament and the regulation of arms, including the consolidation of secretariat capacities in a new Department of Disarmament and Arms Regulation, special care will need to be taken to ensure that such issues as nuclear disarmament, weapons of mass destruction, and new weapons technologies including those deployed in outer space, continue to be given the highest priority in the work of the organization, and receive the necessary institutional back up.

2. Economic and Social Affairs.

The Report quite rightly identifies the challenges that the organization faces in its efforts to fulfil the functions envisaged by the Charter in the field of economic and social progress and development. It refers to highly important activities of the UN, namely, innovative thinking, consensus building, analysis, normative activities, and "endeavouring to affect economic decisions taken in other forums from the perspective of developing countries". Yet negotiating, rule-making, and policy direction are conspicuous by their absence. Without such activities, most UN mandates could not be made effective, though the major countries in the North deny the UN’s capacity to assume these functions and activities in the area of "hard" economic issues.

Nor does the Report address explicitly in this context the issue of the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO, which have emerged as a de facto parallel system to that of the United Nations. The proposal in the Report to establish a Special Commission at ministerial level to examine the UN and the specialized agencies is therefore highly welcome. One of the key tasks of the Commission in seeking to improve the capacity of the UN system to serve the world community better should be to tackle the vital question of the interrelationship between the UN, the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO.

The recommendations to strengthen the role and improve the performance of ECOSOC are along the lines generally argued for by the developing countries and on the whole deserve support. However, the following points need to be borne in mind.

Reform of the secretariat. The reforms already undertaken, including the establishment of the new Department on Economic and Social Affairs, as well as that of the Executive Committee on Economic and Social Affairs, should in principle be useful in improving the capacity of the UN secretariat in the economic and social sectors. Likewise, the proposal to establish an identifiable substantive secretariat to support ECOSOC could bolster the ECOSOC machinery, provided such a secretariat is given the necessary human and other resources to carry out its tasks adequately.

The real challenges will, however, be in the implementation, first in bringing together the requisite critical mass of talent and expertise to deal with the agenda and provide the intellectual leadership and policy back-up required by the intergovernmental process; and second, in dealing with the key issues, in particular the "hard" economic issues on the agenda. The danger is that on both accounts the reform may not fulfil expectations, because limits on staff numbers due to economies may overload staff with excessive responsibilities which under such conditions cannot realistically be fulfilled.

Moreover, there is a certain policy ambivalence in the Report which speaks of the need to strengthen co-operation in the macroeconomic area between UNCTAD and the new Department of Economic and Social Affairs, inter alia, to ensure the UN’s leadership "in meeting priority information needs of the world community". Such wording tends to strengthen the suspicions of developing countries that the UN’s economic role is to remain marginal. It is therefore important to speak explicitly of the need to augment the staff and resources of the UN, and of UNCTAD in particular, so that macro-economic policies and the global economy can be analysed in an in-depth and sustained manner.

Drug control, crime prevention and combating international terrorism. The proposed measures to consolidate and strengthen the UN’s capacity in the areas of drug control and crime prevention appear to be reasonable, although there is a risk that the issues of narcotics and terrorism might overshadow the more traditional matters of crime prevention and criminal justice. It is also to be hoped that the mandated activities of the proposed new Vienna centre focusing on "uncivil society" will be truly global, embracing effectively and comprehensively the North as well as the South.

Development co-operation. This section of the Report raises some important substantive and policy questions concerning the nature and focus of development and technical co-operation in the UN. These issues merit serious intergovernmental deliberation. As concerns the proposed institutional measures to respond to changing needs and to attain better integration and coordination of development and technical co-operation, the proposal to integrate more closely the governance and oversight of UNDP, UNFPA and UNICEF should not raise any major controversy. The idea of creating a UN Development Group to improve the integration and coordination of technical assistance is a positive one. With respect to the proposed common development assistance framework, in order to overcome possible doubts and to move on from the abstract debate about its merits, the idea could be tried initially on a pilot basis, to be reviewed and acted on in a more definitive manner within a set time.

The proposed arrangements at country level, including the designation of a UN country team leader, has given rise to doubts and reservations in many developing countries, who fear the risk of greater interference in their domestic affairs. This innovation also should be first tried on a pilot basis in a few representative countries in the three regions. These experiences and the views of the countries involved should be reviewed after a fixed period of time. The notion of associating bilateral development funding agencies and the World Bank Group with the UN framework at the country level could fuel suspicion that the common UN office might come under the increasing influence of donor countries from the North and the multilateral financial institutions, and result in host developing countries having to face pressures to adhere to a wider range of conditionalities

The Report has quite correctly raised the issue of the roles of the Bretton Woods institutions at the developing country level and their implications for UN activities and objectives. Now that the Bank has also moved into the field of technical assistance and the IMF is involved in domestic policy matters through its structural adjustment programmes, the UN is often confined to marginal activities or to dealing with the consequences of the former. This is an important policy matter which requires the attention of governments, and should be carefully reviewed drawing, in particular, on the views and experience of the recipient countries.

The proposals to increase core resources and to set up an Office for Development Financing is welcome, as is the suggestion that the latter should consider innovative ways of raising new and additional resources. The very substantial contribution recently pledged to the UN by a private donor illustrates one form of financing that could be tapped. Nevertheless the risks attached to this type of financing suggest the need for careful scrutiny of the implications and for the adoption of appropriate guidelines for acceptance and use of such funds.

Environment, habitat and sustainable development. Perhaps nowhere in the UN system is the institutional tangle more pronounced than in the case of environment matters. The situation is not accidental but is to an important degree the consequence of specific decisions which reflect the controversies that have pitted the North against the South on this issue, ever since it was placed on the international agenda by the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment.

The 25 years long saga concerning the organizations dealing with environment illustrates some of the major challenges facing the UN as an institution. The direct pressures exerted by some developed countries on the Environment Fund of UNEP in the mid 1970s contributed in steering the organization away from an integrated approach to environment and development problems. Nonetheless, twenty years later, the quest for an integrated approach led to UNCED’s Agenda 21. UNCED, however, resulted in institutional proliferation and the related competition for hosting the various mechanisms. The outcome was the Commission on Sustainable Development in New York, the Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, the Convention on Biodiversity in Montreal, and most recently the Convention on Desertification, also in Bonn.

In the meantime, UNEP and Habitat in Nairobi have been facing a major crisis partly for internal reasons but also on account of the downsizing and reform measures undertaken by the UN, as well as to the fragmentation and dispersion of their mandates, and the deliberate policy of some governments which has often caused North-South friction. The credibility of these organizations has been affected, and in some quarters it is argued that they no longer serve a purpose. Suggestions have been made by some countries that a world environment organization, similar to WTO, be established, with the implication that it should be located in the North, thereby fulfilling the long standing aim of some developed countries to remove such activities from Nairobi. The institutional quandary has become more complicated due to the fact that the World Bank now has substantial activities in the environmental field and hence considerable influence on these matters at the international level. Indeed, the Bank now commands greater human and financial resources to deal with these issues than does the UN itself. WTO is also now involved in environmental matters through the "environment-trade" link, which presents an additional challenge for developing countries in particular, as they are the likely targets for both environmental conditionalities and environment-related trade protectionism.

The fragmentation and dispersion which characterizes the multilateral institutional framework for environment-development matters, that is, sustainable development matters, puts developing countries at a particular disadvantage. The proposal in the Report of the Secretary-General to develop and propose to the General Assembly new measures for strengthening and restructuring UNEP and Habitat is thus a timely and welcome one. In developing ideas for such measures, however, full and continuous consultations with the developing countries and the Group of 77 should be organized from the very beginning, so that they are not later presented with what is in effect fait accompli, with their approval sought after the ideas have matured and recommendations been elaborated in a non-transparent manner.

3. Humanitarian affairs. Humanitarian affairs represent one of the priorities on the new UN agenda. The various specific measures proposed in the Report to strengthen the UN capacity to respond to humanitarian crises, including complex emergencies, should be broadly acceptable to the developing countries.

4. Human rights. A number of specific proposals contained in the Report for raising the profile of human rights and expanding the mandates and operational scope in this sphere should give rise to doubts in the majority of developing countries. This is particularly so with respect to the recommendation that human rights be introduced as a cross-cutting issue to be integrated into a broad range of UN activities. The controversial nature of the issue and the fact that it has become politicized indicates the increased potential for North-driven intrusion in the national affairs and domestic space of developing countries.


Enhancing the UN’s support capacities.

Financing the organization. The Report’s assessment of what is required to put the UN on a sound financial footing and the proposals made are to be welcomed. The proposal to establish a Revolving Credit Fund to help avoid financial crises in the future is a constructive one. Nevertheless, it should not in any way be perceived as detracting from the basic principle of financing the UN through assessed and unconditional contributions, or to condone willful non-payment of assessed contributions. However, it would also appear necessary to carry out a more comprehensive examination of means to achieve sound, sustainable, adequate and assured financing of the UN and its work. Concrete proposals could be presented to the "Millennium Assembly", that is the UN General Assembly session to be held in the year 2000 in tandem with a companion "People’s Assembly", which is recommended in the Report. Sound financing for the organization, and overcoming its financial dependence on a handful of countries, are essential building blocs for the UN in the 21st century. An intergovernmental mechanism, with access to the necessary technical expertise, should be established to study the matter with a view to making concrete recommendations.

Management. The quest for management excellence and efficiency is to be welcomed, but it would be self-defeating if this prevented the organization from functioning properly and hence impeded the fulfilment of its mandates. Indeed, the tendency to place growing demands on the organization while constraining available resources may not be sustainable. It will weaken the UN and further erode certain areas of its activities. The various measures already taken to improve administrative effectiveness and increase efficiency, as set out in the annexes to the Report, and the measures proposed in the Report are constructive and demonstrate the potential to modernize the UN. Greater use of new technologies should facilitate the management of this large and complex organization, while instant communication and data relay could help make the UN more immediately global.

Management reforms in the past have often resulted in weakening important sectors of UN activity, particularly those concerned with development which countries of the South consider should be the central task of the organization. Therefore, in the context of continuing management and administrative reforms, it is essential that the Secretary-General report in detail how the measures to be taken will affect the UN’s capacity in the field of development.

The several strategies proposed under the management heading in the Report all merit broad endorsement. The various measures proposed in Strategy 1 in the Report aimed at strengthening the staff of the United Nations point in the right direction, though special efforts will be required to minimize disruption and discontinuity within the Secretariat. It is worth recalling, however, that in building up a high quality and dedicated UN staff, special attention will need to be paid to means of ensuring a plurality of views and diversity to reflect the international community, so that the staff does not become homogeneous and North-centric as is the case in some organizations tightly controlled by some countries of the North.

Strategy 2, which deals with the creation and uses of the "development dividend", was welcomed and commented on above. Strategies 3 and 4 on enhancing the flexibility and responsibility of line managers, and on simplifying processes, procedures and rules are also a move in the direction of rationalizing the work of the organization. Strategy 5 on results-based budgeting was commented on above, suggesting that it may be tried first on a pilot basis in a sample of representative activities, following which the Assembly should be in a better position to assess its value and applicability. Strategy 6 to expand and strengthen common services and Strategy 7 to create an "electronic" United Nations represent further important measures in modernizing the UN and its work. Finally, the notion of "issue management" proposed in strategy 8, namely "establishing for particular situations or issues working parties or task forces of the principal organizations with an interest and/or capacity in the area concerned", is commendable. It should be tried as an important means of harnessing and rationalizing the resources available within the UN system. While the effectiveness of similar efforts in the past was usually diminished by the surrounding administrative and coordination quagmire, new communication facilities, including teleconferencing, could make the task somewhat easier and practicable.


The road ahead

The preceding text has already commented on and welcomed some of the several forward-looking proposals contained in the Report, namely those concerning the financing of the United Nations and the establishment of a Special Commission at the ministerial level inter alia to consider changes in UN Charter and in the treaties which have established the specialized agencies with the objective of improving capacity of the UN system to carry out its work. The Report also makes a proposal for holding a Millennium Assembly, which should meet with the support of all member states.

The Report contains a major proposal for reconstituting the Trusteeship Council to enable it to exercise collective trusteeship over the global environment and "commons" such as oceans, the atmosphere and outer space, serving in the process to link the UN and civil society in addressing these areas of global concern. This important proposal cuts across other proposals and issues in the Report particularly those concerning environment and development, and civil society, and it should be considered in this broader context.

The change in the mandate of the Trusteeship Council will naturally need careful consideration. In discussing and negotiating the mandates of a revitalized Trusteeship Council, developing countries should try to ensure that the mandate on environment and the global commons is not defined too narrowly, and they could propose that the Council should exercise trusteeship in defence of the public good and public interest. These concepts provide a broader and integrating framework for global trusteeship. Putting public interest on the UN agenda in this way would focus attention on a crucial, but much maligned and often ignored issue, gaining the support and interest of civil society worldwide and helping the UN in its efforts to regain the high ground and a renewed sense of mission for the 21st century.


V. By way of a conclusion

It would have been desirable to discuss the UN reform in a more relaxed and constructive manner than that imposed by the UN’s financial crisis and the atmosphere generated when those with power attempt to wield inordinate influence on what is said, proposed or done. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that the exercise centred on the Report, having taken on board the views of the South, will yield balanced and positive outcomes, thereby launching the UN on the path of renewal so much desired by all its friends and supporters worldwide.

It needs to be said, however, that the overriding concern with practical politics and current realities should not be allowed to dominate the United Nations or combined with pragmatism or resignation to relegate the notion of democracy in international relations to the realm of a utopian illusion.

No amount of institutional tinkering can resolve these fundamental issues which, masked behind the institutional detail and the traditional finesse of diplomatic expression, do not inspire political mobilization. Yet these matters need to be faced as the international community approaches the millenium, as do those matters relating to how the international community deals with the policies and processes of globalization which should be a prime area for UN work and could lead to the organization’s genuine renewal.

Perhaps what is shared most by all developing countries, and by the mass of their peoples who constitute the majority of the world’s population, is the sense of powerlessness that comes from their marginal position in the global power structures and processes. The United Nations offers the only means of exercising a degree of influence on the global scheme of things and over the direction of contemporary history.

The current round of reforms should therefore constitute only the first step in what will doubtless be a long and difficult process to recover and reconstitute the roles, mandates and democratic vision embodied in the UN Charter. Moreover, in view of what was said above, it should be the developing countries who should spearhead this process of renewal with positive and bold joint proposals based on a solidly argued case.

In addition to formulating proposals to counter and relieve the stranglehold on the organization, the developing countries will need to engage in organized and assertive collective action to promote the proposals and to attain the status of a respected and genuinely equal partner, as opposed to being an unequal partner in what today is euphemistically referred to as a "global partnership".


Annex: Principles on UN Reform

Extract from the Ministerial Declaration of the Group of 77 adopted on 26.09.1997

55. The Ministers strongly endorsed the statement of principles on UN reforms adopted by the 22nd Meeting of the Chairmen/Coordinators of the Chapters of the Group of 77 held in Geneva from 7 to 9 July 1997. In this context the Ministers reaffirmed these principles as follows:

  1. The reform process must strengthen the UN’s ability to fulfil its role and functions in the development field, with the General Assembly providing the leadership to ensure the fulfillment of the social and economic goals enunciated in the United Nations Charter;
  2. The reform process should be carried out with the primary objective of strengthening the capacity of the Organization to address development issues and to respond effectively to the development needs of developing countries. It should not be motivated by the aim of downsizing the United Nations and to achieve savings;
  3. The developmental tasks of the United Nations are of fundamental importance and may not be treated as secondary to its peacekeeping, human rights and humanitarian functions. Managerial measures to reduce overlap of functions, eliminate redundancies and minimize fragmentation are exceedingly important, but must be subservient to the larger goals of the reform process;
  4. The United Nations must carry out its mandated, comprehensive role in the economic and social areas. This includes policy analysis, consensus building, policy formulation and coordination, and delivery of technical assistance to developing countries;
  5. The United Nations General Assembly's role in the area of macro-economic policy formulation and coordination has to be strengthened and the core economic issues must be restored to the top of the United Nations' agenda;
  6. The United Nations, by virtue of its universal membership, is the most credible organization for performing developmental tasks. Assumption of some of these tasks, especially economic policy formulation and coordination, by limited groups outside the UN system is not the best way of ensuring equitable economic growth and development. Equally, the tendency to have these functions performed by organizations within the UN system with "weighted" means of decision-making, on the misleading grounds of "comparative advantage", is neither sustainable nor beneficial in the long run;
  7. All reform proposals must aim at giving greater effect to the principles of transparency, pluralism, and democracy which are the unique strengths of the United Nations. This means ensuring the availability of multiple perspectives/analyses on critical socio-economic issues and the strengthening of democratic decision-making processes;
  8. The functioning of organizations within the United Nations system which do not fully observe democratic norms should be comprehensively reviewed. The decision-making process of the Bretton Woods Institutions should be reformed to allow for greater democracy, universality and transparency;
  9. The reform of the Secretariat should be undertaken in accordance with the relevant United Nations resolutions. These resolutions stress that restructuring of the Secretariat should proceed with the objective of enhancing the effective implementation of the objectives of the Charter; emphasize the prerogative of the General Assembly in the creation, transfer and abolition of posts; assert the principle of equitable geographical representation in the staffing of the Secretariat; and preclude the monopoly on senior posts of any States or group of States;
  10. A primary pre-requisite for enhancing United Nations effectiveness is to have stable, predictable and adequate financing for the United Nations. Member States must fulfil their legal obligations to pay their contributions promptly, in full and without conditions, in accordance with Article 17 of the Charter, and take concrete actions to clear their arrears within a reasonable and defined time-frame and without any conditionalities.