Reforming the U.N.

Print edition : January 24, 1998

In his first year in office as U.N. Secretary-General, Kofi Annan has undertaken measures to reform the organisation and address its financial crisis.

ON JANUARY 1, 1997, Kofi Annan of Ghana assumed office as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations. His appointment was made by consensus after the United States refused to agree to a second term for Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt. As the first Secretary-General from what may be called "Black Africa", Annan, in his first year in office, carried a lot of goodwill and support in the performance of his tasks.

Reviewing Kofi Annan's performance a year later, there is a general feeling that he has begun well. He visited the capitals of a number of member-countries, beginning with Washington. In Washington, he was well received by the newly re-elected President, Bill Clinton. With the appointment of Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., as Secretary of State, Annan had, so to speak, "a friend in court" at the highest level of U.S. diplomacy. Albright's successor at the U.N., Bill Richardson, is a former Congressman with ready access to legislators at Capitol Hill. Annan also called on several key U.S. legislators in an effort to get legislative approval for the payment of U.S. dues to the U.N., which were in excess of $1 billion. Among the many other countries he visited was India.

In the U.S., there has been a vociferous demand for the "reform" of the U.N. bureaucracy. Annan did not need external pressure to propose reforms, since he had his own clear ideas about how to improve the work of the Secretariat. With the assistance of Maurice Strong, a Canadian with over three decades' experience in the U.N., especially in the field of environment, he took several decisions to streamline the functioning of the Secretariat. However, he pointed out that "reform" must be a continuing process and that the support of member-governments through the General Assembly was crucial for its success.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at a press conference.-MILTON GRANT / AP

The actions and recommendations focussed on several priority areas. The first of these was the establishment of a new leadership and management structure that would strengthen the Secretary-General's capacity to provide leadership and ensure accountability. To this end, several recommendations were made, among them the establishment of the position of Deputy Secretary-General; the establishment of a Senior Management Group, that is, a cabinet of senior officials to lead the process of change and institute sound management throughout the Secretariat; further development and strengthening of the Executive Committees of the sectoral groups established by the Secretary-General in January 1997, which include all the U.N. departments, funds and programmes; decentralisation of decision-making at the country level and consolidation of the U.N.'s presence under one flag, that is, a U.N. House under a U.N. Representative; and the establishment of a Strategic Planning Unit, a small high-quality team of information and research staff reporting directly to the Secretary-General.

Pending a lasting solution to the U.N.'s financial problems, efforts were initiated to ensure the organisation's financial solvency through the establishment of a Revolving Credit Fund of up to $1 billion, financed from voluntary contributions or other means suggested by member-states. Also, 12 Secretariat entities and units were integrated into five. A major shift in the U.N.'s public information and communications strategy and functions was envisaged to meet its changing needs.

The Secretary-General recommended to the member-states that they consider refocussing the work of the General Assembly on issues of highest priority, reducing the length of Assembly sessions. He further wanted them to consider the establishment of a ministerial-level commission to examine the need for fundamental changes through a review of the U.N. Charter and the legal instruments from which its specialised agencies derive their constitutions.

Kofi Annan also recommended that the General Assembly session to be held in the year 2000 be designated "a Millennium Assembly" and that it focus on preparing the U.N. to meet the major changes and needs of the world community in the 21st century. The convening of a "people's assembly" was also suggested.

Louise Frechette, the new Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations.-TODD PLITT / AP

Having placed his cards on the table for the reform of the U.N.'s functioning, Annan made a number of key appointments. Among them was the reappointment of Nitin Desai as Under-Secretary-General for Policy Co-ordination and Sustainable Development. C.R. Gharekhan was re-appointed for work in the political field, with special reference to West Asia. Shashi Tharoor, who had worked closely with Annan when the latter was in charge of peace-keeping, became Executive Assistant to the Secretary-General. Joseph Connor of the U.S. continued to be in charge of administration and management. Two women were appointed Assistant-Secretaries-General - Angela King of Jamaica, a career official who was placed in charge of gender issues, and Gillian Sor Ensen of the U.S., who was put in charge of external relations. Recently, Annan appointed Mary Robinson, the outgoing President of Ireland, High Commissioner for Human Rights; the decision was widely acclaimed.

For the first time in the U.N's history, a Deputy Secretary-General was appointed: on January 12, Annan named Louise Frechette, Canada's Deputy Minister of National Defence, for the post. Frechette, 51, a Canadian born in Montreal and educated in French at the University of Montreal and the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium, has served as Canada's Ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. She was also Canada's representative at the U.N. from 1992 to 1994. While at the U.N., Frechette helped design a peacekeeping operation for Haiti with the return from exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994. Apart from diplomatic assignments, Frechette has done work in economics, finance and international trade.

The proposal for a Deputy Secretary-General was first made by Secretary-General U Thant in his valedictory address to the General Assembly in December 1971. Annan is the first Secretary-General to have actively pursued the proposal; at one time it was thought that there were misgivings over the proposal. However, this, along with Annan's other reform proposals, was approved by the General Assembly before it adjourned in December 1997. The proposals for a development fund and a $1 billion revolving fund are being studied by the appropriate bodies and will be considered by the General Assembly during 1998.

Meanwhile, the financial crunch continues. The U.S. has been complaining that its share of the U.N. budget is too high and must be reduced. In my judgment, the U.S. has a good case in the matter. For too long the U.S. has been the U.N.'s "sugar daddy". In the early days of the U.N. Development Programme, Paul Hoffman, the administrator, who had a genius for fund-raising, managed to get as much as 40 per cent of its resources from the U.S. The General Assembly agreed in December 1997 to review the payment scale to the U.N. budget, two years in advance of the due date for such a review, and to get this done in 1998. However, U.S. legislators have not yet loosened the purse strings to pay the $1 billion and more that the U.S. owes the U.N. Today the U.S. is the only superpower, and its credibility is affected when it uses the U.N. machinery to pursue its political agenda but refuses to honour its treaty obligations.

Regarding the expansion of the Security Council, when the U.S. expressed its willingness - in addition to its support for Japan and Germany to secure permanent membership of the Council - to consider the addition of three more permanent members from developing countries, say, India, Brazil and Nigeria, it was generally felt that some formula to increase the number of permanent and non-permanent members could be agreed upon. However, there were several other claimants to a permanent seat - Italy from Europe, Argentina from Latin America, Egypt from Africa, and Indonesia from Asia. It is now anybody's guess as to when this proposal will be taken up for serious consideration and what the prospects are for an agreed formula.

C.V. Narasimhan, a former Indian Civil Service officer, was Under Secretary-General of the United Nations between 1956 and 1978. He is the author of the book, United Nations At 50: Recollections (Konark Publishers, Delhi, 1996).

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