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The Challenges Facing the United Nations Today: An American View

Author: Kim R. Holmes
October 21, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations


Prepared Remarks
Assistant Secretary of State Kim R. Holmes
The Council on Foreign Relations

October 21, 2003

Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

The world we inhabit today is one of promise and of peril. The promise lies in the spread of liberty and democracy, free markets and trade, and the march of technology and of modern medicine. The peril made itself all too clear a few miles from here on that tragic September day just twenty-five months ago.

For the United Nations to contribute to this promise, as we want it to, it also has to grapple with the peril.

In a speech a few weeks ago at the opening of the 58th United Nations General Assembly, Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to do just that. He acknowledged that the world did indeed change on September 11th. He said: "there are new threats that must be faced – or perhaps old threats in new and dangerous combinations: new forms of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Secretary-General Annan is right to ask how the United Nations should come to grips with these new challenges. The United States, for its part, has responded to the dangers of our time with resolve. And President Bush and Secretary of State Powell continue to call upon the members of the United Nations not to shy away from these challenges, but rather to deal with them head on.

Last week we took another step forward in this effort. We gained unanimous support for Security Council Resolution 1511, which summons the international community to help Iraqis rebuild their country and construct a free society after decades of dictatorship.

The resolution not only expands the UN role in Iraq, commensurate with its expertise and capacity. It also offers a path for the full exercise of sovereignty by the Iraqi people – one of America's central goals. Andthe resolution calls on UN members to contribute troops and financial assistance to enhance security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

We hope and expect that every nation that voted for this resolution will support its implementation in the coming months, in word and in deed. No one can afford to back away from the Security Council's concrete commitments to the Iraqi people.

Because our cause is just — and because we are strongly committed to working with the United Nations and to achieving common goals through multilateral diplomacy — we will continue engaging the world body on this and other vital issues.

In this respect, the unanimous adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1511 was a victory not merely for its sponsors, but also for the United Nations. I would be giving a very different speech this afternoon had it not passed. This resolution shows what the Security Council can do when politics and narrow national interests are put aside for the greater common good.

Resolution 1511 was successful because members of the Security Council listened and compromised with one another. We will always listen to the views of others. We believe that dialogue can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. That is the essence of multilateral diplomacy. But, surely others should not be surprised if we present our positions as strongly as they do theirs. This give-and-take is the necessary ingredient of all multilateral negotiations.

Ultimately, we Americans believe we must do what is right, for history has put in our hands a unique and solemn responsibility, not only to the American people, but also to the world. When we stand up to terrorism, we do so not only for our own sake, but also for people in Bali, Nairobi, Haifa, Baghdad, and the many other places that could be next.

President Bush, Secretary of State Powell, and Americans from all walks of life want a United Nations that can effectively address global problems, from the political to the economic. Whether our times call for a new and transformed United Nations is a question seizing many countries. Various proposals are circulating and many have merit. The Secretary-General has, himself, called for an Eminent Person's Panel to look into reform.

Perhaps the wholesale transformation of this organization is currently impractical. The window for dramatic change opens up in rare historical moments, such as after World War II. We should continue to seek practical reforms that will enable the system that exists today to live up to its original purposes.

We think the place to begin is with principles. Get them right and the reform will improve the institution. Ignore them, and reform will merely be change for the sake of change.

The first principle guiding any UN reform should be responsibility. Since September 11th, we have urged every country to consider the world's future should terrorism and proliferation continue unabated. We have appealed to every nation to fulfill its inherent responsibility, as a member of the international community, to help stop these global dangers.

With these goals in mind, we are reviewing the Secretary-General's ideas. He would like a commission to examine the threats posed by terrorists and weapons of mass destruction, and the role that collective action through the UN could play in addressing them.

We do not believe the United Nations requires new doctrine or machinery. Much of existing law is sound. The key problem, rather, is in implementation. Members of the Security Council and other international bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency need to gather the will to enforce existing obligations. Governments should focus on resolving the concrete cases at hand, which can no longer wait, such as Iran's nuclear program.

The second principle that should guide UN reform is accountability. This applies to the long-standing discussion on changing the Security Council's composition. The differences among countries as to who should get or lose a seat are as fierce as they are varied.

The current system is curious. For example, Japan's budget assessment is twenty thousand times greater than the lowest assessment, which is paid by over 40 nations. Yet, Japan does not have a seat on the Council.

Whether permanent or elected members of the Council, accountability ideally demands that membership go to those who shoulder the burdens. We support exploring ways to make the Security Council more truly representative: The best way to do so is to ensure that democratic countries serve on it.

We are interested in hearing what other countries have to say about Security Council reform. As the last ten years of inconclusive discussions show, consensus will be difficult to reach. No simple solution exists. Any reform should ensure that the Council sufficiently reflects international realities and responsibilities, but, at the same time, not become oversized and even more unwieldy than it already is.

As we consider this matter, we should also bear in mind another fact. The problems that have arisen in the Security Council over the last year have been less a function of its structure than of the divergent aims of different states. Equal in importance to the Council's composition is the need for those sitting on it to act responsibly -- putting long-term common interests ahead of other considerations.

The General Assembly also has widely recognized shortcomings. Too many members remain dictatorships, which do not legitimately represent their citizens. A government can keep its seat in the Assembly no matter its record or behavior.

Universal membership is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, and I am not challenging it. But I do believe that the General Assembly would have more moral authority if more of its member states were democratic governments.

General Assembly debates and resolutions sometimes undermine the credibility of the institution. During its last session, over a quarter of the resolutions that the Assembly adopted by vote were on Israel. We must reduce this number. These resolutions are unfair and untrue. They harm peace prospects. They are crowding out the genuine needs of others.

The General Assembly and UN committees also have a difficult time establishing and implementing program priorities. The members that foot most of the bills have insufficient voice over the budget and over program priorities. The United Nations would surely be more fiscally responsible if these nations had more to say in establishing program and budget priorities.

A third principle guiding reform should be effectiveness. The president of the General Assembly, Julian Hunte, has called for streamlining its agenda, and we agree. The General Assembly and ECOSOC, the Economic and Social Council, sit over a maze of committees, agencies, conferences, programs, and commissions. The system needs consolidation and rationalization.

ECOSOC, whose programs account for more than two-thirds of UN expenditures, needs rethinking, as the Secretary-General has suggested. With fifty-four members, the body is too big to effectively direct all the activities under its mandate, yet too small to represent all of the UN's members.

ECOSOC might benefit from moving in one of two different directions. It could decrease membership to a number that would permit concerted action. Or, it could shift toward universal participation with full powers. Reducing it would make it more efficient. Enlarging it would make it more inclusive. Either option would be better than the current situation, which allows waste and inefficiency.

An effective UN must spend the hard-earned contributions of its members wisely. This brings me to the fourth principle of UN reform: stewardship of financial resources.

Carefully targeted spending to achieve beneficial goals is wise. That is why the United States has voluntarily contributed more for UN activities that help developing countries strengthen their economies by harnessing market forces, attacking corruption, and consolidating the rule of law. And, that is also why we have backed increases in the UN budget to improve the security of UN facilities and personnel, as well as counterterrorism activities.

Every nation should work to ensure that the UN spends every dollar in its coffers carefully. We support, for example, Russia's efforts to maintain fiscal discipline in the UN. The push by Australia and others to end unsuccessful and outdated UN activities is timely.

Stewardship requires that the intended beneficiaries of UN programs, in fact, do benefit. It requires poorly performing agencies to improve or close -- freeing up resources better spent elsewhere to help those in need around the world. The Secretary-General has proposed shutting down roughly nine hundred out of some twenty thousand outputs and activities. Surely many more are merited.

The General Assembly's Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions could exercise more influence to eliminate waste. Having more experts from higher-contributing states would increase fiscal accountability. Also, the cost of implementing a treaty, regardless of who ratifies it, should not automatically fall upon the entire membership.

The World Health Organization has proven that budgetary reform is possible. It has incorporated strategic goal-oriented planning into its entire budgetary process. We hope the rest of the UN will follow its lead. Everyone knows the management buzzwords: targets and indicators, results-based budgeting, measurable outcomes, monitoring, and evaluation. But the acid test is results, and whether a failed manager has ever been let go or an unsuccessful program ended.

The fifth principle guiding reform should be modernization. Nations in the UN caucus by region. As the European Union expands and tries further to integrate its foreign policy into a single voice, the composition of the Western European and Other States Group (WEOG) and the Eastern European Group may be increasingly questioned, with some of the EU's future 25 members in both groups.

As regional groups make unfortunate leadership choices, such as occurred when Libya was elected to chair the Commission on Human Rights, the entire system of regional bloc voting may also come under increased scrutiny.

The sixth principle of UN reform is credibility. Every right to participate in and to lead a UN body involves, at a minimum, one of responsibility: to live up to the most elementary standards of decency embodied in the UN Charter.

Members of all UN bodies should reflect the purposes of those bodies. This means that a regime that threatens its neighbors, supports terrorism, and abuses the rights of its citizens should be ineligible for Security Council membership. It means that members of the Commission on Human Rights should exemplify liberty and the rule of law. It also means that Security Council sanctions should count: nations under them should be ineligible for elected seats or leadership positions on any UN body.

This brings me to the seventh and, perhaps, most important principle that should shape UN reform: freedom. Advancing freedom should infuse everything the UN does, for liberty is essential to every significant human endeavor --whether it is helping ordinary men and women achieve dignity, lifting whole societies out of poverty, creating the life-saving technologies that will reduce disease and hunger, or creating the foundation for domestic and international peace.

UN programs and actions should be well calculated to help individuals secure their political and civil rights. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, for example, has moved from being hostile to a free press to supporting it.

UN programs and activities should also promote the Monterrey Consensus -- building-up the rule of law while giving people everywhere the benefits of economic freedom and good governance.

UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and UNDP, the United Nations Development Program, have been shifting away from defending failed statist economic policies to promoting economic liberalization and the rule of law. We hope they continue on this path. We believe the rest of the UN would do well to follow this example as well.

We also think that member states that understand the revolutionary power of markets and the rule of law should consider establishing an economic freedom caucus. A partnership between such developed and developing countries at the UN would make the global body work better on the key economic challenges in the poorest parts of the world.

Another idea whose time has arrived is the establishment of a democracy caucus. No two democracies are alike, but they often have more in common than with their neighbors. Democratic countries could consult and combine their energies to advance freedom around the world. They could begin the long process of rescuing the Commission on Human Rights from its decline so that, one day, it helps the millions of victims of oppression who look to it for hope.

The UN Charter calls for a system that would promote human rights, economic progress, individual health, and world peace – the last, most importantly, coming from nations standing firm on principle and joining together to deal with threats before they become ruinous.

Fear of reform, not its prospect, holds the greater risk for the United Nations. Reform will not be simple. But the effort will be worth it.

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