The Reform of the United Nations (1992)

The United Nations has undergone a remarkable change.  A few years ago, the end of multilateralism was announced and the United Nations was pushed to the brink of financial insolvency. Today, the United Nations has been established as a key player in international affairs.  The involvement of the United Nations in Namibia, Central America, Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, Western Sahara, Cambodia or Kuwait are recent cases which highlight its new-found importance.  This renaissance was accompanied by two major developments, one external and one internal to the United Nations. Externally, the end of the Cold War and the lessening of ideological competition resulted in a dramatic improvement of the climate in which the United Nations was operating. Internally, the organization undertook a major reform effort. This publication is a comprehensive report and documentation of the initiation, approval and implementation of reform in the United Nations. It provides an understanding of the process of decision-making and policy formulation that will shape the United Nations for decades to come.

            The initiative for reform came at a time when the world body was severely threatened by political and financial crisis. In particular, the major contributing countries were dissatisfied with specific programme activities, the utilization of resources, decision-making on budgetary matters and the apportionment of costs.  Most of all, the USA as the major contributor wanted a larger say in the budgetary process. As well as demanding reforms, it opted to withhold part of the financial contribution it was required to pay towards the expenses of the organization. Although withholding of assessed contributions had been practiced by a number of countries in the past, the sudden increase in the amount of outstanding as a result of the US decision made it appear likely that the United Nations would become insolvent. The majority of member states, the developing countries, in particular, were suspicious of the motivation behind a reform which was accompanied by action to create financial instability. In fact, they viewed the reform initiatives as an attempt to challenge the democratic character of the organization by increasing the influence of the developed, at the expense of the developing, countries, and threatening what is known as the sovereign equality of member states.

            Faced with the organization’s imminent financial collapse, the diverging views were brought together in an attempt to reform the United Nations. The reform movement was thus born out of a crisis and was to be implemented under the most difficult political and financial conditions. While the crisis posed a grave threat to the organization it also harboured potential rewards. It created a climate in which a major redirection of the organization appeared possible, to the benefit of all member states. The need for change would soon become even more apparent. It so happened that the transformation of relations between East and West coincided with the reform initiative and there was an obvious need to redirect the United Nations to enable it to seize the new opportunities and face the challenges resulting from global developments.

            The threat of bankruptcy and improvements in international relations were of major importance for the reform process. These issues were also the main reasons for the considerable public interest which the reform process attracted. Suddenly, the United Nations was back in the headlines. The reform process was closely followed by a wide audience and recommendations for change were regularly put forward by outside observers. This renewed interest was certainly a welcomed development, but it also highlighted the limited understanding of the United Nations in general and the process of reform in particular. Clearly, detailed information is needed to make the process more transparent. That is what this publication seeks to achieve. While no solutions are offered, information is provided which will allow the reader to make his own judgement. The publication thus restricts analysis and focuses on a description of the initiation, approval, implementation and conclusion of the reform process, relying mainly on primary sources. Moreover, the documentation is complete in that it covers the reform effort from start to finish. It is a unique publication, providing an insight into the complete process of ‘reform making’ by drawing together all relevant primary information. Only by understanding the limitations and potential of this process will it be possible to recommend serious proposals for change in the future.

            The reform of the United Nations was carried out over a period of five years. It was launched in 1985 with the establishment of the Group of 18, composed of high-level experts, mandated to review the efficiency of the administrative and financial functioning of the United Nations. Based on the recommendations of the group, a programme of reform was approved by the General Assembly and implemented in the political, economic and social fields as well as in the administrative area. Among the measures taken were the introduction of new planning and budgeting procedures, reductions in personnel, the restructuring of the secretariat, the streamlining of the intergovernmental machinery, an improvement in the management of public information activities, a reorganization of conference services and changes ion monitoring, evaluation and inspection. The process concluded with the review of an analytical report on the implementation of the reforms by the General Assembly in December 1990.

            The publication tells an exiting story. It highlights the positions of the major interest groups: the critical attitude of the USA, the ‘rediscovery’ of the United Nations by the USSR, the emergence of Japan as a major financial backer of the organization, the broker function of the Western European countries in the negotiating process and the strong support of the developing countries for the United Nations. It gives a detailed account of the discussions in intergovernmental bodies and the response of the secretariat. The main reports containing the proposed reforms, their assessment and justification are also presented. Finally, it records the relevant resolutions and decisions, including those which were approved as well as those which were rejected.

            The general view is that the reform effort has achieved quite disparate results in the various areas it initially targeted. In fact, it was judged as having largely failed in the economic and social fields. As a result, a new reform initiative was launched by the General Assembly in 1991 building on the discussions documented in this publication.

            The Reform of the United Nations is divided into two volumes. Volume I (Report) gives a detailed account of the reform process. After an introduction to the United Nations, there is a short review of previous reform efforts, followed by a description of the build-up to the financial crisis and the start of the new reform effort with the establishment of the Group of 18. There is a detailed account of the discussions at the General Assembly and ECOSOC. Wherever appropriate, draft resolutions submitted during the negotiations, but not approved, are presented in order to document the process of negotiations. The resolutions and decisions which were adopted are shown in volume II as outlined below. Volume I ends with the final review of the reform process by the General Assembly and some concluding comments. The Volume also includes four indices: a subject and name index, an index of drat decisions and resolutions, an index of adopted decisions and resolutions and document index.

Volume II (Resolutions, Decisions and Documents) brings together 11 of the main resolutions and decisions and 41 documents associated with the reform process. The resolutions and decisions are those approved by the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. The documents include those submitted by the Administrative Committee on Co-ordination (ACC), the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ), the Committee for Programme and Co-ordination (CPC), the Fifth (Administrative and Budgetary) Committee of the General Assembly, the Group of 18, the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC), the Secretary-General and the Special Commission of the Economic and Social Council on the In-depth Study of the United Nations Intergovernmental Structure and Functions in the Economic and Social Fields. This documentation provides the background and reference material for understanding the process of reform as described in Volume I.

Finally, I would like to express my appreciation to those who have helped in making this publication possible. Special thanks go to Ms. Julieta Ocampo for her assistance. Most of all, I ma grateful to my wife Kumiko for her advice and patience. Needless to say, I alone bear responsibility for all the shortcomings, and the views expressed do hnot necessarily reflect those of the institutions with which the author is affiliated.


Joachim Müller

Vienna, 1991