UNreformable: An Insider's Rebuke

UNreformable: An Insider's Rebuke

The world body continues to be tasked with vital mandates, such as the mission in Lebanon, that it is not fit to achieve, spurring false hopes and squandering human lives and financial resources.


With a precarious cease-fire holding, the international community has anointed the United Nations as guardian of peace in Lebanon. Indeed, what other body could be tasked with such a dangerous, ambitious undertaking? Of course, pivotal components remain unresolved: from whence, for example, will the blue-helmeted soldiers come? That question reflects general difficulties with UN peacekeeping missions but it doesn't identify the main problem with the UN mandate in Lebanon. More to the point, is the United Nations institutionally up to the job? As a 20-year veteran of the institution and witness to flagrant corruption and chronic incompetence, the short answer is: don't count on it.

The corruption that beset the United Nations during my tenure from 1973 to 1996 (including the awarding of contracts with no competitive bidding whatsoever) was never followed up by any corrective action or accountability. The incompetence, at a cost tens of thousands of dollars per mistake, also took place without a reckoning. My experience was not unique and I often hear of wrongdoing from my colleagues who remain at the United Nations and are appalled at the ongoing negligence. It is an organization benefiting from the goodwill of a handful of people, forced to operate in a kind bureaucratic netherworld lacking basic barometers for bad behavior.

Meanwhile, exposés of UN transgressions tend to be pugnaciously exploited by those opposed to the UN role, while those that cheer the legitimacy of the United Nations have little appetite for an airing of its frailties. There are few constituents, therefore, for the nuts and bolts of UN reform or media outlets for unflinching, yet not gratuitously malicious, critiques of the organization.

It's the Secretariat, stupid

Between 1992 and 2003, 14 successive reform agendas, goals, working groups, reports and non-papers all identified shortcomings in the functioning of the organization. None ever came close to even a modicum of implementation. Furthermore, reform proposals aimed altering the makeup of the Security Council are poorly focused. Reform must start with the UN execution arm, the Secretariat.

The shortcomings of the Secretariat have become more glaring of late because it has been tasked with more missions. During its first 45 years the organization was constrained by the Cold War. With a General Assembly whose resolutions were not binding and a Security Council immobilized by the right of veto, UN decision-making bodies were reduced to the role of forum and the workload on the Secretariat stayed correspondingly light. With the end of the Cold War, mutilateral endorsement of military intervention by the decision-making bodies of the United Nations, as demonstrated by the first Gulf War, resulted in a massive increase of Secretariat's workload. It did not rise to the challenge.

Iraq has been the ultimate demonstration of the Secretariat's incompetence. There was nothing wrong with the Oil for Food program as the decision-making United Nations had conceived it. There was everything wrong in the way it was implemented by the Secretariat.

Then, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Security Council on May 22, 2003 adopted Resolution 1483 which provided for a UN return to Iraq. On August 19, a major car bomb attack ravaged the UN headquarters in Baghdad and exposed a UN operation that had been ill conceived, ill planned, and ill managed. Again the responsibility rested squarely with the Secretariat.

A report by former Finnish President Matti Ahtisaarii damningly indicted not only the UN approach to security in Baghdad but also the way Secretary General Kofi Annan ran his shop, identifying the Secretariat's major shortcomings on internal coordination, threat assessments, accountability and discipline. Annan then commissioned a second report to assign blame, conveniently assigning the job to a retired, Austrian UN staff member of no standing. The report, which was never fully released, absolved Annan of all responsibility and placed blame on a few underlings. Subsequent lapses involving issues such as sexual harassment and graft by UN staff were confronted with such signature laxity.

Clearly, there is a glaring need for a complete overhaul of the Secretariat. For starters, the Secretariat's 14 units must be done away with and, in their stead, four deputy Secretary Generals should be established, one for operations (including current peace keeping and humanitarian affairs) one for political affairs, one for administration, (personnel, finance and auditing) and one for conference services.

And the organization needs independent watchdog offices. An Oversight and Monitoring Office, staffed by personnel with no previous UN affiliation, would operate as regulator of the Secretariat and would have unrestricted access to all personnel, administrative and financial information. It would have oversight of those issues that have so glaringly beset the organization: claims of corruption, allegations of sexual harassment and security lapses. It, and not the Secretariat, would also decide disciplinary measures. Another body, an Ethics, Good Governance and Best Practices Office, would scrutinize and potentially contest decisions or nominations displaying cronyism.

UN humanitarian assistance is illustrative of the kind of alarming redundancies that cause infighting, inefficiency and unnecessary cost. Five overlapping humanitarian entities should be consolidated into one UN organization for population, refugees and migrations (with an emergency department to deal with natural disasters). Currently, complex field operations are being simultaneously conducted by: a Special Representative of the Secretary General, a Humanitarian Coordinator, and a Resident Coordinator in parallel with a variable number of specialized UN Agencies, with no one having overall responsibility. In addition, UN development agencies should be consolidated, folding in the UN Development Program, World Bank and other development entities into one body.

No degree of overhaul of the Secretariat will have any impact if it is not backed by a complete reform of the staffing system, which would include abolishing the current system whereby staff are hired and promoted essentially based on their "geographic origin," rather than merit.

Delusions of Papal Authority

Then there is the Secretary General post itself. The Charter describes the Secretary General as the "chief administrative officer" of the organization. This makes the incumbent a salaried administrator and not, as currently claimed "a symbol of UN ideals" a "spokesman…for the poor" or the upholder of the "moral authority" of the United Nations. Indeed, there has been a discernible backlash to the deification of a position presented as some sort of lay papacy which, when reality strikes, fails to meet terrestrial expectations. Currently the Secretary General is elected by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council for 5 years renewable with no restrictions. There are no terms of reference for the job and no guidelines regarding a selection procedure. For one, the Secretary General should be elected for one six-year term, not renewable. This would provide for more fluidity at the top levels of the hierarchy and induce the Secretary General to concentrate on UN business, rather than reelection prospects.

Reform of the Secretariat will unavoidably entail some reform of the General Assembly. Currently the 192 members meet either in General Assembly or in committees in which they are all represented. By controlling administrative and budgetary matters, the committees impose a stranglehold on the system. While this procedure is based on the principal of the equality of states, not all states are backed with the same resources.

The UN General Assembly is the perfect example of representation without taxation. The United States contributes about twenty-three percent of the regular budget of the organization. Three members, the United States, Japan and Germany, contribute some fifty-two percent. Fifteen members contribute eighty-five percent of the budget, which means that the remaining 177 members contribute a total of fifteen percent, or an average of 0.08 percent per member. Ultimately, the decision-making process cannot ignore these imbalances.

Who cares about reform?

Unfortunately, about ninety percent of member states are not interested in UN reform; they are either too poor, too corrupt, too badly governed (or a combination of the three) to care. And what the main states demand of the United Nations is a multilateral instrument that can be coaxed into providing some degree of international endorsement to national objectives. Once this has been achieved, how the Secretariat performs in the field is a secondary issue-which is why the Iraq Oil-for-Food scam carried no political consequences and cases of sexual harassment are mere annoyances. And for the United States it was far more important to achieve international endorsement of its occupation of Iraq through resolution 1485 than to have an actual UN presence on the ground in Baghdad.

This preeminence of the political United Nations over the operational United Nations is reflected by the way member states staff their missions in New York. Ambassadors to the organization are senior diplomats focused on promoting their governments' interests. Dealing with the bureaucratic United Nations is left to third-tier secretaries with little authority or guidance. Governments are under no pressure from their legislatures to promote UN reform.

While the United States appears to be an exception, that is only marginally so. Given the size of the U.S. contribution, it is unavoidable that it would attract the attention of some congressmen who question the way it is spent. But the motivation behind such scrutiny has been not so much to improve the system but rather to question its validity given U.S. unilateralist motivations.