Reforming the United Nations: New Initiatives and Past Efforts (1997)

The United Nations recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.  At the top of the agenda was the need to reform and adapt the organization to the post cold war period.  Numerous proposals were put forward; most, however, failed to secure the required support.  Kofi Annan, the new Secretary-General of the United Nations, has given the highest priority to engaging member states in reassessing the Organization and in implementing reform measures in accordance with a new-found consensus.

        For any organization, reassessment and reform are essential to future success, while being controversial and disruptive to ongoing operations.  The United Nations is a witness to this, having gone  through a series of reform efforts before.  Unlike other organizations, however, the United Nations faces unique challenges.  Being a complex organization with a wide mandate, a global presence and a governing body of 185 member states, the practical implications of reassessment and reform become more complicated than was anticipated when approved in theory.  Being also a political organization, the United Nations needs to be receptive to a rapidly changing environment.  Finally, being such a visible organization, the United Nations attracts considerable attention from policy makers and the general public.  As a result, a multitude of reform efforts have been regularly put forward.  Some of the proposals have been important for changing the Organization; others have been prominent in the discussion but have failed to be realized.

        Reforming the United Nations presents the current and past issues related to changing the Organization.  It brings together 50 key reform proposals originating inside and outside the United Nations.  The focus makes this publication unique.  It provides an authentic, comprehensive, in-depth and up-to-date description of important reform initiatives.  More recent efforts are given prominence in the presentation, supplemented by a selection of documentation spanning nearly four decades.  The documentation covers all aspects of the Organization, ranging from grand visions to detailed proposals, from the reform of the Security Council to the area of finance and administration.  The full spectrum of positions are reflected: those emanating from the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere; proposals from institutions that are critical to the concept of multilateralism and from strong supporters of the United Nations.  Any attempt to put together such a compendium can only consider a restricted number of proposals.  Moreover, it was not possible to consider prominent initiatives of which the conclusions are known to the public, but which have been elaborated on a confidential basis and were not released for publication.  The selection of reform proposals introduced here therefore constitute only one alternative; many other are possible and valid.

        The present publication relies on primary sources; it restricts analysis and focuses on a description of efforts.  By doing so, it generates a wealth of information, identifying the major interest groups, the process and constraints of the reform process and the impact of major reform initiatives.

        While no solutions are offered on how to reform the Organization, a number of observations can be made.  The concept of reform in the United Nations has a number of connotations.  Some see it as a way to enhance assertive multilateralism by expanding the responsibility and operation of the United Nations, by involving the Organization in affairs of member states that were previously considered to be internal matters or even entrusting the world body with the role of global governance.  Others see reform as a process of prioritizing the work of the Organization, limiting it to a number of key issues, confining the operation to intra-country concerns and restricting the power of decision-making vis-à-vis individual member states.  Still others see it as an opportunity to make the Organization more efficient and to economize, thereby increasing the return on taxpayers' money.  Discussions are often accompanied by suspicion of the motivation behind a reform proposal - suspicion of hidden agendas.  In such cases, reform initiatives have resulted in a stalemate and an exchange of accusations.  It is therefore important that those putting forward reform proposals and justifications reveal their true intentions.  Clarity in the discussion on United Nations reform, even if it reveals deep differences, can only contribute towards consensus and cooperation.

        Because the United Nations plays such an important role in many people's lives and incorporate so much hopes and expectations, the discussion on United Nations reform is often passionate.  Such passion, however, often prevents those participating in the reform process from appreciating the reasoning and concerns of others.  If reform proposals do not get the desired support, it is usually not because of a lack of political will, as is often argued, but because of a conflict of wills between different interest groups.  Although this may be considered a truism, it is important to make an honest attempt at understanding and appreciating the interests and the logic of the arguments put forward by the negotiating partners.

        Finally, we have to understand the past in order to shape the future.  The evolution of interests among member states in the context of political, economic and social developments have shaped the Organization.  We are part of this continuum.  Many ideas of today have been proposed before.  However, the successes of yesterday are often the burden of tomorrow, since it is always difficult to abandon trusted old remedies in the face of new challenges.  For this reason, it is hoped that this publication will assist those involved in the current efforts to reshape the Organization.  The reader is able to draw on ideas already put forward and "lessons learned" which might serve the ongoing process of reform.  Moreover, the publication should prove to be a useful reference set for policy makers, researchers and the interested public.

        The key to the publication is the presentation of the 50 reform proposals, which are discussed in Part I and presented chronologically in Part III.  The following proposals are included:


        *     Recent proposals emanating from intergovernmental committees of the United Nations on Security Council reform (1996) and the strengthening of the United Nations (1996); as well as previous efforts associated with the Group of 18 (1986) covering budget, finance and administration;


        *     Important reports issued by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, including An Agenda for Peace (1992) and An Agenda for Development (1994), which provide the foundation for recently implemented reforms;


        *     The following eight reports by renowned personalities or international commissions headed by them: Moeen Qureshi and Richard von Weizäcker (1995), Shridath Ramphal and Ingvar Carlsson (1994), Shijuro Ogata and Paul Volcker (1993), Julius Nyerere (1990), Gro Harlem Brundtland (1987), Willy Brandt (1979), Olaf Palme (1982) and Lester Pearson (1969);


        *     Position papers of the G-7 summit meeting (1996) and of the United States government, including the Clinton administration (1996 and 1993) and the Carter administration (1978);


        *     A history-making article by Mikhail Gorbachev (1987) redefining the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United Nations -  a prelude to the end of the cold war;


        *     The three famous studies by Sir Brian Urquhart and Erskine Childers: Renewing the United Nations (1994), Reorganization and Strengthening of United Nations (1991) and the Leadership study (1990);


        *     Records of the summit meeting of the Security Council on international peace and security (1992), held after the end of the cold war for the first time at the level of heads of state;


        *     Proposals from the conservative Heritage Foundation of the United States (1984, 1985) contrasted with those of third world organizations such as the South Centre (1992, 1996);


        *     Major government-sponsored initiatives, including the Nordic Project (1991) supported by four Nordic countries; and the Stockholm Initiative on Global Security and Governance (1991);


        *     Reports from non-governmental organizations, including the Canadian Committee for 50th Anniversary of United Nations (1995), the Stanley Foundation (1991), the North South Roundtable (1991) and the United Nations Association of the United States of America (1988);


        *     Proposals from government officials, diplomats and experts, including the following: Gareth Evans (1993), Foreign Minister of Australia; Peter Wilenski (1991), Ambassador of Australia to the United Nations; Maurice Bertrand (1985), member of the Joint Inspection Unit of the United Nations; and Marc Nerfin (1985), former staff member of the United Nations;


        *     A number of documents on reform history, such as the famous Gardner Report (1975) and the Capacity Study (1969) of Sir Robert Jackson, on which the United Nations development system is founded; or the failed attempt by Nikita Khrushchev (1961) to replace the position of the Secretary-General with a troika representing the major power blocs.


        Each reform proposal presented in the documentation is discussed in Part I of the publication, highlighting the context in which the proposals are advanced, the actors involved, the main trust of the initiates and the relevance to the operations of the United Nations.  Part I is divided into six chapters organizing the reform initiatives according to main phases in the history of the United Nations.  Chapter 1 (Initial reform efforts in the context of the cold war) includes three reform efforts advanced in the 1960s.  The issues raised dealt primarily with organizational, financial and budgetary matters and the initiatives were mainly triggered by the dissatisfaction of the Soviet Union with what was perceived a United Nations Secretariat dominated by the West.

        Chapter 2 (Focus on development and the North-South conflict) describes five reform initiatives in the 1970s.  With States from Africa and Asia joining the United Nations, development issues became increasingly important.  Initial efforts were aimed at creating new bodies and increasing the efficiency of the system for implementing technical cooperation.  The Jackson report is the best known reform initiative in that area.  Towards the mid-1970s, the United Nations was increasingly becoming the forum for global negotiations and issues involving development, trade, industry and natural resources.  Developing countries, organized in the Group of 77 and mainly located in the Southern Hemisphere, called for major changes in the international economic order.  The industrialized countries of the North resisted the demands for major adjustments.  Proposals for institutional reform in the United Nations during the second half of the 1970s reflected this North-South conflict.  The widely read report of the Brandt Commission concludes this period.

        Chapter 3 (New visions and the critics) describes 10 reform efforts launched in the 1980s.  In the beginning of the decade, the North-South confrontation had become all-pervasive in the United Nations.   Disappointed third-world countries deplored the "ignorance of the minority", while the industrialized countries rejected the "tyranny of the majority".  Some of the major contributors were less and less willing to support the Organization.  In this climate of crisis, two reform approaches emerged.  First, visions for a new United Nations were advanced to overcome the crisis.  The Palme Commission and the Brundtland Commission are well-known examples of such initiatives.  Second, the disenchantment of some of the major contributors resulted in a serious financial crisis of the Organization and in specific demands for organizational reform.  Efficiency, streamlining and budget reductions were the main issues of concern.  The work of the Group of 18 in the second half of 1980s contributed to overcoming the financial crisis and facilitating consensus among member states on the work of the Organization.

        Chapter 4 (End of the cold war and the rediscovery of the United Nations) describes 12 reform efforts from the late 1980s to early the 1990s.  The political rapprochement between the two superpowers has had a favorable impact on the work of the Organization.  Namibia, for example, was successfully ushered into independence with the support of the United Nations.  Proposals advanced by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 for United Nations reform marked the beginning of a new era.  There was no longer talk of a crisis, instead, there was talk of a rediscovery and a renaissance of the United Nations.   The new enthusiasm encouraged consideration of further reform.  The Nordic initiative was launched by Governments; the proposals by Brian Urquhart and Erskine Childers were widely considered private initiatives.  The new relevance was best captured in the summit meeting of the Security Council in early 1992 and the approval of reform proposals contained in An Agenda for Peace, which were advanced by the Secretary-General.  With the new-found cooperation in the Security Council, the United Nations embarked on an unprecedented number of peace-keeping efforts which taxed the organizational and financial capacity of the Organization.

        Chapter 5 (Reassessment of the role and purpose of the United Nations) describes 14 reform efforts put forward from the early 1990s to the present.  The enthusiasm for the new relevance was soon followed by more somber assessments.  With emphasis on peace and security matters, the momentous developments in Central and Eastern Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the peace process in the Middle East, the North-South relations and the promotion of economic development were no longer among the highest items on the international agenda.  A reassessment of the role and purpose of the new United Nations was demanded by developing countries.  Proposals put forward by the South Centre and the negotiations surrounding An Agenda for Development made clear that the Members of the United Nations did not share a common vision on the future role of the United Nations.  Moreover, it was realized that the initial expectations in the security area were unrealistic and that there was a need for the Organization to set its priorities and focus its activities.  On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary, numerous commissions and working groups and individual efforts by distinguished leaders were launched inside and outside the Organization to present a new blueprint for the future United Nations. Although those efforts resulted in innovative suggestions, no consensus could be reached on them and they failed to be adopted by the member states before the United Nations had finished celebrating its fiftieth anniversary.

        Chapter 6 (Ongoing reform agenda) describes six recent reform efforts which are expected to attract considerable attention in the coming period.  A major proposal by the South Centre presents what can be considered a reform agenda of the developing countries.  This is contrasted with the recent pronouncement of the summit on United Nations reform by the industrialized countries meeting in the Group of Seven forum.  The ongoing reform discussion on the Security Council has entered a crucial stage and will be one of the main areas of focus in future efforts.  Moreover, the initiative of member states in the working group on the strengthening of the United Nations system marks the beginning of a comprehensive assessment of the United Nations.  The initial results of that assessment are described.  In the beginning of 1997, the newly appointed Secretary-General Kofi Annan immediately started to reach out to the main critics of the Organization and launched a structured, comprehensive reform effort.  Reference is made to that effort, which is expected to lead to some fundamental changes in the Organization.

        The making of decisions on the United Nations reform efforts is documented in Part II of the publication which includes 67 resolutions, decisions and statements of the General Assembly, the ECOSOC and the Security Council.  In the presentation of the 50 reform initiatives in Part I (Reforming the United Nations), cross-references are provided through footnotes to the primary material shown in Part II (Resolutions, decisions and statements) and in Part III (Documents).

        The publication also includes four annexes covering an introduction to the United Nations, the Charter of the United Nations and an extensive bibliography of United Nations reform publications.  The  three volumes of Reforming the United Nations are issued by Kluwer Law International in cooperation with the United Nations.

        I would like to express my appreciation to those who have helped make this publication possible.  I alone, however, am accountable for any shortcomings of the publication, including any shortcomings in the selection of the material presented in it.  Finally, I would like to state that the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations.



Joachim Müller

Vienna, 1997