United Nations: What's gone wrong? / Chaotic harmony or just chaos?: Structural defects

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The Independent Online
THE FAILURES of the United Nations as peacekeeper were summed up in a report issued recently by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. And dismal reading it made. Every mission, it said, lacked an effective system of command and control. Units were inadequately trained. Once deployed, the troops were not mobile enough and were poorly protected. Financial and administrative authority remained centralised in New York, which hampered commanders on the ground. The UN forces lacked aircraft and helicopters, they had little in the way of satellite communications, new battlefield technology or electronic surveillance.

'The United Nations has become the world's emergency service,' said Sir Brian Urquhart, now at the Ford Foundation after years at the top of the UN system. 'But it is simply not set up politically, economically or constitutionally to cope with this role.'

From the Secretary-General downwards, UN officials, military men and diplomats sense that the machinery of international action is not working. Peace-keeping, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, global problems such as poverty, Aids and pollution - all demand an international response. Public opinion expects the UN to rise to such challenges. Therese Gastaut, a senior official with 27 years service in the UN, sums up its task very well. It is, she says, the only organisation to keep so many issues together 'in a chaotic harmony'.

Changing an organisation developed through delicate compromises with national interest will be difficult. Britain has adopted a cautious approach to the most conspicuous target for change, the future of the Security Council. The United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, France and China make up the five permanent members of the Security Council, each with the right of a veto. There are also 10 members elected for two years each. Decisions on matters other than procedure require a majority of nine among the 15.

The Security Council seat is Britain's great prize remaining from the achievements of Churchill, visible proof of Douglas Hurd's definition of this country as one that 'punches above its weight' in foreign affairs. For France, the permanent seat rewards past grandeur, the maintenance of a nuclear force and the Quai d'Orsay's policy, founded on the insistent, if occasionally irritating, assertion of France's unique gifts to civilisation.

Both British and French assumptions are now seriously in question. By 1995, most diplomats expect there to be an agreement to extend the permanent membership of the Security Council to Germany and Japan. Other nations want to see an even greater change, to include large regional powers such as India or Brazil.

'I have enough problems not to open this Pandora's box,' said Mr Boutros Boutros-Ghali. The Secretary-General wants to see only 'the minimum of enlargement' and thinks the veto must be preserved. British foreign policy makers are privately unenthusiastic about German and Japanese membership.

Martin Morland, British permanent representative to the UN in Geneva until this autumn, said a larger Security Council would be less effective. 'There has been a brief golden interlude after the Cold War when the clouds parted and the Security Council was able to exercise real power, but when the Germans and Japanese join I can see the clouds drawing in once again,' he said.

Others fear that the 'golden interlude' of collective action against aggression was an illusion that swiftly vanished in Bosnia. By this analysis, the moment of power has passed from the Security Council, which will henceforth be restricted by the balance of interests between its members and the limits to military intervention. It is possible that the Security Council, far from being the world's policeman, could end the century as a mere forum for international disagreement.

The worrying truth is that after years of automatic political judgements, the Security Council is feeling its way in a world without maps. 'The question is what are the limits of the possible - and we're all going up a steep learning curve at the moment,' concedes Sir David Hannay, Britain's ambassador to the UN.

No such excuse can be extended to the bureaucracy of the United Nations itself, an organism apparently impervious to external pressure and capable of self- preservation in the most hostile climate. Stories of its inertia and folly have passed into staff legend and acres of newsprint. Most critics, however, fail to distinguish between the Secretariat - what might roughly be called the general staff of the UN in New York and Geneva - and the agencies, where the most notorious abuses are to be found. (We examine the case of the World Health Organisation below). Within the Secretariat, several inescapable, if under-reported changes are in train.

The first is the transformation of the UN by political pressure from an organisation mainly devoted to arranging conferences into an active body charged with enforcement, preventive diplomacy and intervention. This will create, as one official puts it, 'a culture crisis'.

The second is the sea change that occurred during the term of Javier Perez de Cuellar, when Western donor nations finally won agreement to fix the budget by consensus, replacing a system under which a majority of nations voted for budgets opposed in vain by the few countries that had to fund them. In the same period, staff numbers began to decline.

The third force for reform is the staff- cutting and reorganisation programme set out by Mr Boutros-Ghali with the support of the United States and other major powers.

None of these measures, however, is likely to convince cynics that the UN is set upon the path of repentance and conversion. Yet even the most world-weary of diplomats is likely to concede that the United Nations bureaucracy reflects those of its member governments, both in the small top stream of brilliant career officials and the mass of staff described most eloquently by their French title of fonctionnaires.

Vladimir Petrovsky, the Russian director-general of the UN's European headquarters at Geneva, agrees that there is 'a crisis in management'. He tells employees in Geneva that they must adapt to changing times. But executive officials are fundamentally hampered in their efforts by the lack of a vision, an inspirational theme matching the original high hopes of the UN's founders, to offer their staff. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to attract and retain the highest calibre of international civil servant.

'It seems to me that the identity of the UN, which started as a means to deal with conflicts between governments, has not been properly questioned,' argues Sir Brian Urquhart, 'and there is no basic discussion on the role of the UN.' It is, he says, 'something of a miracle' that the Secretariat functions at all.

Harmonious chaos is an elegant description of the natural state of things, but it is not desirable for an organisation guiding the world into a new century. Just as the 'orderly management of decline' was the ruling orthodoxy in the British civil service until the advent of Margaret Thatcher, so the maintenance of 'chaotic harmony' awaits its transforming genius. Will he, or she, step forward?

(Photograph omitted)