Redeeming the United Nations

For a United Nations official to discuss reform of the international system is rather like an Englishman talking about the weather: it is a staple of daily conversation, but it always seems that real change remains just over the horizon. On Wednesday, 166 heads of state and government will gather in New York for a summit that we hope will take the reform process a major step forward.


Ambassadors in New York are now working day and night to hammer out the details of the current reform proposals. But whatever they manage to agree upon, as a long-time UN official I am conscious of how much the UN has already changed since I joined 27 years ago. 

If I had suggested to my superiors at that time that the UN would one day observe and even run elections in sovereign states, conduct intrusive inspections for weapons of mass destruction, impose comprehensive sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a member state, or set up international criminal tribunals and coerce governments into handing over their citizens to be tried by foreigners under international law, they would have told me that I did not understand what the UN was all about.

Yet the UN has done all of these things, and more, during the last two decades. It has administered territory, conducted huge multi-dimensional peace-keeping operations with nearly 80,000 soldiers in the field, and deployed human rights monitors to report on the behavior of sovereign governments. In short, the UN has been a highly adaptable institution, one that has evolved in response to changing times.

Today’s reform imperatives can be traced to international divisions over the Iraq war. In the summer of 2003, a poll conducted by the Pew Organization in 20 countries revealed that the UN’s standing had declined in all of them. The UN’s reputation suffered in the US because it did not support the Bush administration on the war – and in the 19 other countries because it was unable to prevent the war. We got hit from both sides of the debate and disappointed both sets of expectations. Some famous and rather powerful voices began to speak of the UN’s irrelevance.

It was at the peak of this unprecedentedly intense scrutiny that Secretary-General Kofi Annan seized the moment. In an historic speech to the General Assembly, he said that we could either continue with business as usual, potentially leading to disaster, or we could review the entire post-1945 architecture of the international system and construct a more effective structure of global governance.

Annan named a high-level panel of eminent persons to look into issues of peace and security, while a parallel group of economists, led by Jeffrey Sachs, studied what was needed to fulfill the development commitments made by world leaders at the Millennium Summit in 2000. In March, Annan synthesized their key recommendations in a report entitled In Larger Freedom.

The title comes from the preamble to the UN charter, which speaks of striving “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” By that magnificent phrase, the UN’s founders meant that human rights, development, and security are mutually interdependent.

Of course, the UN often falls short of its noble aspirations, since it reflects the realities of world politics, even while seeking to transcend them. At its best and at its worst, the UN is a mirror of our world: it reflects our differences and our convergences, our hopes and aspirations, and our limitations and failures. 

But the cause of political freedom has been making headway. When I joined the UN, it was almost unthinkable for the organization to take sides between democracy and dictatorship, or to seek to intervene in members’ internal affairs. Even on the meaning of human rights there was no universal agreement, with some states regarding them as a tool of Western neo-imperialism.

Today, by contrast, the UN does more than any other single organization to promote and strengthen democratic institutions and practices around the world. In the past year alone, it has organized or assisted in elections in over 20 countries – often at decisive moments in their history – including Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, and Burundi. The UN is setting up a Democracy Fund to increase assistance for building democracy, and we have proposed establishing a Peace-Building Commission to help countries move from war to durable peace. Annan is also pressing for a more effective and credible international machinery for defending human rights.

As we face the new challenges of our time, let us not forget the old ones, especially the persistent horror of underdevelopment. The combination of poverty, drought, famine, and HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa threatens more human lives than terrorism or tsunamis ever did. This summit must reaffirm the Millennium Development Goals and recommit the world to achieving these targets by 2015. There is no longer any excuse for leaving well over a billion people in abject misery. 

As Mahatma Gandhi put it, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The UN is no exception. To change the world, we must change too. The UN can be a much more effective instrument if its member states in the General Assembly and the Security Council are better organized and give clearer directives to us in the Secretariat – along with the flexibility to carry them out – and then hold us clearly accountable.

This week’s summit will be the largest single gathering of world leaders in human history. If world leaders rise to their responsibilities, the rebirth and renewal of the UN will be at hand. With its renewal, we will also renew our hope for a fairer and safer world.