Reforming the United Nations: The Quiet Revolution (2001)


The United Nations is in need of reform. There has always been widespread agreement that this is the case. Considerable disagreement existed as to what kinds of reforms were needed and for what purpose. Although this applies throughout the history of the organisation, in recent years Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave highest priority to engaging member states in reassessing the organisation and implementing reform measures in accordance with a new-found consensus. After taking office in early 1997, he launched the Quiet Revolution, which fundamentally transformed the organisation.

            The Secretary-General’s initiative is at the centre of this publication, Reforming the United Nations: The Quiet Revolution. It reviews and presents key reform documents originating during the period from 1996 to 2000. This focus makes the publication unique. It provides an authentic, comprehensive, in-depth description of important reform initiatives, based on primary sources. By doing so, it generates a wealth of information, identifying the major interest groups, the mechanisms and constraints of the reform process and the impact of major reform initiatives. The publication also presents a summary of previous initiatives since the creation of the organisation. This provides a comprehensive history of reform.

            The current publication constitutes volume IV of Reforming the United Nations. The previous volumes[1] were dedicated to the presentation and detailed review of 50 reform efforts launched during the period from 1950 to 1995. The history of reform presented in volume IV provides a summary of those initiatives documented in previous volumes. Frequent cross-reference is made in the history of reform to the primary material presented in volumes I to III. Together, the four volumes provide over 4,000 pages of material and constitute the most complete documentation of their kind.

            Why is the United Nations in need of reform? The organisation was established to provide peace and security, foster economic and social development, and promote human rights. It is a complex organisation with a global presence and 189 member states. Among its main governing bodies are the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The Secretary-General heads a Secretariat of international civil servants, who facilitate, prepare and implement the decisions of the intergovernmental bodies. The United Nations is the sum of its members: a tool rather than an actor. Whereas the membership is composed of sovereign states, the proper functioning of the organisation requires respect for reciprocal obligations determined under its Charter and international law. The power of the Secretariat is limited; it has no resources of its own and acts under the close directives of the intergovernmental bodies.

            Initiatives for reform are an expression of dissatisfaction with the workings of the organisation. There have been varied and often contradictory. The United Nations has been judged to be inefficient, with a bloated bureaucracy and incompetent staff. The General Assembly and ECOSOC are often described as talking shops where nothing gets done. Frustration has been expressed about policy-making being reduced to the lowest common denominator. There have been a series of reform efforts, originating mainly in the United States and Europe, to improve productivity and relevance through reorganisation or reengineering, thereby increasing the return on taxpayers’ money. These have been presented as technocratic goals but were often accompanied by suspicion concerning the motivation behind such reform proposals – suspicion of a hidden agenda.

            Indeed, calls for increased efficiency and effectiveness have also been used by those who argue that the United Nations has become too powerful, that it over-regulates the global economy and endangers democracy. The United Nations is seen as championing the cause of the welfare state, not the marketplace, and continuously imposing new rules in the name of peace, the environment, global warming, worker rights or species protection. This suspicion is voiced in the United States, coupled with the sense of loss of sovereignty to an international organisation, which is perceived to be dominated by anti-American Third World. Reform efforts seek to limit the mandate of the United Nations, confining the  operation to intra-country concerns and restricting the power of decision-making vis-à-vis individual member states. This is accompanied by proposals to downsize the organisation, specifically by reducing activities in the economic and social field.

            Some of the smaller and medium-sized countries in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres support an assertive multilateralism by calling for an expansion of the responsibilities and operations of the United Nations. Aware of their limited power, they see the United Nations as a tool to solve global problems through joint action. Such perceived problems might include destabilisation through globalisation and the threat of great power pressure. Reform proposals call for United Nations involvement 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. This also includes proposals by idealists which offer plans for a greatly expanded body that would reduce states’ sovereignty.

            Developing countries have traditionally been strong supporters of the United Nations. The organisation provided a forum to exercise newly gained independence and was seen as an instrument through which economic and social progress could be achieved. Reform proposals aim to strengthen the role of the United Nations in development, covering issues of governance, trade and technical co-operation. The lack of perceived progress in this area has led to some disenchantment with the organisation, which is increasingly viewed as a tool of developed countries. Some concern has been expressed that the United Nations is becoming increasingly interventionist, to the detriment of the sovereignty of developing countries.

            Recently, new concerns have been expressed about the perceived lack of democracy and accountability in international institutions. Proposals for a reform of the Security Council call for enhanced representation and a restriction of the veto power of the five permanent members. Non-governmental organisations have called for a more democratic United Nations with greater openness and accountability.

            Whereas management improvements play an important role in the reform process, most observers recognise that the focus of reform is on policy issues. On the basis of their perceived national interest, there is a deep disagreement between the rich and powerful countries, located in the Northern Hemisphere, and the poor and powerless, often located in the South. Ultimately, the controversy goes beyond this and includes ideological debate and a conflict over fundamental values. At the centre of the debate is the very legitimacy of international law and institutions and their encroachment on the sovereign exercise of power by national political decision-makers. Overlapping concerns include the struggle between the need for a strong government institution, in the tradition of Keynesianism, and neoliberalism with its distaste for public programmes, taxes and regulations. Not surprisingly for a global organisation, different perceptions of fundamental values are reflected in the reform discussion, based on the varied experiences of its membership. This includes different conceptions of justice and equity, conflict over the values of individualism and collectivism, and the definition of concepts such as human rights and human well-being and democracy.

            Those differences help to explain the diversity of reform approaches during the period under review. On one hand, we have the support of developing countries for a strong development role for the United Nations and the support of European countries for a stronger organisation. On the other, we find the United States’ demand to downsize the United Nations bureaucracy, de-emphasising economic and  social activities and shifting priorities in the direction of human rights, the promotion of economic privatisation, and political democracy. Indeed, the policy of the United States vis-à-vis the United Nations has dominated reform discussions in recent years. Historically, the United States, like its allies and partner countries, had considered international institutions as the underpinnings of a peaceful and secure world. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been the undisputed economic, military and cultural superpower. From a position of unilateral leadership, there has been a decrease in support for multilateral action among the American political and policy elite: there appears to be less need for the United Nations. Multilateral solutions and international treaties are increasingly perceived as irritating constraints, indeed as a threat to national sovereignty. Will the United States increasingly retreat from international organisations? Will other nations attempt to prevent this by agreeing to its demands for reform? What will the role of the United Nations be after the reforms have been implemented?

            This publication reviews the most recent reform efforts and presents the documents and resolutions of the General Assembly and Security Council issued during the period from 1996 to 2000. In doing so, it also contributes to addressing the wider debate outlined above, which ultimately goes beyond the confines of the reform discussion.

            Before examining those recent proposals, the history of reform is presented in Chapter 1 (Previous Reform Efforts, 1950-1996) of Part I. In the 1950s, the United States and its Western allies constituted an overwhelming majority within the organisation. Reform efforts were triggered mainly by the dissatisfaction of the Soviet Union and covered organisational, financial and budgetary matters. With states from Africa and Asia joining the United Nations, development issues became of increasing importance, resulting in the expansion of the technical co-operation programmes. Reform initiatives based on the Jackson Report resulted in major structural adjustments to facilitate the delivery of technical co-operation. Towards the mid-1970s, the United Nations was increasingly becoming the forum for global negotiations on issues involving development, trade, industry and natural resources. Developing countries organised in the Group of 77, mainly located in the Southern Hemisphere, called for major changes in the international economic order. Reform efforts in the United Nations were geared towards supporting this reorientation, based on the Gardner Report. Demands for major adjustments were resisted by the industrialised countries, led by the United States. The North-South conflict, the Middle East conflict resulting in the subsequent oil embargo, and the issue of apartheid in South Africa were seen to transform the United Nations into a forum hostile to the interests of the United States. The organisation became less central to American foreign policy, although the United States remained active in order to avoid providing an advantage to the Soviet Union. In order to revitalise the United Nations, proposals for fundamental reforms were advanced by prominent groups of supporters of multilateralism, including the Brandt, Palme and Brundtland Commissions. A widely recognised study was issued by Maurice Bertrand, a member of the United Nations Joint Inspection Unit. Reform initiatives by the United States focused on containing budget growth and administrative matters, and were backed up by the withholding of the United States contribution. The concept of multilateralism was fundamentally questioned by the Heritage Foundation, an influential American policy research institute. The confrontational atmosphere gave way to a greater convergence of views after the introduction of administrative reforms, budget reductions and a new consensus-based budget process in the second half of the 1980s. This was based on proposals developed by a group of intergovernmental experts established by the General Assembly and known as the Group of 18.

            The end of the Cold War resulted in a rediscovery and renaissance of the United Nations. The momentous transformation in the Soviet Union included a reassessment of its role in global affairs. Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, generated a spate of ideas, which brought new life to the United Nations. This was followed by a host of new reform initiatives, including government-sponsored efforts such as the Nordic project, the Stockholm initiative and the Carlsson/Ramphal Commission, and efforts by interest groups such as the South Commission and influential experts including Brian Urquhart and Erskine Childers. Major reforms were implemented based on the new-found co-operation between the members of the Security Council and the Agenda for  Peace advanced by the Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The United Nations experienced an unprecedented increase in peacekeeping, including new operations in Somalia, Yugoslavia and Haiti. The new emphasis on peace and security created interest in a reform of the Security Council. Other reform initiatives were initiated by the Secretary-General and included the Qureshi/Weizsäcker group on the future of the United Nations and the Ogata/Volker group on the funding of the United Nations. Despite the new enthusiasm for change and the expansion in activities, the South felt that development had been marginalised. Due to the insistence of developing countries, efforts were initiated to launch An Agenda for Development.

            At the time of the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995, the environment had changed with astonishing speed. In the wake of disappointment in peacekeeping, there was a sharp retreat from assertive multilateralism. Faced with increased reluctance by the United States Congress, the Clinton Administration took a more cautious approach. Reform proposals emphasised the need to reduce budget provisions, increase efficiency and effectiveness, streamline intergovernmental bodies, and de-emphasise programmes considered not in the American interest. As in the late 1980s, the demands for reform were coupled with the renewed withholding of funds. A new factor came into play. As the sole remaining superpower, the United States was increasingly retreating from multilateral solutions, not engaging in new peacekeeping operations, and insisting on a reduction in its contributions to the United Nations budget.

            Chapter 2 (New Reform Initiatives, 1996-2000) of Part I reviews the most recent reform initiatives; primary sources are also presented, including 10 resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council in Part II (Resolutions) and 20 documents from governments, the Secretary-General of the United Nations and experts in Part III (Documents). The first section discusses an article by the distinguished experts Paul Kennedy and Bruce Russet entitled Reforming the United Nations (document 1), issued in 1996. This was a follow-up to their previous involvement in the Qureshi/Weizsäcker group in 1995. A second follow-up is the release of new reform proposals by the Nordic countries on Strengthening the United Nations in the Economic and Social Fields (document 3), issued in 1996. The Nordic countries’ reform project in the economic and social fields was launched back in 1988 and they had issued a previous report in 1991. The conclusion of three reform efforts launched by the General Assembly in the mid-1990s is subsequently presented. This included the approval of the Agenda for Development (document 5) in 1997 after nearly five years of negotiations. The Agenda reflected an integrated view of the United Nations’ role in development at a time of global change. Initial expectations had not been met, however. Developing countries were disappointed by the lack of new commitments for increased funding for development; developed countries criticised the lack of streamlining of the intergovernmental and organisational structure of the United Nations in the economic and social fields. Also in 1997, the Assembly approved the report on the Strengthening of the United Nations System (document 7), an initiative strongly supported by the United States. A number of specific measures were agreed upon to improve the workings of the General Assembly and its subsidiary bodies, as well as the Secretariat. Some of the more controversial proposals were later taken up by subsequent reform efforts, such as proposals to establish the position of Deputy Secretary-General. Finally, the Assembly approved a Supplement to an Agenda for Peace (document 9) in 1997 on the issue of co-ordination and sanctions.

            The appointment of the new Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in 1997 provided a chance for a new start. Demands for change were presented by Jesse Helms, Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in his article Saving the United Nations: Challenge to the Next Secretary-General (document 2). They included demands for the cessation of United Nations encroachment on the sovereignty of nation-states, major budget reductions and a change in the budget process, and an overhaul of peacekeeping. The reform initiative was linked with an ultimatum that the United States would end its participation in the United Nations if fundamental changes were not implemented. Senator Helms was instrumental in reaching a bipartisan agreement in the United States Congress on the conditions for the payment of the United States’ assessed contributions and arrears to the United Nations. The Helms-Biden agreement called for zero-growth budgets and reductions in the United States’ assessed contribution.

            Soon after taking office, Kofi Annan launched his Quiet Revolution in 1997. He immediately introduced new management mechanisms through the establishment of a cabinet-style body to assist him and by grouping the United Nations’ activities in accordance with four core missions. Following the release of a first report on Management and Organisational Measures (document 4), the comprehensive reform agenda entitled Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform (document 6) was issued in mid-1997. Key proposals included the introduction of strategic management to strengthen unity of purpose, the establishment of the position of Deputy Secretary-General, a 10-percent reduction in posts, the streamlining and improvement of organisational arrangements, a reduction in administrative costs, the establishment of a development account funded through savings, the consolidation of the United Nations at the country level, the introduction of a performance-based management culture, and reaching out to civil society and the private sector as partners. In order to address more fundamental problems, the Secretary-General proposed to hold a Millennium Summit and Assembly in 2000 and to review new concepts for trusteeship and the United Nations system. Further reform proposals were elaborated by a task force in the area of environment and human settlements at the request of the Secretary-General (document 13).

            The proposals were considered during the General Assembly in 1997 – also known as the Reform Assembly. The different positions on the proposals are presented in a review of a commentary prepared by the South Centre at the request of the Group of 77 (document 10) and the views expressed by the European Union, the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, and the Group of 77 (document 11). Most reform proposals were approved at the end of 1997 (resolution 1) and thereafter (resolutions 2, 3 and 4). A progress report on achievements in the reform process was provided by the Secretary-General in late 1998 (document 14).

            In parallel to the implementation of the Secretary-General’s Reform Agenda, the Open-ended Working Group of the General Assembly, launched in 1993, was negotiating the reform of the Security Council. The Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It can call on members to apply economic sanctions and undertake military action, such as peacekeeping missions. With the end of the Cold War, the Council had become more active and important and thus this reform initiative was possibly the most politically charged issue facing the United Nations. The Council includes China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the five permanent members with veto power, and 10 non-permanent members. Discussions focused on the Security Council’s size, composition, and decision-making processes, including the right to veto, and improvements in its working methods. Three reports issued by the Working Group between 1997 and 1999 (documents 8, 12 and 15) are reviewed. Issues covered included the addition of new permanent and non-permanent members, the veto rights of existing and new permanent members, and transparency of operations. Germany and Japan, together with India and countries such as Brazil and Nigeria, were contenders for permanent membership. Although an agreement had been reached to improve transparency in the Council’s procedures, discussions reached an impasse on the critical issues. Agreement was essentially blocked by approximately 10 to 15 important countries, notably Italy and Pakistan, which had traditionally supported the United Nations, but which themselves would not profit from an expansion in the permanent membership of the Security Council. In 1997, a plan proposed by the General Assembly President, Razali Ismail, came close to offering a compromise. Among other things, the plan included a facility to develop the required majority for Security Council reform over a three-stage process. A subsequent decision by the General Assembly in 1998 prohibited this approach and put a hurdle in the way of reaching agreement in the future.

            As part of the Reform Agenda proposed by the Secretary-General, the Assembly had approved the holding of the Millennium Summit and Assembly in 2000. The Summit was attended by the unprecedented number of 144 heads of state or government; three main reports were presented. First came the report of the Secretary-General entitled We the Peoples: The Role of the United Nations in the Twenty-First Century (document 16). Second, there was a declaration and agenda for action by the Millennium Forum of non-governmental organisations (document 17). Third was a report on United Nations peace operations (document 18), prepared by a panel of experts at the request of the Secretary-General and known as the Brahimi Report, after the panel’s chairman.

            The Summit expressed its faith in the United Nations as the foundation of a peaceful, prosperous and just world in approving the Millennium Declaration (resolution 6), the related Security Council resolution (resolution 5) and a follow-up mechanism (resolution 8). A review of and decisions related to  the Brahimi Report are subsequently presented (documents 19 and 20; resolutions 7). Member states repositioned the United Nations for the twenty-first century. Major commitments were pledged to achieve development and the eradication of poverty, including precise targets to be achieved by the year 2015. On peace operations, decisions covered the provision of additional resources, structural adjustments at Headquarters to improve support to the field operations and a comprehensive review of additional resource requirements. Chapter 2 concludes with the approval by the Millennium Assembly of a new scale of assessment in December 2000 (resolution 9 and 10). In accordance with the conditions outlined in the Helms-Biden agreement, the United States’ assessment for the regular budget was reduced from 25 to 22 percent in exchange for the payment of arrears. This decision was seen as putting the United Nations back on a solid financial footing for the years to come.

            In the presentation of the reform initiatives in Chapter 2 (New Reform Initiatives, 1996-2000) of Part I, cross-references are provided through footnotes to the primary material shown in Part II (Resolutions) and in Part III (Documents). For Chapter 1 (Previous Reform Efforts, 1950-1996) of Part I, cross-references are made through footnotes to the material presented in volumes I to III of Reforming the United Nations: New Initiatives and Previous Efforts.

            The documentation in Part II (Resolutions) and Part III (Documents) has been grouped in chronological order. Documents have not been edited. Corrigenda and addenda, however, have been integrated into the text wherever possible. In long documents, tables of contents have been added, if not  originally included, for ease of reference. All footnotes with lower-case Roman numerals in Part III have been added, as has the text appearing in brackets in the footnotes. The original titles of the documents have been used. However, in some instances, they have been standardised for reasons of clarity.

            Reforming the United Nations: The Quiet Revolution should prove to be a useful reference set for policy-makers, researchers and the interested public. The publication is issued by Kluwer Law International in co-operation with the United Nations. I alone, however, am accountable for any shortcomings in the publication, including any shortcomings in the selection of the material presented therein. Finally, I would like to state that the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation I am associated with.


Joachim Müller

Geneva, 2001

[1]Joachim Müller, Reforming the United Nations: New Initiatives and Past Efforts, Kluwer Law International, The Hague, volumes I to III, 1997.