Global Policy Forum

"In Larger Freedom": A Challenge to the United Nations and to the South


A Comment on the Report by the Secretary General

South Centre
June 2005

The UN Secretary-General's Report "In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all" launched in March 2005 is intended to set the scene and agenda for the September 2005 High Level Plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly which is to review the Millennium Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Report has been vigorously promoted world wide among both policy makers and the public, with significant plaudits from the western media in particular. Yet this Report presents a number of challenges to the United Nations and to the countries of the South. Those of its sections that deal with institutional reform have potentially negative implications for multilateralism and global democratic governance, for the functions and roles of the UN, its Charter and its agenda, and indeed for North-South relations.

The following analysis prepared by the South Centre suggests that developing countries' expectations and aspirations of the UN, and how they relate to the UN, will be affected adversely by some of the proposed approaches and changes regarding UN reform. It is argued here that the underlying policy thrust, and the conceptual framework on which the institutional proposals made in the Report are based, reflect a predominantly Northern agenda for UN reform and imply changes that could undermine the organization and the multilateral decision-making process.

The underlying policy issues and controversies are drawn out here by questioning some of the major assumptions and proposals of the Secretary-General's Report from a perspective common in developing countries regarding the democratization of global governance and multilateral institutions, in which the UN is expected to be the linchpin and highest embodiment of good practice.

The context

Developing countries have been often blamed for adopting a "negative" and "defensive" stance whenever the question of UN reform is raised, even though their position has been consistently in defence of basic values as expressed in the UN Charter and of multilateralism.

Their basic perception is that the mission or objectives of the UN were and should remain twofold, namely, maintaining and strengthening a democratic world system based on multilateralism, and building an equitable world economic system that promotes development, while also reducing the gaps in wealth, income and power that continue to fracture contemporary global society and threaten social stability and peace worldwide.

These objectives loom very large in a situation where multilateralism is besieged, the overwhelming majority of countries experience marginalization when it comes to the conduct of global affairs and disempowerment when it comes to their own domestic affairs, gaps between wealth and poverty, and between military might and impotence become more pronounced. They are also increasingly central as the international community grows more and more interrelated and interdependent through trade, knowledge, financial and investment flows, improved communications and information technologies, the demands on the environment exerted by the contemporary civilization and, the many "threats" that are currently topical and some of which were identified in the Secretary-General's Report.

The strengthening of the UN thus involves both the substantive and institutional dimensions, namely what it will do and how and with what means at its disposal. While the core of the disagreement between the North and the South is with the former, the institutional issues are as controversial, if not more so, given the difficult history of North-South relations and geo-political tensions new and old existing between the two groups of countries.

The United Nations challenged by the North

To grasp the implications of the Report "In Larger Freedom", and why the current reform drive has given rise to controversy, it is essential to take into account the background of the evolution of broader North-South relations and changes in the United Nations.

Under the banner of reforming and adjusting the UN to suit new realities and contemporary requirements, the Report and its underlying premises often reflect the long-standing criticisms of the UN advanced by powerful centres in the North and their related agenda.

The criticisms and agenda have often been highlighted in a propagandistic manner in the media. The standard charges include the alleged inefficiencies of the intergovernmental process due to the large number of member states each claiming roles and rights on a par with those of the major powers; developing countries' use of their combined numerical weight and votes to assert their views and preferences; a bureaucracy that is unaccountable; excessive staff privileges; supposed attempts on the part of the UN, by pressing for improved global governance, to become a world government that would usurp the sovereign rights of nations; and, more recently, highlighting corruption, sexual and other forms of abuse and harassment both within UN organizations and in the field.

Such charges are most frequently levelled by the right wing press and political groups, mainly in the United States, not renowned for their pro UN stance. The accusations, intentionally or otherwise, have the effect of discrediting the organization and thus set the stage for proposals for institutional changes. Even some erstwhile "friends" of the UN in the North now perceive the UN as embodying an outdated "liberal-progressive" concept, an institution belonging to a bygone era, and thus in need of change to reflect the current geo-political context and the reality of unipolar power in the post Cold War period. It is argued that, unless remade in this mould, lack of interest and support on the part of key developed countries will condemn the UN to irrelevance.

It is the UN, now referred by Northern commentators as a "relic of the past", that facilitated the overthrow of colonial domination and provided the institutional platform from where to question the dominant power relations and the world economic system, and to launch and pursue many progressive and democratizing concepts and initiatives on how to organize the international community. It is this "early" UN that led the quest for alternative, more democratic and equitable ways of running and managing the world economy, for empowering the marginalized countries and peoples, for overcoming gaps in wealth and development, and for promoting solutions to emerging global problems, including those related to environment and sustainable development. The global economic and social indicators show how far there is still to go before many of these objectives are achieved, while the contemporary geo-political trends give rise to serious concern. The UN mission is far from accomplished.

Given these challenges the UN is even more important today for developing countries, and needs to be strengthened and made genuinely democratic and inclusive. Similarly, progressive civil society, both in the North and in the South, also considers the UN to be the only multilateral platform where it is possible to challenge the strategies and policies pursued and promoted by powerful interests in advanced industrial countries that seek to shape and dominate global processes and institutions to serve their own domestic and global ends.

Some UN functions and procedures clearly irk certain key political and economic actors in the North, hence their desire to turn the UN into an instrument that promotes more fully or ceases to question or impede pursuit of their own global policies, ambitions and interests. The broad thrust of their "hidden" agenda for institutional change emerges clearly from recent and current developments, as outlined below.

  • Depriving the UN of its roles and functions in global economic governance. A noticeable trend, following the demise of the North-South dialogue, has been the steady erosion of UN roles and responsibilities in relation to "hard" economic issues, such as trade, money and finance policy. These have been made the preserve of the multilateral financial institutions and of the WTO, in which "level playing fields" or "one size fits all" with respect to policy are introduced irrespective of levels of development. Not only does this preclude the UN from direct policy making, it also diminishes its role and its capacity to engage in critical assessment of the nature of the globalization process, the structures of the international economy, and the macroeconomic policies and global strategies of advanced industrial economies. Another development has been the institutionalization of close relations between the UN and the private sector, involving the development of financial sponsorship by large transnational corporations, UN-business partnerships, including partnerships that have a direct influence on analytical perspectives and policy on matters of substantial interest to big business. Such relations facilitate TNC corporate strategies in the global economy, often with potentially prejudicial implications for developing countries.
  • Increasing the UN role in domestic governance of developing countries. This gives a greater role to the UN in providing technical assistance, guidance and support to developing countries to orient and help them to evolve systems of domestic governance, complementary to guidance given to these countries in the economic domain by multilateral financial institutions, the WTO and bilateral aid agencies.
  • Weakening the UN support for collective action of developing countries. There has been an effort to dull the group influence and action of developing countries by weakening and marginalizing those UN organs and organizations (e.g. GA and UNCTAD) where they exercise collective strength and influence, while concentrating power and action in those organs and organizations where the North plays the central role and exercises control, e.g. the Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions. Furthermore, the secretariats have been discouraged from providing intellectual and technical support to developing country group efforts, support which can help offset the asymmetrical and often lopsided negotiating situations and power relations.
  • Accentuating the UN emergency and humanitarian roles. Bolstering the UN's capacity to deal with a myriad of issues arising mainly within the South, including natural and man made disasters, humanitarian emergencies, human rights infringements, health and environmental problems, armed conflicts within or between states, peace-keeping initiatives, and the management of post-conflict situations. In relation to these the Northern powers, with their superior power, resources and capacity to organize politically, are often able to control the institutional machinery and processes of implementing solutions, leading to suspicions and accusations that these are intended or used as instruments of intervention in the domestic affairs of developing countries.
  • Confining the Secretariat. Parallel to the allocation of a greater share of limited resources to operational, emergency, peace keeping and logistical activities, there has been a somewhat stealthy reduction in the UN's mandates together with a gradual reduction in the UN Secretariat's capacity to undertake critical analysis, especially in relation to economic and social issues and that of development and the environment. This is associated with efforts to reduce pluralism in the Secretariat and to align its ideological and professional profile and policy outlook - especially at the senior levels - with that of the staff of multilateral financial institutions and the WTO, where Northern strategic and policy interests tend to dominate.

The policy goals underpinning this process of neutralizing certain of the capacities of the UN go back to the birth of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and of the Group of 77, and the establishment of UNCTAD in the 1960s when the North perceived the collective action of the South, and the roles of the UN, as a challenge that needed to be contained. The process gathered force in mid-1980s when conservative regimes promoting policies of liberalization and deregulation emerged in some key countries of the North.

What brought these various strands into a focus and made them publicly visible was the rise of unilateralism in the post- "9/11" period. The South was identified as the seedbed of a number of tangible and real threats to the North and, by extension to "global collective security", in particular of transnational terrorism, which could not be contained or controlled via traditional means, and which did not respect national borders. At the same time, the UN and the vision of multilateralism that it embodies became a declared target.

The recent developments, and the real and alleged irregularities associated with the oil-for-food programme, taken up in a massive global media campaign against the UN to which this gave rise, have put the UN and its Secretary-General on the defensive, and rendered its Secretariat vulnerable to pressure. The financial and management misdeeds, alleged or documented, provide an excellent backdrop for the pursuit of broader political and reform goals.

A Faustian bargain?

It is against this background that the Secretary General's Report "In Larger Freedom" was launched, with the claim that the proposed changes would rejuvenate the UN by redesigning it to meet the challenges faced at the start of the 21st century.

Close reading however, suggests that a number of the Report's institutional recommendations and some of its conceptual premises are bound to trouble developing countries. The underlying thrust reflects the strategic goals of the North, which were implicit in developments regarding the UN that were outlined in the preceding section. In effect, they also provide a framework that could accommodate and legalize more frequent interventionism, including by military means, by the North in the developing countries, something which has become increasingly common following the end of the Cold War, and especially in the post- "9/11" period.

It does not require utter cynicism to suggest that the Report aims to reduce and avoid further pressures on the Secretariat and on the organization by responding to the one particular North vision of the world and the role of the UN on the grounds that making the UN more acceptable to the centres of power will make them supportive of the organization.

However, the resulting situation is highly unbalanced. While the Report provides developed countries with a ready-made platform and recommendations which largely coincide with their views and expectations, it virtually ignores developing countries' views and puts them at a major disadvantage and on the defensive as to how they should respond, first in relation to efforts to limit the potential damage to the organization, and second in advancing their own proposals.

Questionable starting point: the Report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

The Secretary-General's Report draws its policy and conceptual inspiration and institutional proposals from the Report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, entitled "A more secure world: Our shared responsibility".

A South Centre document reproduced in this volume argues that the conceptual underpinnings of the recommendations of the Panel's Report are flawed and have serious implications for the developing countries and for the UN. It concludes that if followed a major effect of the Panel's recommendations will be to transform the United Nations into an organization to contain, pre-empt, control, prevent, including by using force, various threats to security – all emanating from developing countries, at the cost of the neglect of the systemic and structural problems besetting the international community and the world order. Moreover, the recommendations will have the effect of making the international order less and less participatory and conferring greater roles and powers on those member States that are already dominant and powerful.

The High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, by making the notion of "threats" and "fears" as its policy and conceptual underpinning, oriented the whole exercise towards reforming the UN in a manner to respond to what is perceived in some quarters as radically changed realities following the 9/11 events.

The Panel's Report contains a number of policy premises and proposals for institutional reform, that do not reflect the informed views of the majority of member states, proposals which were not discussed by the intergovernmental organs and bodies, including those targeted by proposed reforms. What is more, the threats and fears identified in the Report are perceived from the perspective of developed countries – the Report being written and coordinated by experts from a key country in the North and, as such, fully informed about the views and needs of the centre of power, with less awareness or concern for the views and sensitivities of the South.

Had the starting point for the Panel's inquiry been different, for example by considering "threats" experienced and perceived by developing countries, or more positively, their development needs, the thrust and conclusions of its Report would have been different. It is also likely that had someone from the South been entrusted with coordinating and writing the Report, the end product would have been also quite different.

At its launch, the Panel's Report was endorsed by the UN Secretary-General and taken up as the basis for preparing the reform-related aspects of his own Report to the High Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2005.

Essentially the same core team of Northern authors who were in charge of the Panel's report were entrusted with coordinating and drafting of the Secretary-General's document.

Once the document was ready and tabled in early March 2005, the publicity machinery was set in motion to market the Report via global media, high level emissaries were named, phone calls were made to some heads of state seeking their support, and congratulatory messages received, including from many leading personalities in the North, while voices from high public places kept warning the UN of serious consequences unless it reforms.

A general comment on the Secretary-General's Report

The Secretary-General's Report "In Larger Freedom", has steered clear of a number of controversial recommendations contained in the report of the High-Level Panel. It has highlighted the interdependence of issues and the equal importance of security, political, economic and social domains on the UN agenda. It has also given pride of place to the economic and social domain, by placing issues of MDGs in the opening chapter of the Report.

However, overall there is little do distinguish the policy thrust of the Secretary-General's Report from that of the Panel. The former embraces the same policy and conceptual rationale as that found in the Panel's Report, namely the need to adapt the UN to new post 9/11 conditions and power realities, its prime task being that of managing the South and containing the perceived multiple threats ostensibly emanating from the South.

In brief, the Report implies that:

  • The UN will be moving in the direction of becoming an instrument for intervention ("ingerence" as referred to in French) into many if not most aspects of the domestic affairs of developing countries, in the process further limiting their policy space such that there remain few important areas of domestic policy where they can exercise sovereignty without being potentially exposed to external intervention.
  • While the UN's agenda and mandates will be increasingly oriented to deal with what are perceived to be threatening developments in the South, development per se is relegated to the backseat, or treated as an adjunct to the prior concern with security or, as a purely statistical exercise embodied in MDGs. Global and systemic issues, and in particular global macro-economic policies and the policies of the North that have global implications seem for all practical purposes outside of the agenda for deliberation and negotiation.
  • The democratic character of the UN and the principle of sovereign equality will be eroded, given the realities of power and wealth to which the organization is expected to adjust.
  • The important leadership function of the UN and its Secretariat, as an institution rooted in the founding principles of the UN Charter and supposedly pluralistic in its views that reflect the global community and, operating through multilateralism in order to help offset global power imbalances is at risk, for increasingly, key staff positions are the preserve of a few powerful countries and more generally staff appointees are supposed to fit within the present "pensée unique".

The "three freedoms" conceptual framework

A phrase from the UN Charter – "in larger freedom" – is used to organize and to provide a unifying conceptual framework for the arguments for institutional reform of the United Nations and associated proposals contained in the Secretary-General's Report.

Freedom from want – shrinking the international development agenda

This section of the Report essentially revolves around MDGs, and the recent development-related conferences organized by the UN (e.g. Monterrey on financing for development and Johannesburg on sustainable development), which however did not deal with the hard core economic issues and systemic problems of the world economy. For the most part, this section of the Report is addressed to the developing countries and how they should act and behave in order to attain various goals.

The Report asserts that "in economic and social spheres, the Millennium Development Goals now serve as a common policy framework for the entire UN system, and indeed for the broader international development community". The MDGs have had the effect of diluting the international development agenda and marginalizing the earlier development consensus and the North-South dialogue based thereon and, the concern with global macroeconomic issues and the globalization process which however, continue to be at the core of developing countries' demands and concerns.

To overcome this, the Group of 77 would need to challenge the entire MDGs rationale and to propose its expansion, by including other critical aspects of the international development agenda. The developing countries will need to reopen the debate on the appropriateness of the current MDGs framework as the centre-piece of UN work on development, and propose its review and upgrading into a more comprehensive approach.

Ultimately, it is the MDGs framework, which has become almost a mantra that has helped to place the developing countries largely on the defensive. It has reduced opportunities for the South to press and negotiate for its long standing demands regarding improvements in the external economic environment in support of development, and thus helping create conditions that would directly and indirectly make it possible for individual developing countries to attain MDGs and other development goals, rather than relying on promises of the always elusive ODA, now to be disbursed only when coupled with a myriad of conditionalities.

Indeed, the recommendation made in the Report that starting in 2005 those countries that put forward "sound, transparent and accountable national strategies", and require increased development assistance, should receive a sufficient increase in aid, of sufficient quality, and arriving with sufficient speed, implies further limitations on space for national policy making in developing countries and legitimizing the use of development assistance to influence domestic policies and processes in these countries, including the role of the state and the organization of the economy and society.

To summarize, the section on "Freedom from want" is unsatisfactory from the point of view of developing countries. An exclusive concentration of the economic bodies of the UN on the MDGs that is proposed would condone the surrender by the UN of its main Charter functions in the economic field i.e. "promotion of economic and social advancement of all peoples", the UN "being a centre for harmonizing the action of nations", in the economic and social field and "achieving international cooperation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character".

Freedom from fear – globalization of military interventionism in developing countries

The Report's use of language, generalizations and reasoning with which few can disagree, tends to obscure the underlying grossly unequal distribution of power. By putting all types and sources of threat into one and the same basket, the Report opens the door for global policing and security and military interventions under the aegis of the UN, with the countries of the South being the obvious principal arena for such operations.

The "new security consensus" proposed in this section in essence represents a conceptual and policy framework that would justify and facilitate the globalization of military interventionism, the use of military force and foreign occupation.

There is no doubt that the UN needs to be strengthened, equipped and funded to deal more effectively with many of the threats enumerated in the Report. That the UN should help with disease control, provide assistance in the case of natural disasters, deal with conflicts and wars, engage in peace-building and mediation initiatives, prevent environmental degradation, and deal with international crime is not at issue. The issue is whether the UN, given the current world situation and realities of power, will also become an instrument in the arsenal of powerful nations to be used for improved policing of the planet, and whether there is a risk of the UN being used to provide the stamp of multilateral legitimacy to essentially unilateral actions that promote globally the interests and strategies of powerful global actors.

The Report does not refer to non-intervention in national affairs nor does it delve on cross-border aggression, including economic and information warfare that can be perpetrated against countries with destabilizing and often serious effects, such threats being of special concern to developing countries.

While the Secretary-General's Report is less explicit than that of the Panel with respect to use of force, it seems to offer a flexible interpretation of Article 51 of the UN Charter (which refers to "the inherent right of individual and collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member State of the United Nations") when it says that "lawyers have long recognized that this covers an imminent attack, as well as one that has already happened", thereby suggesting the right to preventive (or pre-emptive) attack (or war). It also proposes to the Security Council that it adopt principles for the use of force which, given the different interpretations possible, could serve in support of globalization of military intervention and the use of force.

There is also a paragraph in the Report that calls on regional organizations that have a capacity to engage in conflict prevention and peace keeping to consider placing such capacities in the framework of UN Standby Arrangements System. This opens the door, as already suggested by the High Level Panel, for the UN to rely on NATO – at present the only regional organization with the required capability for deployment and use in different global theatres. This provides yet another building block in the proposed global security system and is something which should be of concern to developing countries.

It could be concluded that there is a real possibility that the UN will shift from a policy of minimal use of force and of dealing with crises through peaceful means, partly by addressing and resolving the causes of problems and crises, towards becoming an enforcement machinery in which armed security and the use of force play a much greater role.

Freedom to live in dignity – globalization of peaceful interventionism in developing countries
This section of the Report supplements the preceding section. It provides for peaceful interventionism, once again in the South where in many countries the rule of law is allegedly weak or non-existent, human rights are infringed, governance is feeble and democracy is lacking and, where a number of countries are considered as "failed" states or, states at risk of becoming so.

The paragraphs dealing with the rule of law give the "international community" the "responsibility to protect", based on an "emerging norm that there is a collective responsibility to protect", which parallels the concept of "humanitarian intervention". The responsibility to protect paves the way for intervention in national affairs of individual countries, including direct intervention and enforcement action by the Security Council, when other measures fail and with the stated goal of protecting human rights and the well-being of civilian populations. As a minimum, this will expose those countries suspected or accused of "deviant" behaviour to constant surveillance and pressure.

In the paragraphs dealing with human rights, emphasis is put on strengthening the central machinery and on mainstreaming human rights in all aspects of the UN's work. The accent is on political and civic rights, the type of rights emphasized in the North, giving rise to continuing political controversy due to the resort to "naming and shaming resolutions" to target individual countries. This process is often selectively applied, frequently manifesting double standards. The human right to development long sought by the developing countries does not feature prominently in the Report's definition of human rights.

The promotion of democracy is the third component of the section on the freedom to live in dignity, and is meant to mandate the UN to support "emerging democracies" with legal, technical and financial assistance and advice. Member states are invited to commit themselves to supporting democracy not only at home but in other countries and regions.

However noble this goal, the impression is inescapable that the UN is now to assume the burden of instilling in developing countries particular democratic values and practices, norms of behaviour, political organization and good governance that include the now almost ubiquitous policy essentials of avoidance of corruption, transparency, and economic maxims regarding the importance of the promotion of the private sector, policies conducive to attracting foreign investment, as well as privatization and open markets. Coming in the wake of centuries of colonial and neo-colonial domination, such policy pressures, including by means of policy conditionalities attached to development assistance and debt relief among other things, are bound to induce a sense of wariness on the part of developing countries. This may be especially so when the donors who sit in judgment over ODA recipients, remain untouchable yet suffer from democratic deficits themselves or are often the direct cause of problems experienced in developing countries.

"Strengthening the United Nations"?

The section of the report dealing with the strengthening of the UN argues that "the practice and the organization need to move with the times", that the UN needs to be "a useful instrument for its member states and world's peoples" and "must be fully adapted to the needs and circumstances of the 21st century". Furthermore, its "strength must be drawn from the breadth of its partnerships and from its ability to bring those partners into effective coalitions for change across the whole spectrum of issues on which action is required to advance the cause of larger freedom".

This familiar coded language, often heard in statements of developed countries' representatives, implies a major change for the organization, its policy outlook, and its functions and practice. As far as the developing countries are concerned, it seems to suggest that they should accept the status quo in global economic and political spheres, and no longer challenge the realities of power, political, military and economic.

This raises the fundamental issue that lies at the core of tensions between the South and the North, namely is the current international system the best of all possible systems, and does it satisfy the expectations and needs of the entire international community and of the world's peoples?

If the current international system is perceived – as de facto it is by the overwhelming majority of the world's people and states -- as lacking in justice, equity and democracy, as exploitative of many people and of the global environment, and steered by the rich and powerful in pursuit of their own interests, using global levers of power, including the multilateral organizations over which they try to gain fuller control by a variety of means and, for which purpose they often use their financial clout, this poses a daunting institutional challenge, but one that cannot be shirked.

However, the Secretary-General's Report does not recognize and address these underlying issues, and the need for the UN to promote systemic changes, including by contributing to overcoming global asymmetries in power. The developing countries could rightly argue that the sum total of proposed measures, and their practical implications, would in more ways than one contribute to further tilt the existing balance between the North and the South in the organization in favour of the former. A few such examples are highlighted below.

The General Assembly. Any possible infringement on the capacities and work of the UN General Assembly will be seen as a denial of influence by the developing countries, many of whom have a sense of participation only in this principal and representative organ of the United Nations. The Assembly is a platform and a forum to articulate and exchange views, in addition to having the supreme power to take important and critical decisions in key domains. Its importance will increase for those countries that will remain outside the potentially enlarged Security Council, and the expansion of its influence and revitalization should be sought not so much through procedural measures and reforms, but also by its focusing its work on key global policy issues and by strengthening its role and authority, including through full implementation of its decisions, and also vis-í -vis the Security Council. The impatience of some big countries with the complexities of managing this highest organ of the UN, and their questions about its relevance and credibility, reflects mostly their impatience with its democratic character and with the developing countries that represent the majority in the General Assembly.

The proposals made in the Report for revitalizing the General Assembly are of relatively minor significance and deal with procedural measures pertaining to its working methods, and these have been long on the agenda. The proposal to establish mechanisms for the Assembly to engage fully and systematically with civil society raises difficulties for developing countries who give primacy to the intergovernmental character of the UN. Such engagement by civil society has been all too often used to the North's advantage.

The Security Council. The proposal to expand the membership of the Council and, in particular to provide for (permanent) representation of additional countries from the South in this organ, is to be welcomed. However the underlying premise for the reform of the Security Council, namely that it must be broadly representative of the "realities of power in today's world", a premise borrowed from the Panel's Report, lends itself to different interpretations. This is especially so as the Report deals only with the question of membership and does not address the issue of democratization, the veto and its uses, the Council's accountability, including to the General Assembly, its decision-making process or, its agenda which has been encroaching into the domain of the General Assembly.

When coupled with the notion advanced in the Report that there should be greater involvement in decision-making of those who contribute most to the United Nations financially, militarily, and diplomatically (in terms of contributions to assessed budgets, participation in mandated peace operations, contributions to voluntary activities in the areas of security and development, and diplomatic activities in support of UN objectives and mandates) , and with the definition of collective security that ranges widely over economic and social domains, it implies increased concentration of power in the Council and the emergence of a directorate of powerful countries sitting permanently on the Council to deal with different aspects of world affairs, while the broader membership becomes increasingly marginalized.

ECOSOC. This section appears to support the position of the developed countries about the marginal role of ECOSOC and thus of the UN in international economic policy and decision-making, subjects to be devolved wholly to the multilateral financial institutions and the WTO. Being a "coordinator, convener, forum for policy dialogue and forger of consensus", as suggested in the Report, is potentially an important role but not sufficient by itself, unless it is firmly linked to policies, decisions, negotiations and processes on hard core economic issues. It is this organic link that is missing, and the Report does not contribute to its being effectively forged. The recommendation that ECOSOC should promote coherence, and strengthen links between the normative and operational work of the UN, could contribute to diverting its energy and attention from the world economy and the coordination of macro-economic policies at the global level, which should be one of its key roles.

While the Report does not include the Panel's recommendation for creating a separate body of the ECOSOC to deal with the security dimensions of economic and social development, it argues for putting on its agenda economic and social dimensions of conflicts, including post-conflict management and working through the Peace Building Commission which is supposed to be established within its framework for this purpose. It also proposes that the Council should get involved in assessing threats to development, such as famines, epidemics and major natural disasters, and to promote coordinated responses to them. No doubt these are important tasks. However, this should not be done at the price of contributing to distancing ECOSOC from the key global macro-economic issues which are at the very heart of development challenges and of North-South relations, and indeed often of the very conflicts and disasters that this body is being asked to deal with. As in the case of the General Assembly the recommendations in the Report bring little prospect of the revitalization of ECOSOC as concerns the critical issues of the development and management of the world economy.

The Proposed Human Rights Council. The proposal in the Report to replace the Commission on Human Rights with a "better performing" smaller standing Human Rights Council, either as a principal organ of the UN or a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, should be considered with reserve, given the history of how human rights issues have been used by the developed countries in the context of the UN. Smaller membership would weaken its democratic character, reduce its transparency and naturally keep many developing countries out of its proceedings. Upgrading the issue to a higher pedestal in the UN organizational hierarchy would result in a tool that lends itself better for North-driven interventions in the countries of the South. The Council would be a permanent institutional platform for action and initiatives, meeting on a regular basis and at any time to deal with urgent human rights situations. This would among other things detract attention from other issues on the UN agenda, put an additional burden on developing countries' already over-stretched delegations which would have to remain permanently mobilized and on alert to cope with human rights initiatives, not only in Geneva but also in New York, where as has been suggested, special sessions of the new principal UN organ could be held.

No doubt, a sitting Council, with its work attractive to the media and indeed civil society, would become a focus of attention in the UN. With a smaller membership, all efforts will be made by the powers to exclude potential target states, and to turn the Council into what could easily be perceived as an inquisition tool to those singled out for its attention. Moreover, the proposed body would no longer function under ECOSOC, which could mean an even lesser emphasis on the human right to development, including food, health, education, shelter and employment. From the point of view of the South the proposal, made supposedly to bolster efficiency and overcome the problems experienced in the work of the Commission on Human Rights yet, without offering any clear cut improvements over the current arrangement, is likely to be seen as contributing to confrontation and politicization of the issue and placing developing countries at a disadvantage.

The Secretariat. The implications of the section of the Report dealing with the Secretariat are potentially significant given recent events and the offensive by the North on the Secretariat and the Secretary-General. Thus, the statement in the Report that "if the United Nations is to be truly effective the Secretariat will have to be completely transformed" needs to be taken with a degree of reserve.

The Report rightly points out the problem of the governing bodies assigning tasks and mandates to the Secretariat without providing adequate resources. This applies in particular to fast changing operational needs in different parts of the world. Given the tight financial situation and constraints on the UN regular budget, the question arises as to where such additional funds can be secured. However, the Report fails to address the key issue of expanded, adequate and assured financing of the UN, including innovative sources of finance.

As one of the ways to create some of the missing resources, the Report suggests that the UN General Assembly should make sure that UN mandates stay current, that all mandates older than five years should be reviewed to see whether they are genuinely needed and, whether resources assigned to them could be reallocated in response to new and emerging challenges. While sound at first sight, this suggestion revives the old controversy over the "sunset" clause and implies chopping off mandates and activities which are found inconvenient or obsolete (usually by the developed countries). However, it needs to be recognized that some issues, including demands for changes of a structural and fundamental nature, can remain on the agenda for long periods without much progress, and may require decades of continuing effort and deliberations.

The objective that the UN staff must be aligned with the new substantive challenges of the 21st century, empowered to manage complex global operations, and held accountable, has implications for the nature of the UN Secretariat. Will the UN Secretariat become predominantly an operational and security apparatus dealing with global emergencies and security threats, with the skilled staff recruited from corresponding branches of national governments, including military and security, and specialized private sector companies? Is development and the traditional development agenda no longer a priority, and what would be the profiles of the staff working on these matters in the UN secretariat? The recent experiences with the appointments to head executive posts in important organizations is illustrative of the problems at stake, including pronounced unilateral pressures exercised by some countries when such decisions are taken.

If there is an increasing need for human and financial resources to deal with threats and to engage in policing, emergency or armed interventions, in situations of financial stringency it is likely that this will affect the critical core of the secretariat which consists of staff working on global policy and systemic issues. Such thinking, when and if needed, would be outsourced to consultants and think tanks, mostly in the North or, such institutions as the World Bank which tries to exercise an intellectual monopoly in the multilateral arena concerning development and North-South relations and, happens to be amply funded and well equipped professionally for this purpose.

The Report fails to address the need for creating relevant and adequate capacities within the UN secretariat to deal with many critical issues on the global agenda. It is in this context that one's attention is attracted to the proposal to appoint a Scientific Advisor to the Secretary-General, a band-aid measure which can be hardly expected to compensate for the virtual disappearance of the critical issues of S&T for development from the UN's work.

The proposed "one time buy-out" of UN staff, to modernize the organization and remove the last supposedly anachronistic vestiges of its past ("modernists" vs. "traditionalists"), would imply a perturbation and discontinuity in the organization's work. The question arises as to who would decide on the "buy-out", a matter related to the political control and orientation of the Secretariat. Given the current situation in the UN, and the announced appointment of a high level official from a government of a key country in the North to be in charge of implementing some of the administrative reform measures, the outcome of the proposed "refreshment" and "realignment" could lead to further limitation of secretariat intellectual independence and, its becoming aligned with the "realities of power" highlighted in the Report.

The proposed package of reforms to improve accountability, transparency and efficiency within the Secretariat, and importing into the UN the so-called best practices of global public and commercial organizations, is to be welcomed in principle. And, indeed, the UN could learn a good deal from modern management and handling of financial resources, operational activities, and contracts. However, given corporate record and practices, one would question the assumption in the Report that corporate sector and its culture should serve the UN as an example when it comes to ethics and integrity.

Of course, no one would argue against the maxim that the UN staff must be held accountable for its actions and behaviour as recommended in the Report. However it is not clear whether this refers only to ethics of behaviour and integrity involving management, financial and other operations or, if it extends to its political posture and substantive work and activities? Is someone who expresses doubts about globalization processes "accountable" for his/her views? Should the staff of the United Nations be on a short leash for example, similar to the staffs of those multilateral institutions that have been traditionally controlled by the North?

The proposals regarding the reform of the Secretariat raise the fundamental question as to how much of such reform is within the mandate of the Secretary-General, and at which point the matter becomes of concern to the intergovernmental organs and the broader membership of the UN. As it is, the few specific proposals, depending on how they are implemented and which countries exercise behind-the-scenes influence, could change the UN organization by changing the nature of its Secretariat.

To summarize, when considering the proposed measures for reforming the Secretariat, one cannot escape the impression that the forces driving the proposed changes are aiming for the long sought objective of extending fuller control over, and placing limits on the actions of the Secretariat, with administrative, management, efficiency and modernization objectives as the rationale.

The UN secretariat is the brain and the nerve centre of the organization. It is also a prize that some countries appear to have set as their goal to appropriate and control. This is probably the most critical challenge contained in the Secretary-General's Report, of special concern to the developing countries and of major significance to the future of the United Nations. It is a matter which deserves full awareness on the part of all member states, given the unilateral pressures that this principal organ of the United Nations is continuously exposed to.

Strengthening the United Nations – a sample of alternative proposals

The Secretary General's Report states in its conclusion that common ground must be found so as to sustain collective action and that therefore generalities and deeper disagreements should be avoided. This may be rather difficult given that some of the underlying premises on which the institutional recommendations are based are at the core of North-South disagreements, disturb the balance of power and mandates established by the Charter and, place developing countries, collectively and individually, at a disadvantage.

Given that the Report was roundly endorsed by the developed countries, and met with doubts and criticisms by the developing countries, indicates that for the sake of equity, before the debates and negotiating process on the reform had started, an alternative Report should have also been prepared and tabled, reflecting the views and aspirations of developing countries, making it easier to negotiate a synthesis in due course.

The UN should not be surrendered to unilateral attempts to recast some of the basic provisions that have been at the foundation of the consensus among its membership.

A positive process of UN reform needs to be launched and here the developing countries need to play the leading role. A few suggestions as to what they could propose is provided in the concluding section in order to illustrate that an alternative approach to the one "In Larger Freedom" can be easily conceptualized and elaborated.

Principles and vision.
Any plan to strengthen the UN system needs to be based on certain principles and vision, and not on expediency or practicability, including in terms of its acceptability to any nation or any group of nations. The following principles and vision are suggested :

  • Strict adherence to international law and commonly shared human values on which the UN is founded.
  • Restoration to the UN of its Charter position as the centrepiece of the international system of multilateral institutions.
  • Democratization of the UN's structure and its mode of functioning, and of global governance in general.
  • Major enhancement of the UN capability - in terms of human and financial resources, mandates and other means - to enable it to do full justice to its Charter functions and its evolving responsibilities and, in this context in particular:

- to terminate the prolonged financial pressure on, and the strangulation of the UN, in the form of an embargo on an increase, even in nominal terms, in the budgets of UN organizations;

- to reverse the process of voluntarism in the funding of the UN;

- to provide the UN with access to new, expanding and predictably recurring sources of finances through an innovative system of global taxation.

Among the broad directions for strengthening the UN are the following:

  • Restoring the central policy role to the General Assembly.
  • Expanding the membership of the Security Council in order to make it better representative of the general membership of the UN, to contribute to the democratization of its functioning, and to impart greater legitimacy to its decisions.
  • Enhancing the UN's capacity to mount speedily and effectively the peacemaking and peacekeeping operations under Chapters VI and VII of the Charter and, for this purpose create a rapid deployment force of the United Nations.
  • Restoring to the UN the full range of its Charter powers and functions in the economic field, including the coordination of global macro-economic policies and by bringing the MFIs and the WTO into the UN system and, by giving a central place to the international development agenda in its work.
  • Reviving the disarmament agenda of the UN.
  • Enhancing the quality and capacity of the Secretariat to be able to pursue the objectives of the organization, including integrated approaches to global issues.
  • Ensuring accountability of developed countries within the UN multilateral framework for the implementation of commitments and for the impacts of their policies and actions.

The above concepts correspond to the challenges of the contemporary age, the need for promoting global democratic governance and multilateralism, the need to fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the overwhelming majority of humankind, both in the South and in the North and, the need to respond to the challenges facing the international community as a whole. They require a systemic approach to institutional change that will confront effectively and in a democratic manner the interrelated issues on the international agenda at the start of the 21st century.

Institutional recommendations.
A selection of institutional recommendations is presented below, starting from the vision and premises outlined above.

The General Assembly

a) Give focus and importance to the substantive agenda of the General Assembly by giving it the opportunity, as the highest multilateral forum and thus a platform where the voices of its member states can be articulated, to discuss and address major policy and substantive issues of the day, included when appropriate, issues under consideration by the Security Council.

b) Convene under the General Assembly's auspices a UN world conference on international financial and trade institutions, as an essential first step towards integrating them into the UN system and updating the architecture of the United Nations, Bretton Woods institutions, and WTO.

c) Reinvigorate the General Assembly's subsidiary organs, in particular UNCTAD as the organization entrusted with the critical issues of trade and development, and macro-economic issues, by giving it the opportunity and resources to perform its mandates more effectively.

The Security Council

a) Reform the Security Council to make it transparent and open in its proceedings and activities, and more broadly representative of the international community as a whole.

b) In its work, make the Council resort more sparingly to Chapter VII of the Charter, and be more oriented to the use of Chapters VI and VIII for the pacific settlement of disputes.

c) Limit the use of the veto with a view to its eventual elimination.

d) Make the Security Council accountable for its actions to the General Assembly.

The Economic and Social Council

In accordance with its mandate and responsibilities under the Charter, have ECOSOC play the leading role in promoting improved global economic governance and management, with development objectives and needs as a priority concern, and to carry out within its framework integrated research, assessment, debates, and negotiations on major world economic issues.

Mandate the Economic and Social Council to hold annual ministerial-level meetings, and organize continuous inter-sessional interaction, to carry its function of assessing and coordinating global macro-economic policies, reviewing the state of the world economy, including consistency between the policy goals of all agencies, including the MFIs and WTO and, consider their relationship with the relevant aspects of the international socio-economic and development agenda.

Decide that it should serve as the central body in the UN system for policy-making and preparing an integrated review of trends in development cooperation, including progress towards agreed development goals, follow-up and implementation of commitments and the status of relevant negotiations;

Set up within its framework:

  • A committee on Transnational Corporations and Foreign Investment
  • A committee on Science and Technology for Development which would enjoy policy and research back- up from UN DESA, and from UNCTAD and the UN Regional Economic Commissions.

Establish a people's development forum for the grass-roots and other development-oriented organizations from the South, as a facility to articulate development problems and views from a South perspective based on everyday realities of development and under-development, and thus enrich and complement the work at the intergovernmental level.

The Secretariat

In recognition of the critical role that the Secretariat plays for the successful functioning of the UN organization, initiate steps that would contribute to its strengthening and ability to fulfil its functions and mandates, including by:

a) Undertaking a comprehensive review of the adequacy of human resources to meet current needs.

b) Assuring that the Secretariat staff engaged in policy and substantive work, especially in economic and social sectors, is strengthened and its intellectual performance and output are not stifled by bureaucratic and administrative requirements.

c) Reversing the recent trend of vast expansion in the coordination, control and oversight functions of the UN organizations at the expense of expenditure on programmes, norm setting and other productive and substantive activities, and that logistical and support staff and resource requirements engendered by security and operational activities do not erode the policy and substantive capacities and resources of the Secretariat which represent its principal strength.

d) Assuring that the Secretariat is not exposed to direct, bilateral pressures of powerful countries and increasingly corporations, including through financial contributions, or international media influences and campaigns disruptive of its work and independence.

e) Securing balanced regional representation on the staff, especially at the senior management levels, and terminating the anachronistic and undemocratic practice whereby powerful countries monopolize posts or appointments to critical services for their nationals, and have high staff quota entitlements based on their financial contributions.

f) Assuring career prospects for the staff, adequate funding and favourable conditions for the performance of its work, and employment conditions which are competitive with other "preferred" multilateral organizations.

Given the increasing interdependence of the international community, greatly improved communications, and efforts to bolster democratization of global governance, consideration needs to be given to moving the UN Headquarters to a different location based on a principle of rotation between major regions of the world (e.g. every 30 years).

Financing of the United Nations

Improved and ample financing of the UN holds the key to a brighter future for the organization, its improved and diversified performance, and its democratization. UN financing is the critical issue for the organization and needs the special attention of the member states. The financing challenge should be met in the following manner:

a) Allow for the growth of the regular budget in line with inflation and the growing agenda and work requirements of the organization.

b) Reduce progressively the percentage share of voluntary contributions in the overall expenditure of the United Nations, so as not to consist of more than 20% of overall budgets of UN organizations, to be achieved during the next ten years. While voluntary contributions still continue, they should be put in a general fund at the disposal of the UN organization concerned, which should use it freely on the basis of universally applicable rules and guidelines, and should not be tied to projects, sectors or sources of supply.

c) Organize a coalition of states willing to launch and take part on a pilot basis in an international taxation scheme to generate supplementary resources for the UN work and activities.

d) Work on the progressive reduction of the share of contributions to the regular budget by the major countries, with the objective of establishing a ceiling for maximum contribution, e.g. 10%, thus reducing the dependence of the UN on major countries, and fill the resulting gap with incomes from innovative sources of fund raising (e.g. a per capita global tax prorated by the capacity of a country to pay and/or an international tax levied on global corporations that operate and earn part of their profits in the world economic space).


The United Nations, its Charter, its vision, its multilateral ethos and democratic ideals are not a passing illusion. They need to be defended, nurtured and enhanced. The UN's work over the past six decades needs to be respected and built on. Institutional reform and renewal must be inspired by this policy orientation. The UN and its future cannot be and should not be surrendered, nor should the organization be allowed to become an instrument of unilateralism and power.

The UN should be maintained and reclaimed as a genuinely multilateral, enabling organization to lead the international community and all of its peoples into a period of peace, cooperation and solidarity with one another and with the coming generations, based on a redefined democratic architecture, structures and processes of global governance. It should transcend the role of being considered as just a place where governments meet to argue, negotiate, adjust and promote their national interests, a process where the rich and powerful unavoidably have the upper hand. It should also evolve into an institution that brings peoples and cultures together in their diversity, and bridges differences that divide them by pursuing common goals and objectives and overcoming the multiple fractures that fragment the international community.

In failing to adequately deal with these critical issues, the Secretary-General's Report "In Larger Freedom" has taken a partial and at times partisan view of the matter. For a major reform of the UN to gain credibility and legitimacy the process has to become open, fair, democratic and participatory. This is a challenge for the countries of the South to take up, now that the issues have been put on the table, initial debate has taken place, and the process initiated. In fact, the biases and unilateralism, and even manipulation, that have characterized the current reform drive and process, have played a positive role by building awareness and bringing into the open some of the underlying issues, and by giving rise to opposition and reaction on the part of the developing countries, who today have an opportunity to assume the initiative. It is to be hoped that as a result, at the end of the process the UN will come out a strengthened organization.



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