John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former US representative to the United Nations, has recently characterized the world body as one in drift, decline, and defeat. Although Bolton is known as anti-UN, his statement does point to the organization’s steady loss of status and relevance over the last couple of years. Only bold reforms can arrest this erosion and preserve political and funding support from member states.
However, this is not the first time the UN has suffered erosion in its reputation and effectiveness. For instance, during the Cold War, the UN became almost irrelevant because the two blocs could seldom agree on anything that had to be implemented. Cases of corruption in high places, human rights violations by its officials, and sexual abuse—in the Oil-for-food Program in Iraq, Congo, and UNHCR, respectively, to name a few—vitiated the image of the world body.
Every time, the world body was able to bounce back by default or design. The end of the East-West conflict gave a window for the organization to recover the lost ground. And reforms such as the implementation of the Volker Report, zero tolerance to human rights abuses and whistle-blower protection partly restored its lost prestige. But this time the UN could not be as lucky because of the adverse global political and economic atmosphere.
For instance, the Middle East peace process has stalled. The UN has ended up owning the mess in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Central Asian republics. Meanwhile, more countries have begun to defy the UN. President Rajapakshya spurned Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy when the Sri Lankan military was pummeling the Tamil militants. The Burmese junta slighted Mr. Ban himself on a visit to Rangoon by denying him access to Aung San Su Kyi. More recently, Damascus has rejected the UN initiative to resolve the ongoing bloody conflict in Syria.
On the economic front, the UN has played no major role in shaping policy. It could not issue early warning about the recent global economic crisis; neither has it suggested workable solutions to it. Mr. Ban’s signature issue—he had told some of his friends in 2007 that climate change was going to be it—fell flat on its face at the Copenhagen Conference in 2011.
Reforms have been slow in coming this time. Luisa Blanchfield, a specialist in International Relations at the Congressional Research Service, politely says in her report, United Nations Reform: US Policy and International Perspective, of December 2011, “The extent and effectiveness of Ban’s reform efforts remain to be seen. On the one hand, some experts and policymakers argue that Ban is not doing enough to press Member States for comprehensive reform or to institute reforms in the Secretariat. On the other hand, some emphasize that like previous secretaries-general, Ban’s success in achieving reform is limited by the responsibilities of his office.”
Unimpressed by the UN’s performance and pressed by their economic woes, member states are now looking for reasons to reduce their political and financial support.
The Republicans in the US—the US is the largest contributor to the UN—widely share Bolton’s skepticism and criticism. If they control the White House and Congress come November, which cannot be ruled out, the Republicans could use the UN’s ineffectiveness and the US’s weak economy to slash US contribution substantially. More broadly, a Gallop/CNN/USA Today poll found that only 32 percent Americans thought in 2011 that the UN was doing a good job, down from 58 percent in 2002.
Other countries, suffering their own economic woes, will not be willing to up their contribution to fill the gap either.
We have known, and worked with, Secretary-General Ban from his days as Chef de Cabinet to General Assembly President Han Seung-soo in 2001-02. An honest man and consummate diplomat, he was a successful foreign minister of his country, South Korea, before he took the UN’s helm. We know he is fully committed to improving the work of the organization, but the global politics and economics have militated against him since he assumed office.
Knowledgeable sources at the UN have told us that Mr. Ban’s unchallenging attitude and modesty have won him the second term. They also say that the UN has suffered the loss of reputation and relevance on his watch.
To overcome this situation, Mr. Ban needs to change his leadership style, broaden his engagement with more than one important issue, reform the organization and enlist the support of people who have the best interest of the UN at heart.
He ought to project himself more as a proactive and visible politician than as an invisible diplomat and lead by example to influence member states to do what is right for humanity and for the world body. He needs to come up with big and bold ideas to promote peace, development and human rights in troubled and poverty-stricken parts of the world and exhort member states to do their bit. Most importantly, the secretary-general must propose comprehensive reforms.
While he can only exhort member states to implement his proposal to spruce up the intergovernmental realm, he could begin to transform the Secretariat, starting with measures that require little or no additional mandate from member states, from a wasteful bureaucracy into a modern, efficient and effective organization. This will earn Mr. Ban greater credibility and influence with member states to get new mandates for change if necessary.
His vision for next five years, released on January 25, 2012, is a good starting point. This includes sustainable development, building safer and more secure world through innovation, supporting nations in transition, and working with and for women and young people. But neither the report of the Change Management Team nor the extant administrative arrangements are in line with his vision.
The CMT’s report does contain many useful administrative and budgetary reforms, including the co-location of offices, sharing of common services, promoting better division of labor, carrying out greater consultation and reducing travel cost and rationalization of structures and function of the Secretariat. However, many of the recommendations suffer from serious flaws as well, making them difficult to implement.
For instance, prioritization of recommendations—which could have helped implementing high priority ones at a time of, in real terms, declining political and financial support from member states—is lacking in the report. Similarly, the report also lacks a coherent conceptual framework under which reforms in the Secretariat are linked to reforms in intergovernmental mechanisms that produce mandates for the Secretariat. What is more, several recommendations—such as the reduction of flight hours to qualify for business class travel—will add cost without commensurate improvement in staff performance. Member states will not take them kindly.
Most member states, including Nepal, will benefit from strengthened United Nations. But the secretary-general is yet to demonstrate political will and courage to do so.
The secretary-general needs to execute a few bold strategic ideas that generate a ripple effect for improvements across the organizations. For this, he will have to recast the CMT’s key recommendations in a way that reflects and advances his vision and makes them interlinked with organization-wide reforms while keeping them palatable to member states. And he needs to select senior managers based on their commitment to the principles and purposes of the UN and their competence, moving away from the current system of powerful states nominating their nationals.
A robust UN could be a real force for peace, development and human rights around the world. Most member states, including Nepal, will benefit more from a stronger world body. Mr. Ban has only a little more than four years in his second term to make his mark and enhance the relevance of and support for the UN. We know he has the capacity and commitment to prove the detractors of the UN, like John Bolton, wrong. But he is yet to demonstrate political will and courage to do so. Free from the anxiety of reelection, the second term is always the best time for bold ideas and action.
The two authors are joint writers of Reinventing the United Nations