May 19, 2006

May 19, 2006 | Executive Summary on International Organizations

Executive Summary: A Progress Report on U.N. Reform

Sixty years ago, the United Nations was founded to maintain international peace and security, pro­mote self-determination and basic human rights, and protect fundamental freedoms. Sadly, weak­nesses in the organization have prevented it from fully realizing these high aspirations. The past six decades have seen dozens of initiatives from gov­ernments, think tanks, foundations, and panels of experts aimed at reforming the U.N. to make it more effective in meeting its responsibilities. Although these reform efforts have seen occasional success, they have failed to address the core prob­lems that cripple the organization.

An accretion of mandates, insufficient transpar­ency and accountability, and resistance of member states to reform have resulted in a system that is bureaucratic, costly, cumbersome, lacking in over­sight, and often incapable of fulfilling the responsi­bilities placed upon it. The United States and other reform-minded member states have capitalized on the many high-profile U.N. scandals in recent years to push a reform agenda to address many of these problems.

Recent Reform Efforts and Failures. In the fall of 2005, the General Assembly approved the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, which sought to "strengthen and update the programme of work of the United Nations so that it responds to the con­temporary requirements of Member States." Critical parts of the process involve increasing and strength­ening U.N. oversight, transparency, and accountabil­ity. The Secretary-General was instructed to submit proposals to address these weaknesses and compile a list of mandates for the member states to review for relevance, effectiveness, and duplication.

In the wake of recent U.N. scandals, the Secre­tariat and the General Assembly have been forced to implement some initial reforms, including cre­ation of the Ethics Office, mandating financial disclosure by key U.N. officials, and adopting a whistleblower policy protecting those who report on waste, corruption, and abuse in the U.N. But much remains to be done, even on issues to which the General Assembly has already agreed in principle.

More than four years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.N. has yet to agree on and adopt a definition of terrorism.

There has been little action on policies to strengthen the Secretary-General's managerial authority, such as giving him more discretion to move personnel to meet organizational priori­ties better.

Mandates older than five years have not been reviewed for duplication, irrelevance, or inef­fectiveness. Some of the 9,000 U.N. mandates date back to the 1940s yet remain in place without scrutiny.

There has been little progress either on buying out the many staff employees who, because they lack motivation or the necessary skills, contribute minimally to the U.N.'s mission or on changing hiring practices to emphasize qualifications over geographic representation.

Oversight and auditing mechanisms remain hindered by insufficient resources and inde­pendence.

A zero tolerance policy regarding sexual exploi­tation and abuse by U.N. personnel has yet to be implemented.

The need for a clear policy on cooperating with legal investigations into criminal activities con­ducted by U.N. officials or staff remains unmet.

Entrenched Resistance. Many member states continue to resist reform, as demonstrated by the failure to impose membership criteria for the new Human Rights Council. Even the seemingly apolit­ical aspects of reform, such as proposals to acceler­ate personnel recruitment and grant the Secretary-General the ability to shift staff resources to meet urgent priorities, have met resistance from the G-77 group of developing countries, which sees the reform agenda as an assault on its authority in the United Nations.

In a draft General Assembly resolution intro­duced by South Africa on April 18, 2006, to the General Assembly's 5th Committee (administrative and budgetary) on behalf of China and the G-77, the many member states resistant to reform revealed that they would delay and block the reform effort by requesting a series of reports from the Secretary-General on his proposals. On April 28, when the G-77 forced a vote, the 5th Committee approved the South African resolution by a vote of 108 to 50 with three abstentions. The General Assembly subse­quently passed the resolution by a margin of 121 to 50 with two abstentions on May 8.

This is a significant setback in the effort to reform the United Nations. Leading up to the vote, the U.S. and other nations warned the G-77 that passing the resolution would result in consequences.

What the U.S. Should Do. When the General Assembly adopted its 2006-2007 budget, only $950 million of the $3.8 billion budget was autho­rized. The U.N. is expected to exhaust this funding by the end of June. The U.S. and other like-minded states should oppose any funds beyond the $950 million until reforms recommended in the Out­come Document and the Secretary General's fol­low-up reports (except those delayed by the G-77 resolution) are implemented. If these reforms are implemented, the U.S. should agree to allocate funds monthly, tying further funding to progress toward necessary reforms. By tying approval of the rest of the U.N. budget to reform, the reform-minded states can place significant pressure on the other member states to adopt reform.

In addition, Congress should announce that fail­ure to act on reform will result in financial withhold­ing. Similarly, Congress should withhold U.N. funding should the G-77 vote to pass a budget or approve funds beyond the $950 million cap over the objections of the U.S. Outside pressure from the U.S. Congress, such as establishing reform benchmarks similar to those in the United Nations Reform Act of 2005, has been effective in the past and would fur­ther enhance the leverage for reform. Such outside pressure is less susceptible to the internal U.N. poli­ticking that has watered down past reform efforts. Without tying reform to financial incentives, the sound and fury of the current U.N. reform effort, as with past efforts, could easily signify nothing.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in Inter­national Regulatory Affairs in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Stud­ies, at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: International Organizations