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The UN Is At a Difficult Cross Roads



LONDON--It was Dag Hammarskjold, the greatest United Nations Secretary-General thus far, practitioner and contemplator all in one, who observed that the UN was not set up to take humanity to heaven, but to save it from hell.

With its new Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, the UN is once again feeling its way into a brave new world. It is not to be, however, the "new world order" of former U.S. president George Bush who, like his contempory, President Mikhail Gorbachev, saw at the end of the Cold War a chance to make the UN what it was meant to be when it was created out of the ashes of World War 2, a vigorous force in world peacekeeping.

That prospect was dashed by civil war in Yugoslavia and Somalia, partly by the tenacity of the warring factions and partly by President Bill Clinton's unprincipled undermining of the UN--in Somalia, after the tragic death of 18 U.S. soldiers, by attempting to shift the blame for an American command decision to the UN, and, in Yugoslavia, by side-tracking the near-successful diplomacy of UN mediator, the former U.S. Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance and his European Union partner, Lord David Owen.

The brave new world of Kofi Annan is, perforce, more humdrum, if for the long run just as necessary. It is, for the time being, less to do with the world and more to do with the UN navel itself. But in the end it should produce a UN that is, as the saying goes, leaner and meaner, more effective and, most important, will carry American public and congressional opinion with it.

By bringing in the no-nonsense Canadian businessman, Maurice Strong, to overhaul the UN's internal structures Mr. Annan at a stroke has both signaled his determination and identified his likely successor. Mr. Strong, a self-made man who ran away from home at 16 to make his fortune has been in and out of the UN for years, doing special commissions for $1 a year as he is now. He very much wants to be Secretary-General and he stood a good chance of getting the job this last occasion, if it hadn't been for the overriding political argument that it was time for a black African. But in four years it will be North America's turn and if Mr. strong can put the UN back on its feet financially as well as he has done some very big companies he could be a shoe-in.

A year and a half ago when I edited a book on the UN to mark its 50th anniversary I invited Mr. Strong to contribute a chapter: "On making the UN more businesslike." A powerful blueprint is already set in Mr. Strong's mind, not least a conviction that "a great deal can be done to make the UN more efficient in its use of existing resources without impairing its overall effectiveness."

He argues that as much as one half of the Secretariat's work is being devoted to areas and issues that are now accorded marginal priority by member states and should be chopped. "On the things that the UN does well, acting as a global forum for leadership that identifies new issues for the international agenda--human rights, the environment, population, women's issues, international development cooperation, peacekeeping, peacemaking, humanitarian issues and the practice of international law the number of permanent secretariat members is relatively small--in some cases as few as 20-30 people for an issue."

"The point is," Strong writes, "is that many of the UN's most important and successful value-added activities have involved small numbers of its permanent staff and correspondingly modest budget allocations."

The job of pairing down the UN, it seems to me, is in a safe pair of hands. If only it were so for the political reforms now being discussed, in particular constitutional change and the balance of power in the Security Council, the supreme policy making body.

Suddenly the talk that has been going on for many years of giving Germany and Japan veto-wielding, permanent, seats side by side with the Second World War's victorious powers who now dominate it, is bubbling up to serious resolve. The bargain set to win the approval of the rest of the UN's membership is that they'll also be joined by India, Brazil and South Africa. But this seems a very unpolitical way of going about it. It overly weights the Security Council in a European direction and it gives India, Brazil and South Africa something very important for nothing, other than being countries with sizeable populations. In India's case, in particular, it throws away the one piece of leverage that might push it to make peace with Pakistan over Kashmir and to jointly agree with Pakistan to forsake their nuclear weapons--indeed to do what South Africa and Brazil have already done.

Ideally, anyway, the time has come to abolish the veto and allow the Security Council to work by concensus, as it does when things work best at the moment. But until that day arrives there must be a large price for permanent membership. If the UN in future is going to save us from hell, the scource of war and in particular nuclear devastation--and the Indian sub-continent remains the world's most likely flashpoint--much more thought needs to be given to these reforms.



April 2, 1997, LONDON

Copyright © 1997 By JONATHAN POWER

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