European Affairs

A More Efficient UN Will Make the World Safer     Print Email
Mark P. Lagon

Mark P. LagonThe United States has long advocated reform at the United Nations. Much of the discussion of the sometimes unglamorous issues of management reform has been driven not just by the Congress, but by the harping of the United States working with other major UN contributors over the years.

The goal of the United States, and of the Bush Administration in recent years, is to seek to make the United Nations more efficient so that it can serve its original purposes more effectively. We believe the United Nations has great potential for furthering freedom and making the world more secure. But reform is necessary to make it better equipped to carry out the objectives first outlined in the UN Charter 60 years ago.


Sometimes we have to stand back and look with amazement at how much the United Nations shoulders and what a good job it does. At other times, unfortunately, we see the UN machinery as creaky and slow. Ultimately, however, it will require political will to help make multilateralism work.

Multilateralism is a slippery term because, at least in the eyes of Americans, adding the “ism” to “multilateral” does not necessarily make it an end in itself. There are multilateral instruments, and there is multilateral leadership. What we should talk about is how we can contribute to building cooperation together. In doing so, we must recognize that the universality of the UN system gives it an important representative quality. But we must also remember that “universality” does not in itself guarantee “democracy.”

The fact that every government in the UN General Assembly has an equal vote does not make it democratic. Many of the governments in the General Assembly do not represent the consent of the governed. The nations that are democracies have an important responsibility for building the instruments of international law in the multilateral system. The democracies need to work together across regions, and then at the core of the system, to build this agenda. And at the core is the old and essential partnership between Europe and the United States.

Proposals for a new Peace-Building Commission have come very much at the right time. Just as the United States is creating its own office in the State Department for post conflict preparations, we think it is also very appropriate to give the United Nations greater wherewithal for dealing with these kinds of issues. It is important that we concentrate on getting the details of it right, because a consensus is developing in favor of linking security issues, such as preventive measures and post conflict activities, with questions of development. We must be particularly careful how we define the relationship between a Peace-Building Commission and the Economic and Social Council, which to this day has not shown very effective leadership.

We must also focus on the relationship between a Peace-Building Commission and the international financial institutions, which have an important role in facilitating finance, but which probably should not take directive cues from the Peace-Building Commission.

One of our greatest challenges is to create a culture in the UN in which democracy and human rights are a priority. The idea that the High Commissioner for Human Rights should regularly speak to the Security Council at an early stage in the decision-making process might help build greater political will for the Council to deal with such issues as Sudan. The proposal to increase the capacity of the High Commissioner’s office for cooperating with governments seeking to build a rule of law is also very promising. The United States will support a substantially increased UN regular budget funding for that purpose.

Perhaps most importantly, however, we need to think about the symbolic institution of the Commission on Human Rights. It is quite striking that the Secretary General himself has suggested that the “declining credibility” of this institution “casts a shadow” over the entire UN system. The United States will in its regular consultations with the European Union on UN human rights affairs develop a joint position on this before September.

The State Department consults constantly with the EU Presidency and the EU member states on UN policy, and particularly on multilateral human rights policy. These consultations have produced enormous mutual benefits and reinforced our conviction that we can achieve far more in the human rights bodies of the United Nations if we work together.

We need to look at how the proposed new Human Rights Council would operate. It is a good idea that it should report to the UN General Assembly. The universal composition of the General Assembly would give the Human Rights Council a certain mandate. It is troubling, on the other hand, that some would like the new Council to be precisely the same size, or about the same size, as the current Commission on Human Rights that it would replace.

That may not be so helpful. There should be some responsibility on the part of member states elected to the new human rights body to live by a certain code of conduct. We need to agree on specific details before the next elections to the Commission, or to the Human Rights Council if it is in place by then, to ensure that some of the world’s most undemocratic nations will not be able to twist and pervert the institution’s operations.

We also need to look very carefully at the Secretary General’s proposal for peer review in such a council, so that when nations are quite rightly examining each other’s records on human rights, the exercise does not become a means for diverting discussion from the most urgent human rights crises of the day. One main reason for creating the new Human Rights Council is to establish a standing body capable of dealing with such crises.

We also need administrative and management reform, on which the United States has been working with the Geneva Group, which comprises 14 of the largest UN contributors. These 14 countries pay over 80 percent of both the regular UN budget and the peacekeeping budget, and they have asked the Secretary General not to forget management and administrative reforms as part of this package.

The United States is proposing a three-pronged approach on management reform. The first aim should be to try to create a culture of greater transparency, accountability and integrity, not least by giving the important Office of Internal Oversight Services more independence. We also need to inject internal oversight into peacekeeping operations, so that the horrifying sexual abuses committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo are not repeated.

We need to be creative in the case of small UN agencies that do not have the capacity to conduct their own internal oversight. Perhaps the task could be entrusted to the Office of Internal Oversight Services. We must also take further steps to ensure that UN personnel are not subject to conflicts of interest, or even the appearance of such conflicts. That should also apply to all UN agencies, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization, where recent events related to a contractor building a new headquarters have indicated there may be problems.

The second goal should be basically improving management effectiveness. This could include the consolidation of UN Information Centres around the world and reducing the costs of conferences, which account for the largest single section of the UN budget.

Thirdly, management reform should include boosting the relevance of the United Nations to help it achieve the goals set in its Charter. The Secretary General has committed himself to reform and to emphasizing democracy more than any of his predecessors. On the other hand, the Secretary General has failed to use the authority given him in December 2003 to redeploy up to 50 posts from lower to higher priority areas. There is something about the politics of the United Nations, or the lack of will of the Secretary General, that has led him not to move one post yet. He should use that authority and should be given more authority to move posts.

The U.S. government is calling for another very simple thing, which is sometimes ignored because of the jargon term for it ­ “sunsetting.” Peacekeeping missions have to be reauthorized every few months. They need to be checked out to see if they should continue, or whether they should be refined, increased or reduced in personnel, and they are often extended. So, too, all other UN programs, both new and old, ought to be regularly assessed on the assumption that they might not continue.

There is much to be done on the reform front, even if some of it is not very exciting. The United States is fully committed to participating in this effort. And while some elements of the package may not go forward as quickly as some would like, there is a great opportunity for progress on much of the reform agenda.

Mark P. Lagon is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. He previously served on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff, where he focused on UN and international organizations, democracy and human rights, and public diplomacy. He was previously a senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with particular responsibility for the State Department authorization bill, international organizations, economic sanctions, broadcasting and public diplomacy and human rights.