Everything will be all right when people stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.

Dag Hammarskjöld

Hammarskjöld was right: the UN was in his time, and still is, seen by many as a weird abstraction, and one now obscured by heavy layers of factual distortion after decades of editorial bashing in the West and lazy replaying of right-wing and Zionist disinformation. We need to strip all this away in order to know what has actually happened to the UN, who is most responsible for it, and how the institution can be improved to cope with the fact that the era of post-Cold War ‘peace’ was only a fleeting moment of euphoria.

The UN has been portrayed so often as ‘a vast, bloated bureaucracy’ that many now assume it is too big to be reformable. It is not; it could and should be reformed, and national governments pressured to get their act together. The core staff numbers only three thousand two hundred, of whom some eight hundred are the interpreters who serve at the six-language meetings. Including support staff, the total number of employees is nine thousand worldwide, covering everything. That is fewer than the number of civil servants in the city of Winnipeg, or employees of Saatchi and Saatchi. If the UN was slow to respond to the crises of the Nineties, this is partly in consequence of a 13 per cent cut in staff numbers insisted on by the industrialised nations in 1986 which reduced the peacekeeping staff to barely forty – fewer than any single country would assign simply to support its own troop contribution. The larger UN ‘system’ – the UN itself, along with its development and humanitarian funds, and its 15 specialised agencies, such as the World Bank and Unesco – serves 184 countries and 5.6 billion people with just under 52,000 staff. That is fewer than the District Health Service in Wales.

In 1992, total UN expenditure on all its activities – including development aid, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief costs – totalled $10.5 billion. That is roughly what is spent every 15 weeks in Britain on alcohol. It represents less than $2 per human being alive on the planet today, compared with the $150 per capita spent annually by governments on arms and the military.

In short, the UN is perilously under-resourced, indeed kept perennially on the brink of bankruptcy by the country which hosts it. It is not safe that it should be at the mercy of any one member for as much as 25 per cent of its budget, as it is with the United States. A ceiling of 10 per cent should be adopted, and the quite small difference made up by other affluent members being asked to pay more. The remedies proposed recently by a top-level team of financiers including Shijuro Ogata and Paul Volcker should also be implemented – among them, interest penalties on those countries that pay late. Finally, it should be made possible for individuals around the world to contribute to other UN bodies besides Unicef. This wouldn’t be easy, but various painless schemes suggest themselves, such as one day a year of worldwide postage stamp sales or a UN Lottery or a tax on the international air travel that the UN should be making sure is safe.

The more profound problems identified by Hammarskjöld originate in the UN Charter itself. Contrary to the standard view, the UN was not designed to be only, or even predominantly, a peace and security organisation. Rather, the Charter reflects the lesson of two global wars: that international democratic management of key world economic and social problems is essential if we are to address the causes of conflict in time to prevent it.

At San Francisco in 1945 the smaller countries made sure that the Charter would be the first ever international social contract, implemented and monitored in the UN on a one-nation one-vote principle – a principle intended for the protection of smaller members vis à vis the Great Powers (not, as another canard has it, for the time when the ‘irresponsible new majority’ should arrive). In 1945, the colonial empires were not thought likely to collapse in this century – the UN planners were told to allow for expansion up to perhaps seventy members. Nonetheless, the original Charter proved entirely valid for the decolonised nations when they arrived, much sooner than expected, and made the UN into a global organisation: ‘International machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples ... a centre for harmonising the actions of nations ... the maintenance of peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources ... human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion’. That could scarcely be improved on today, except to add the need to protect the environment. The Charter even specifies ‘the promotion of full employment’, a need G7 leaders seem only now to be rediscovering.

There is a darker side to the early history of the UN, however. ‘We, the Peoples of the United Nations ... reaffirm faith in the equal rights of nations large and small’ – so the Charter has it. Whereupon five nations, including Britain, at once proceeded to violate the rights of the rest by establishing a right of veto on any proposed amendments to the constitution. They gained a right of veto also on all police or peace actions undertaken by a Security Council of which they became permanent members, never needing to be re-elected; and on any candidate who might be chosen as the world’s principal public servant, the UN Secretary-General. After the Charter was adopted they extended their violations of its principles by insisting (as they do to this day) that the key posts around the Secretary-General be always occupied by their own nationals, selected, moreover, by themselves. You wouldn’t know it from the unctuous way they lecture other members about ‘the integrity and independence of the international civil service’, implying that Third World members have compromised it, but it was the Great Powers themselves who created the organisation’s problems. A representative independent commission should now recommend ways to solve them. A UN Staff College is needed to enhance understanding of the culturally sensitive challenges of the real world.

So far as the Security Council is concerned, it is ironic that Germany and Japan – named as ‘enemy states’ in the Charter – are now so powerful by the traditional economic criteria that they want to join the club of permanent members. Happily, this has brought the whole issue of the veto out into the open, so that a working group of the General Assembly has been set up, the vast majority of members (North as well as South) having indicated their opposition to the veto’s continuance. This debate will be the healthier for the UN if it is protracted, and if the clamant Northern countries convince themselves that they can no longer afford the costs of great-powerdom. The last thing we need is a compromise, with Germany and Japan accepted, and a few Southern countries seduced, into this reliquary cabal.

Meanwhile, vetoes can simply be given up if enough people feel embarrassed enough to demand it. At the very least, citizens and parliamentarians in the democracies involved should insist that their governments practise what they incessantly preach to the rest of the world, and relinquish their veto over the Secretaryship-General. Even small colleges and corporations carry out organised searches for a new executive head. There is no such process for choosing a new Secretary-General, only a semi-secret asking around in the diplomatic old boy network that makes the Vatican’s procedures in finding a Pope seem almost populist. If this incestuous old-boying and ‘veto-filtering’ were replaced by a proper search in the real world, we might surprise ourselves by finding an eminently qualified woman to be the next Secretary-General (to some 140 vacancies in top executive posts in the UN system since 1945, male-dominated governments have managed to appoint just four women). To reduce undue influence on them, all executive heads in the system should serve only one term of seven years.

The smaller countries signing the Charter (and progressive thinkers in the larger countries) have had to live with gross distortions of it, even if, to start with, these did not seem that bad. They had succeeded, they thought, in giving the new UN a vital balance of mandates covering both causes and effects, and a system of co-ordinated agencies with which to manage world economic and social problems. I concentrate here on these last, because even the finest peace-keeping machinery will be overwhelmed by the upheavals which long neglect of their causes is inexorably generating now that Cold War constraints are gone. Recalling the original design of the UN is not a merely academic or nostalgic exercise, but explains why the founders thought an admittedly loose socio-economic system could be made to work, why it hasn’t worked as well as it might have, and how it could be improved without constitutional wrangling.

The specialised agencies were created to be distinct from the UN, as international organisations with their own charters, memberships, executive heads and staff, and budgets. But this loose system was supposed to derive its coherence from governments discharging four agreed responsibilities. The Charter stipulated that each agency should be ‘brought into relationship’ with the UN by special agreements formalising the UN’s co-ordinating role. These were drawn up and ratified by governments which have since largely forgotten that they exist. The IMF and the World Bank were allowed to exempt themselves, and have by now virtually seceded from the system.

A second premise written into the Charter called for the General Assembly to review the agencies’ budgets and thus, it was hoped, create a single overall budget. The relevant clause (Article 17.3) is still there in the Charter: but it has never been implemented, and is by now buried so deep that most people don’t even know of it. The total sum that would be involved in creating a consolidated budget is minuscule: nothing prevents consolidation except governmental flabbiness.

A third plan was for what Belgium called ‘a new system of a planetary type’, with the agencies gravitating around the UN. The first General Assembly meeting in London in 1946 adopted the principle that, except for the World Court at the Hague, the agencies’ headquarters should be located at the UN headquarters. The architects submitted plans but, after a burst of sectoral lobbying and horse-trading among self-important Western governments, not one agency headquarters was built next to the UN. Today, they are scattered in nine cities in seven countries across two continents and one (the Atlantic) ocean – which is like a country locating all its ministries expensive air journeys away from its capital, prime minister and national parliament.

If the architectural scheme adopted had been built, governing bodies would today meet cheek by jowl, with national delegations able to be directed by one multi-disciplinary ambassador. Instead of which, ministers of finance talk only to one another in Washington, ministers of education in Paris, ministers of agriculture in Rome, ministers of foreign affairs in New York and so on. The system’s staff would be able to work within hailing distance of one another, with useful administrative savings. Fifty years is quite long enough for individual countries to have had the privilege of hosting a portion of the UN (and earning nice revenues thereby). The cost of creating a common seat for the system would be minor compared with the staggering cost of attending (inadequately) to the causes of social upheaval and human misery in the world.

The founders in fact mandated the General Assembly to formulate global economic policies. These were to be implemented by the agencies, including an International Trade Organisation (ITO) that would work in tandem with the IMF and the World Bank, but under UN supervision. The US Congress, however, rejected the constitution of the ITO, and for the next 47 years the world was left only with Gatt, which did not address any of the key trading needs of three-quarters of the world’s population. The IMF was supposed to function equitably among both surplus and deficit countries but ceased to do so in the Seventies.

The appalling poverty revealed by decolonisation required – and still requires – basic changes to be made in the world economic system, and a sensible modicum of management of that system. Instead, the industrial North has diverted attention from these structural issues by the palliative of ‘aid’, while also reducing the capacity of the UN Secretariat for macro-economic policy analysis and coordination. The IMF now spends its energies on developing countries, dictating ‘structural adjustments’ that cause economic havoc and mass upheavals which are promptly blamed on ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘tribalism’. The governments that control the IMF have shown a total inability to co-ordinate its work. Their finance ministers endorse IMF policies that have slashed up to 35 per cent of the same health, education and other crucial services which their governments have provided funds to the UN (and their own aid agencies) to help build up.

A fourth premise in the original design was that, since the same governments would be members of the UN and of the agencies, they would express a uniform and coherent policy in both. Instead, they have repeatedly failed to harmonise the instructions they give to their different delegations. Parliamentary pressure at home can partly overcome this, but the General Assembly itself should also create a supervisory board comprising representatives from each of its governing bodies, in order to try and achieve greater coherence.

Most important of all, ever since decolonisation brought the new majority into the General Assembly, the major powers have refused to negotiate there on macro-economic policies for ‘the advancement of all peoples’, claiming that global monetary, finance and trade matters are properly dealt with by the IMF, the World Bank and Gatt – institutions which they have ensured will do nothing of the kind. Third World debt, they say, is a matter for the World Bank and the IMF, neither of which has any serious debt strategy. In 1990, when there was a global trade surplus of $180 billion, the developing countries had debts totalling $1400 billion (much of which would already have been repaid if Northern institutions had not manipulated interest rates). Most of the surplus went to private capital markets in affluent countries, while the IMF continued to drain Africa of $2 billion in repayments, and the World Bank in that one year alone demanded $1.7 billion from the Third World.

G7 communiqués speak of holding discussions about ‘the global economy’, but this invariably turns out to mean the economies of Japan, North America and Europe. The North having seen to it that the world’s increasingly dangerous economic problems are not dealt with at the UN, no one anywhere formulates policies to solve them. This could yet cause global convulsions.

The gap between North and South is widening relentlessly. In 1960, the richest fifth of the world’s population earned thirty times the income of the poorest fifth: today, it earns sixty times more. The consequence of the ITO having been strangled at birth, and replaced only by Gatt, is that 80 per cent of the population now has only 18 per cent of world trade. The ‘accords’ reached at the end of the Uruguay Round last December were dutifully hailed as a triumph. Negotiated over seven years among a handful of industrial countries, they were then handed over to one hundred representatives of the developing countries to examine and accept in a single weekend, under heavy intimidation. They promise little benefit to 80 per cent of the globe; for Africa, they promise actual losses in trade. Such discrimination, together with manipulation of interest rates and other inequalities, is already depriving the developing countries of earnings of at least $500 billion a year – about ten times the total of ‘aid’ provided by the North. That is sheer stupidity even judged in terms of Northern self-interest: already one person in four on earth is living in absolute poverty, and if present policies continue it will soon be one in three.

The UN’s credibility is under threat, and if its behaviour often seems weird, that is because its peacekeeping capacity is constantly being overwhelmed by the escalating consequences of the organisation having been for so long prevented from tackling the root causes of disturbance. When one or more of the industrialised powers seeks a UN mandate for some late and incompetent response to the unravelling of a particular society, the result is quickly labelled as another ‘UN fiasco’.

If I had said a few years ago that it is high time that ‘We, the Peoples’ exerted our rights and responsibilities in an organisation that belongs to us, not to national governments, I would have been dismissed as a dreamer. That reaction would be misplaced now that we have seen what citizens’ organisations were able to achieve at the 1992 World Environment Conference at Rio, or at the Human Rights Conference in Vienna last year (and just wait for the Fourth UN World Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995). Governments are floundering in face of a world situation the most powerful among them simply refused to see until it began to explode in their faces. We should let them know in no uncertain terms that we expect them to reform the UN, starting next year, which is the organisation’s 50th anniversary.

The original design can and must at last be implemented. The Secretary-General needs a deputy, responsible for international economic co-operation and sustainable development, with a policy analysis staff drawn from throughout the system. The Bretton Woods institutions must be thoroughly overhauled, be run more democratically, and completed by an international organisation to ensure fair trade. The UN’s representative bodies must begin to formulate macro-economic policies from which everyone will gain and no one will lose.

Many argue that the UN’s one-nation one-vote system is absurd, giving tiny populations of fewer than a million equality with those numbering many millions. The interesting thing, however, is that the proportion of votes held by the industrial North and by the impoverished South almost exactly represents the proportion of their share of world population. That will have to be enough to be going on with. As for another common argument, that many member governments are not democratically elected, the fact is that, except on some human rights issues, the way those governments address world problems has not been noticeably affected. Democratic governments whose intelligence agencies installed, financed and armed most of the South’s dictators might now keep a decent silence, while the peoples they ravaged for decades after centuries of colonial stagnation try at last to fashion their own democracies.

Improvements are also needed that will ultimately require amendments to the Charter, but the General Assembly is capable of instigating those without help from outside. As things stand, we have no forum equipped to concentrate on the complex problems thrown up by the obsolescent nationstate, by the resurgence of long suppressed ethnic groups who do not necessarily want traditional ‘sovereignty’, and by the calamitous needs of states that have collapsed. The now virtually redundant Trusteeship Council should be converted into a UN Council on Diversity, Representation and Governance.

Forty-nine years ago, when the House of Commons was debating the brand-new Charter, a man no one ever called a woolly-minded crackpot urged the development of ‘a world assembly elected directly from the people for the world as a whole, to whom the governments who form the United Nations are responsible’. The then Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, called his proposal ‘a completion of the institution which was built at San Francisco’. On its 50th birthday the UN should be completed as Bevin asked, with the launching of a Parliamentary Assembly. Then, at last, Dag Hammarskjöld’s wish will be fulfilled, and people will be able to see the United Nations as ‘a drawing they made themselves’.

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Vol. 16 No. 18 · 22 September 1994

The effect of Erskine Childers’s excellent and challenging article on the UN (LRB, 18 August) was unfortunately spoilt, at least for me as a 1945 foundation member of the UN secretariat, by a serious error in the description of the author. As an international civil servant, he did not represent Ireland. Like all UN civil servants, he was under oath, in conformity with Article 100.1 of the Charter, not to ‘seek or receive instructions from any government or from any other authority external to the Organisation’. In the early days of the United Nations its staff members were often shocked to be asked, ‘Which country do you represent?’ by friendly Americans unfamiliar with the idea that one could belong to a nation but serve all nations impartially. And one may well ask how many member states have ever remembered article 100.2, under which they undertook to ‘respect the exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities’?

Emile Delavenay

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