Global Policy Forum

UN Reform Chronology: 1992 - Present

Global Policy Forum

This is a selective list of reforms, intended not to be comprehensive but to highlight the main events and trends.



Boutros Boutros-Ghali comes into office as Secretary General and changes the organization of the Secretariat, bringing many disparate programs together into a single large Department for Economic and Social Development. He reduces the status of UN disarmament work and closes down the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations. The Commission on Transnational Corporations also ends its work. The Secretary General issues An Agenda for Peace, a reform plan in the peace/security area.

The UN World Summit on Environment and Development at Rio de Janeiro sets new standards for NGO and public involvement in global conferences. It issues an important statement establishing new international norms on environmental issues. Known popularly as the "Earth Summit," the conference kicks off a decade of pathmark global meetings under UN auspices.



The blue-ribbon Commission on Global Governance reflects concern that the major international institutions (and especially the UN) must be strengthened. Its report, Our Global Neighborhood, speaks of better UN funding and Security Council reform. A parallel blue-ribbon commission based at Yale University also issues a report on UN reform, as does a Ford Foundation project by Erskine Childers and Brian Urquhart.



The UN General Assembly creates the post of High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the Security Council, the new "Arria Formula " enables the Council for the first time to invite guests for informal meetings, giving the Council access to new information.

The Volcker-Ogata Commission, set up at the request of the Secretary General, studies UN finance and concludes that nations should pay their bills on time, in full and without conditions and that the UN's reserve funds should be substantially increased.

The UN organizes another major world conference – on Human Rights – held in Vienna in June.



The General Assembly sets up five Working Groups to consider reforms in the run-up to the UN 50th Anniversary and beyond. Relatively few important results emerge. The Working Group on Security Council reform continues its debates long after other groups wind up.



The General Assembly sets up the Office of Internal Oversight Services, a watchdog body to look out for malfeasance and inefficiency at the UN.

Secretary General Boutros-Ghali issues another major reform document titled An Agenda for Development, responding to complaints that his first report gave unbalanced attention to security issues.

The UN establishes a web site and begins regular and effective development of this new communications tool.

Due to budget pressures and US opposition, the UN begins to reduce many other public information programs, including film production and radio broadcasts.



The UN organizes three more pathbreaking international conferences that set new policy standards – on Population at Cairo (September 1994), on Social Development at Copenhagen (March 1995) and on Women at Beijing (September 1995). The UN appears more effective and more connected to ordinary citizens than ever before. But the US government increasingly opposes these conferences and charges that they are a waste of money.



Conservatives in the US Congress, spurred by the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks, insist that the UN abandon work on ending poverty and universalizing health care in favor of "attainable goals and useful activities" like disaster relief and humanitarian assistance to refugees.

A gathering of world leaders at the UN's 50th Anniversary General Assembly affirms broad support for the UN, but the leaders agree to few reform changes.



As arrears on United States dues grow steadily larger, the UN suffers from an increasing financial crisis. UN officials advocate global taxes to address the funding crisis, but in 1996 the US Congress passes a law stipulating that the US will not pay its dues if global taxes are discussed in any UN venue. Sen. Jesse Helms, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee says the UN is "power hungry and dysfunctional" and the US should withdraw as a member.

The UN sets up an Efficiency Board, with leading outside experts to advise on steps towards greater Secretariat efficiency.



The newly-formed South Centre, set up by a number of poor countries, publishes For A Strong and Democratic United Nations, a major report that sharply criticizes pressures from Washington for UN downsizing, favoring instead greater democracy, better funding and a larger development role for the UN.



The UN develops its "Optical Disk System" [later called the " Official Documents System"], a vast digital store of UN resolutions, meeting transcripts, reports and other documents, making it available to member states through a password protected site on the internet.

After lengthy negotiations, the UN Economic and Social Council agrees to new arrangements for NGO access, resulting in improved NGO rights. However, shortly after, member states rebuff accreditation of NGOs to the General Assembly.

Kofi Annan assumes office as Secretary General, announces a reform package, and appoints Maurice Strong as Under Secretary General for Reform. Annan merges several units into a new Department for Economic and Social Affairs and seeks to reduce Secretariat costs. The UN creates a new Senior Management Group to better coordinate operations.

Responding to downsizing demands from the United States, the UN reduces its regular staff and uses an increasing number of temporary consultants and staff on short-term contracts.

The General Assembly creates the post of Deputy Secretary General to strengthen UN management. A new Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs is also created.

In the Security Council, individual ambassadors begin to hold regular meetings with a group of NGOs.



The UN accepts a ten-year gift program totaling $1 billion from US media magnate Ted Turner, setting the controversial precedent of seeking funding from private donors for UN programming. Turner's UN Foundation is then set up and makes its first disbursements.



Due to pressure from poor countries, the UN greatly reduces its use of "gratis personnel" (on loan from member states), especially affecting the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. Gratis personnel are seen as loyal to their national government for which they may act as sources of influence, rather acting as independent international civil servants.

The Security Council decides to hold more open meetings and to organize its meetings on a more flexible basis.



Secretary General Annan sets up the Global Compact , a rights-based initiative addressed to private business corporations and financed outside the UN's regular budget. The UN and its agencies begin policy "partnerships" with companies. Many NGOs protest this intrusion of business and charge that the Global Compact provides public relations for corporate malefactors.

The Security Council's Working Group on Sanctions comes close to completing negotiation of a text to improve sanctions procedures. Though blocked from adoption as a resolution by a disagreement between the US and France, the text stands as the best statement of the vexed sanctions process.

To resolve tensions with Washington over dues assessment and payment, UN member states agree to a new scale that reduces Washington's regular dues from 25% to 22% of the budget and its peacekeeping assessment from 30% to 27%. Other nations reluctantly pick up the difference.

NGOs first hold the Millennium Forum in May and make extensive proposals to the General Assembly. World leaders attend the Millennium Summit in September and adopt a statement affirming UN policies, including support for the "Millennium Development Goals."

The Security Council passes pathmark Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security.



At the request of the Secretary General, Lakhdar Brahimi prepares a report that becomes the basis for the "Brahimi Reforms" of UN peacekeeping. The General Assembly eventually votes to accept many useful changes, substantially strengthening the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.



The UN introduces IMIS (Integrated Management and Information System) for budget and management information worldwide.



Kofi Annan begins his second term as Secretary General and announces further reforms. Under pressure from Washington, the Department of Public Information closes nine UN information centers in Western Europe, leaving only one in Brussels.

The International Criminal Court begins work at The Hague, after many nations have ratified the Rome Statute of 1998. For the first time, a permanent international court can prosecute individuals responsible for gross violations of human rights and international law.



The US and UK attack Iraq in defiance of the Security Council. Many governments and UN officials – as well as the worldwide public – regret the UN's inability to prevent the war and wonder what the UN future holds. Secretary General Annan gives speech at the opening of the General Assembly in September, saying the UN is at a "fork in the road" and calling for reforms to strengthen the organization.



The blue-ribbon "Cardoso Panel," named by the Secretary General to look at relations between the UN and "civil society," considers UN relations with NGOs, business, parliamentarians and local governments. The panel issues a controversial report, speaking of the UN as a "convenor" of policy meetings and not as an authoritative law-making body. NGOs offer sharp criticisms of the report and the General Assembly never acts on a follow-up resolution

A blue-ribbon panel on "Threats, Challenges and Change" studies global security issues and makes recommendations for institutional reform and policy initiatives. The report links security, development and the environment and it proposes a new Peacebuilding Commission and a Human Rights Council .



The UN organizes its first international conference of top business leaders in the framework of the Global Compact.

Upon the invitation of the Secretary General, the Inter-Parliametary Union organizes the first of a series of annual conferences at UN headquarters for parliamentarians of all countries.

The UN opens its Official Documents System to the public, through an internet access site.



Following intense pressure from Washington, the Secretary General agrees to sweeping personnel changes at the top levels of the organization, beginning with his own chief of staff, Iqbal Riza. Among the many who depart are Kieren Prendergast, head of the Department of Political Affairs, and Louise Frechette, Deputy Secretary General.

Annan issues his report In Larger Freedom, based on the "Threats" Panel report. Intergovernmental negotiations begin on the Millennium+5 summit reform document.

Brazil, Germany, India and Japan make bids for permanent seats in the UN Security Council, while Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa also seek permanent status. These bids falter as US and China express opposition and the majority of members of the General Assembly oppose the idea.

After months of negotiations towards the Millennium+5 UN Summit, Washington announces last-minute objections to hundreds of passages in the official summit document, effectively wrecking negotiations. The Millennium+5 Summit takes place in September with 153 world leaders assembled, but only minor reforms and weak policy results emerge.

After the Millennium +5 Summit, the General Assembly establishes a new Peacebuilding Commission, with a special office in the Secretariat to support it.


In a second follow-up to the M+5 Summit, the General Assembly establishes a new Human Rights Council, which replaces the Human Rights Commission of ECOSOC.

Under pressure from Washington and with only six months of UN budget authorized, the Secretary General calls for extensive management reforms that would shift power to the office of the SG from the General Assembly. UN staff and the G-77 vigorously oppose these proposed measures.

The Secretary General names a high-level panel to consider consolidation of the UN's many agencies, funds and programs.

As the process of selecting the next Secretary General gets under way, Canada leads an effort to reform the selection process and many NGOs call for more transparency and accountability in the way the SG is chosen.



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