Sandlines: The UN millipede meanders towards reform

Remember the ‘Slinky’—the children’s toy born of an accident in World War II research? How did the myriad vibrations of that single coil get it moving? It was gravity, of course, but how gravity failed to enchant my childhood mind.


Another mysteriously undulating mechanism, the United Nations, doubtless qualifies as the public global entity with the most moving parts. Like the Slinky, the higher purpose of its incessant undulating is unconvincing to some. Ostensibly animated by a Charter of guiding principles it is, like the Slinky, bound by the gravity of its 191 member states and their infinitely competing interests.

Quite unlike the Slinky, however, the UN is not remote from the world’s current crises, nor is it beyond the realm of our individual lives. Unless you live in Antarctica, Palestine, Western Sahara, or Vatican City—which do not qualify for membership because of their ambiguous sovereign status—your taxes fund the meanderings of this megalithic millipede. Although the EU, the US and Japan contribute 82% of its budget, the more numerous poor member states can dominate voting referenda. Their obstruction of sweeping UN reform efforts, initiated in 2004 by former Secretary General Kofi Annan to improve UN efficiency and impact, is a case in point.

The buildup to Annan’s declaration of the proposed reform lasted years, even decades; the supporting evidence exhaustive. Support among member states, however, was far from unanimous. Apparently the common criticism of the UN as little more than a ‘hiring agency for the Third World’ is not shared by those member states who oppose its reform.

During the Cold War, the UN was blocked from acting on the interventionism enshrined in its Charter, and fell back on useful humanitarian and monitoring missions. It also took refuge in passing resolutions that had little bearing on actual world politics.

The Middle East is an example of this impotence. It failed to stop wars in 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. Its key Security Council resolution 242, outlining a solution for the Israelis and Palestinians along the lines of land for peace, has been only partially fulfilled. In the Middle East partially has meant hardly enough.

It did send troops to the Congo in the early 1960s when the country began to fall apart after the precipitatous departure of the Belgians. The breakaway province of Katanga was brought back under central control, but the experience was not a happy one for the UN, symbolized by the death in an air accident of its Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold.

In more recent years it has been slightly more successful. Its sanctions helped persuade white South Africans to hand over power to majority rule. Its quiet diplomacy helped bring an end to the Iran-Iraq War, and it played useful roles in winding up conflicts and developing democracy in Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, El Salvador, Sierra Leone, East Timor and, for a second time, DR Congo.

Yet it failed in Bosnia, where intervention was led by the US and its Nato allies, and Kosovo where Nato acted against Serbia (not the UN). Most spectacular, however, was its paralysis in Rwanda where it failed to prevent genocide. When Annan announced plans, subject to the approval of UN member states, for a “bold and far-reaching” reform agenda, the institution was deep in criticism over its management of the Iraq oil-for-food program and allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the DR Congo.

Fundamental changes in three main areas of the UN mission and Charter– development, security and human rights–were proposed. “We will not enjoy development without security, we will not enjoy security without development, and we will not enjoy either without respect for human rights,” Annan said at the time.

Laying_cornerstone_at_un_hq The general reform package promised to:

§         Enlarge Security Council from 15 to 24 members

§         Streamline General Assembly agenda

§         Introduce new guidelines for authorising military action

§         Replace Commission on Human Rights with Human Rights Council

§         Introduce zero tolerance policy on abuses by UN peacekeepers

§         Improve coordination of environment and development aid agendas

Since then, many have commented on UN reform efforts, particularly the vaunted makeover of the much-contested Human Rights Council, which replaced the old Commission on Human Rights. Last October the Washington Post argued of the newly minted Commission:

For all its faults, the previous U.N. commission occasionally discussed and condemned the regimes most responsible for human rights crimes, such as those in Belarus and Burma. China used to feel compelled to burnish its record before the annual meeting. The new council, in contrast, has so far taken action on only one country, which has dominated the debate at both of its regular meetings and been the sole subject of two extraordinary sessions: Israel.

Western human rights groups sought to focus the council’s attention on Darfur, where genocide is occurring, and on Uzbekistan, where a dictator refuses to allow the investigation of a massacre by his security forces. Their efforts have been in vain. Instead, the council has treated itself to report after report on the alleged crimes of the Jewish state; in all, there were six official “rapporteurs” on that subject in the latest session alone.

Regarding proposed expansion of the Security Council (consisting of five permanent seats–China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United Statesand ten temporary seats), there is widespread agreement that the five permanent members should no longer reflect the victorious powers of World War II.  Yet there is no agreement on who might join this privileged group, how big a new council should be, or how members should be selected.

In the development sector, much is at stake given the proliferation of specialized UN agencies, sometimes as many as twenty, working in a country at a time. Harnessing their collective powers while eliminating duplication and waste will prove an enormous challenge. ‘Herding cats’ comes to mind. It is essential, for attaining the Millennium Development Goals on poverty alleviation, health, education and the environment in the poorest corners of the world by 2015 is considered doubtful without significant institutional reform. A High-Level Panel on UN Reform, convened by the Annan in 2005, has gone further and proposed ‘streamlining UN agencies’ for improved efficiency and impact on the ground.

Recommendations specific to the development sector include:

  • putting operations in countries under a single umbrella with overall responsibility for delivery
  • better funding and co-ordination of humanitarian aid
  • full funding of the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)
  • donors to commit more aid through UN programs and less to their own “pet projects”
  • ongoing reform of business practices under the Secretary-General’s direction
  • secure long-term funding for agencies that meet reform goals

The CERF fund, launched during last year’s World Summit, aims to create a pool of $500m in ready money allowing a quick response to natural disasters. Only half of the money has so far arrived, and NGOs in line to receive this money to respond to emerging crises have begun to issue their own reports detailing the shortcomings of the initiative. I was in DR Congo in late 2006 to evaluate a similar emergency fund, and found it useful. NGOs are highly mobile and able to operate in insecure areas generally off-limits to UN staff. The UN agencies, while administratively slow, possess massive procurement capacity for life-saving relief supplies. These are prepositioned in known volatile areas, and when crisis hits–massive civilian displacement, earthquakes or cholera outbreaks–participating NGOs are able to evaluate acute needs and distribute relief supplies in under 72 hours. No relief agency operating alone is capable of such rapid, massive response, and in places like Congo such reform initiatives are clearly bearing fruit.

The ‘single umbrella’ experiment is perhaps the most radical initiative outlined above. The ‘One UN’ initiative, currently piloted in Vietnam, was triggered in September 2005 by a Vietnam UN country team note submittted to the 2005 World Summit in New York. The objective is to ensure faster and more effective development operations by establishing a consolidated UN presence, while maintaining the distinct purposes and personalities of the six participating UN bodies—UNICEF, UNDP, UNFPA, UNIFEM, UNV and UNAIDS. 

The initiative provides a tool through which the agencies and programs can work as one team, while cutting fragmentation and duplication of efforts. UN staff expect there to be difficulties along the way as entrenched interests fight to preserve their independence; ‘One UN’ will also be piloted in six other countries, not yet announced.

Annan’s successor, Ban-Ki Moon, will continue to pursue these long-overdue reforms.