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Strengthening the United Nations: an Ambitious Agenda



By Dietrich Fischer


Pace University
Co-Director, TRANSCEND: A Peace and Development Network
114 Conover Road, Princeton Junction, NJ 08550, USA
email, website


In 1945, the UN was founded to prevent interstate wars like Hitler's march into Poland 1939 that started World War II. Despite a lot of criticism of the UN, it has been amazingly successful in achieving this goal. There are still many wars, but almost all of them today are civil wars. Of 39 wars in 1995, all were civil wars. The Gulf War in 1990 was the last war of aggression, and it was decisively repelled by an international force in 1991. The UN was explicitly prevented from doing anything to stop civil wars by the provision in its current Charter that it should not interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign member states. In the second half century of its existence, the UN needs to be strengthened, so that it can also help prevent or end civil wars.

When people talk about UN reform, they usually mean to down-size it, to make it less expensive, calling it a "bloated, inefficient, wasteful bureaucracy." In 1997, the CIA for the first time published its budget, $26.6 million, compared to the UN's annual budget of $1.3 billion, or 20 times larger. What has the CIA done with it? It did not predict the end of the Cold War, nor the Iranian revolution. It has overthrown some democratically elected governments. If we look for a wasteful bureaucracy, I would rather name the CIA than the UN. I wish their budgets were switched.

The United Nations plays an essential role in enabling us to solve problems that no nation can solve by itself, in peacekeeping, development, protecting the environment, defending human rights, among others.

Not all of these problems are caused deliberately. In fact, few people advocate war, poverty, pollution or torture. Why, then, do we have so much of all of these? Is it due to human selfishness, short-sightedness, inadequate legal systems, or simply ignorance? All of these factors play a role and several more. It is interesting that all of them can be seen as various defects of effective regulatory feedback systems. Any viable system needs regulatory feedback systems to maintain a healthy state and to enable it to adapt to changing external conditions. For example, in the human body we have the immune system that detects disease germs and eliminates them before they multiply and spread throughout the body. In a society, we have the legal system where laws determine what is acceptable behavior, courts decide whether someone has violated the law and police and the prison system are there to enforce the law.

Such a feedback system has three components: (1) agreement on a goal, (2) ways to measure deviations from the goal, and (3) some mechanism to move the system closer to the goal if it has deviated.

Such a system can be defective in six ways. I will first list them, and then suggest how the UN can be strengthened to deal more effectively with those six problems.

First, there may be no agreement on the goal. That is a question of conflict resolution.

Second, even if there is agreement on the goal, deviations from it may not be noticed. That is a question of observation and measurement. For example, as long as we did not know that we are slowly destroying the ozone layer that protects us from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, nothing was done to stop that process.

Third, even if deviations are noticed, those who can correct a problem may have no interest in doing so, because others are affected. That is a question of externalities that economists have addressed, and also of ethics, whether we care about each other.

Fourth, even if the people who cause a problem are affected by it themselves, that may take place with a delay, and if they don't look ahead, they may fail to prevent the problem. That is a question of future planning.

Fifth, even if those who cause a problem are affected by it immediately, they may not act rationally, out of prejudice, hatred or other feelings. That is a question of psychology and culture.

And finally, perhaps the most frequent cause of problems, people may be fully aware of them and wish to correct them but do not know how or do not have the necessary means. This is a question of science, technology, education and economics.

Let us see how the UN may be strengthened to deal more effectively with each of these six problems.

The first is agreement. Responsibility for reaching agreement on what to do currently rests with the UN Security Council in case of a breach of the peace, and with the General Assembly and special conferences or committees regarding other global problems. But those institutions should be more democratic. That struck me when I once observed negotiations about a new wheat agreement which should also have foreseen food aid to hunger regions. After several months of leisurely talks the negotiations broke down in failure and the delegates went home. But those delegates did not suffer from hunger at all--if anything, they suffered from over-eating. I felt at the time that the people who suffered from hunger should have been represented at the negotiating table to plead their case. Or if for some reason that was not possible, at least the negotiators who failed to reach agreement should have been held accountable for their failure. Maybe the Catholic church has found a solution to that problem. There used to be periods when the Cardinals could not agree on who should be the next pope, with the result of two or more counter-popes. Finally the church decided to simply lock up the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel and not let them out until they have reached unanimous agreement on who should be the next pope. Perhaps we should lock up disarmament negotiators in one room and not let them out until they have reached a settlement.

The next is observation. In 1978, France proposed the creation of an International Satellite Monitoring Agency to verify arms control agreements and also provide early warnings of droughts, plant diseases and other natural disasters. At that time the two superpowers vetoed the proposal. Now that the cold war is over, the proposal might be revived. It is not even necessary to have universal agreement. A company in California has plans to sell satellite picture with a 3 meter resolution that could provide that function.

Greater openness is also needed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, especially to terrorists. If the bombs at the World Trade Center in New York or in Oklahoma City had been nuclear, hundreds of thousands of people would have been killed. Dozens of terrorist bombs explode each year throughout the world. Unless we can prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to more and more countries and finally eliminate them, the risk grows that some may end up in the hands of terrorists. The threat of retaliation has no effect on suicide bombers. Currently, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose role it is to enforce the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, can inspect suspected nuclear facilities only with the voluntary consent of the host country. If a border guard could inspect the car of a suspected drug smuggler only in places where the smuggler agreed, such an "inspection" would be a joke. The IAEA must be strengthened to gain the authority to make random inspections of suspected nuclear weapons plants. Of course, many governments would currently oppose such a proposal as an infringement on their national sovereignty. But this was also the reaction of many airline passengers when airlines began to inspect their luggage for guns and explosives after a series of hijackings. Many protested against being suspected as a potential terrorist and argued that this was a violation of their right to privacy. Today, most airline passengers realize that only if everybody's luggage is inspected, including their own, can they be safe. Sooner or later, national governments will reach the same conclusion. The question is only, will they do so before or after the first terrorist nuclear bomb explodes?

The third problem is incentives. Oskar Morgenstern has pointed out that if the people who make decisions about war and peace would have to fight themselves at the front line, there would be fewer wars. It is remarkable that there has never been any war between two democracies. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), which was founded 1995 in Stockholm with 14 initial member countries, seeks to assist countries who request help in monitoring elections and printing ballots. This institute deserves to be strengthened and expanded. Former US President Jimmy Carter, who has participated in many efforts to mediate an end to wars and to observe elections, pointed out that in a civil war, both sides are usually deeply convinced that the vast majority of the people are on their side. If they can be assured of free and fair elections, which they expect to win, both sides are often willing to lay down their arms and settle their dispute through ballots instead of bullets. It is important to make sure that there is no election fraud, and that all parties have fair access to the voters via the media before elections. Equally important is to guarantee that the election results will be honored by all parties. If groups who overthrow an elected government by force or prevent it from taking office would automatically face strong sanctions by the international community, there would be fewer military coups. Such an institution could play an important role in helping prevent or end civil wars.

One proposal for reforming the UN has been to create an International Criminal Court. Today the World Court can only hear cases brought by one government against another, and has no enforcement powers. It is unrealistic to expect that citizens can always find justice within their own country, particularly if they are persecuted by their own government and the government controls the courts. For this reason, we need to create an International Criminal Court to which citizens or ethnic minorities who are oppressed by their own government can appeal if necessary, and which can enforce its decisions.

Does the International Community have the right, or even the duty, to intervene in the internal affairs of a state? Under Roman law the head of a household, the "pater familias," had absolute sovereignty over his family. He could sell his children into slavery or beat them to death, and the state had no right to intervene in this internal family affair. Today we consider this concept absurd. That does not mean that if we hear a dispute in a neighbor's house, we break down the door and tell people how to settle their dispute. But if a spouse or children feel threatened, they must be able to seek protection from the police. In the same way, it is wrong for a government to intervene in another state and to tell other people how they should run their internal affairs. But if members of a minority, or sometimes of a majority, are oppressed by their own government, they must be able to appeal for help to a higher authority.

The fourth area is how to overcome time delays. The UN Secretary General has on occasion personally mediated disputes between various parties and helped avoid a war. But he is overloaded. There should be an entire UN agency that focuses on discovering where tensions are building up and help to find peaceful settlements before they break out in war.

In 1993, three private individuals from the Project on Ethnic Relations were able to help achieve an agreement between the Rumanian government and its Hungarian minority, allowing the ethnic Hungarians to use their own language again in school instruction and local newspapers, in return for the promise not to seek secession. This may well have prevented another civil war as in former Yugoslavia. This effort, which took less than two weeks, cost about a million times less than sending troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina for over three years, with ultimately 60,000 necessary to stop the war. Intervening early with mediation is not only much less expensive, but most of all it can help save many lives. This strongly suggests that we should put greater resources into preventive diplomacy.

Another example that shows that a small investment early can have big consequences down the road is the following: Alexander Yakovlev, a close aide to Gorbachev and the key architect of perestroika and the end of the Cold War, was among the first group of about 30 Soviet exchange students who came to the United States with a Fulbright Fellowship in 1956-57. The few thousand dollars invested in that fellowship may have done more to end the nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia than the trillions of dollars the United States spent for weapons over the four decades of the Cold War.

If there is a war nevertheless, the response should be swifter. Right now, if there is aggression, the Security Council has to meet and deliberate whether to assemble an international peace-keeping force to react to it, as in 1994 concerning the question of stopping the massacres in Rwanda. If each time there was a violent crime in a town, the town council would have to call a meeting to deliberate whether to hire a police force to deal with the problem, that would be far too slow. We need a standing UN Peacekeeping Force that can respond quickly in case of aggression. In the past, peacekeeping forces could only intervene if both sides agreed. If the police could stop a criminal from beating up a victim only if the criminal agreed, the police would be powerless.

The fifth problem is how to overcome prejudice and hatred. UNESCO has assembled international teams of historians to write history textbooks that are free of national bias, the vilification of enemies and the glorification of victory in past wars. But even more people could be reached if the UN had an international radio and television network--as a complement, not replacement for national news--where different points of view from around the world could be heard and where global problems could be debated and various solutions proposed.

Sixth, resources. The UN budget is now about what New York City spends for garbage collection, and with that it is expected to solve every problem in the world. It has inadequate funds. Jan Tinbergen has observed that to almost every department or ministry at the national level there is some corresponding international organization, with one important exception, the treasury. And yet the treasury, which collects taxes and uses them to finance the rest of the government is the most essential part of any government. Without a treasury, a government would collapse. So he called for the creation of a World Treasury. It is probably a long way until there is global agreement on some world income taxes, but there are other possible sources of funding. For example, the UN could auction off rights to mineral exploration on the deep seabed outside any country's jurisdiction. That would not only raise revenue, but such an orderly process would also help avoid future wars over those resources.

Enormous savings could also be achieved through disarmament, by creating a joint UN Peacekeeping Force to oppose aggression. The present situation, in which each country maintains its own military forces, is as wasteful as if every house in a community maintained its own fire engine.

The growing global interdependence has given rise to some problems that individual states can no longer solve alone. Only through worldwide cooperation can we prevent climate shifts, stem the international drug trade, or prevent nuclear terrorism. At the same time, improvements in transportation and communication have made global cooperation easier.

Many governments are still reluctant to join a global authority to deal with global problems out of fear that they would lose part of their national sovereignty. But that fear is mistaken. No country today, for example, has sovereign control over the ozone layer or is able to prevent the sale of nuclear weapons to terrorists, unless all countries with nuclear technology cooperate. By creating global authorities that can limit emission quotas of noxious gases or verify nuclear disarmament agreements, we do not give up control over our destiny. On the contrary, we gain added control that we do not now posses and could never achieve at the national level.

The first advanced civilizations emerged about 6,000 years ago in the Nile, Euphrates and Yellow River valleys when farmers faced problems that they could not solve alone. To prevent recurrent floods and droughts, it was necessary to build dams to control the flow of those rivers, requiring the organized cooperation of thousands of individuals. This gave rise to the first states, the development of written language, the codification of laws, and a flourishing of science and the arts. Today we face some problems that not even a superpower can solve by itself. Hopefully, this will lead to greater world-wide cooperation before it is too late.




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