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Herding Cats at the UN

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
updated: May 11, 2006

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Reform has long been on the agenda at the United Nations but the latest round of talks has the potential to truly shake up the organization. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has proposed a series of changes that would give his office more authority over budgetary and personnel matters without requiring the approval of the 191-member General Assembly. These steps were spurred on by reports of widespread abuses of the Iraq oil-for-food program, which continues to have an impact, as this cfr.org Background Q&A explains. The reforms are viewed by leading donors as crucial to making the UN's unwieldy management structure more transparent and efficient. They are especially welcome in Washington, where some see reform of the UN as akin to cleaning out the Augean Stables (Telegraph).

But a developing country bloc, the Group of 77, engineered a sound defeat of the proposal on April 28, charging the measure threatens the fundamental rights of UN member states. This impasse could spell immediate trouble for the UN budget, due to be renewed by June 30, because the United States and other top donors have threatened to withhold their dues if the reform process is stalled.

To some, it marks one of the most critical moments for the UN in decades (BBC). The UN's undersecretary-general for communications, Shashi Tharoor, expresses concern about a revived "North-South" divide at the world body, telling the Washington Post, "We have to find a way of involving GA members to help find a way to do our management job better." Billionaire George Soros, a leading donor to civil society programs, proposes a tradeoff: Give the General Assembly a greater role in the selection of the next secretary-general "so that members would be delegating powers to an authority of their own choosing" (Daily Star).

The dispute threatens to derail some modest reforms already approved at the United Nations, including the creation of an ethics office, instituting a whistleblower policy, and requiring financial disclosure by top UN officials. CFR Senior Fellow Lee Feinstein writes in the National Interest about a new consensus emerging among both U.S. Democrats and Republicans that holds the UN is a flawed but essential body for responding to international challenges and threats. Reinforcing this view, the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, told a recent CFR meeting that the United States has the most to gain from UN reforms because a more efficient UN would “lower the burden on the shoulders of the only global power.”

Many view the new Human Rights Council as a potential improvement on the discredited Human Rights Commission, described in this CFR Background Q&A. It is not yet clear whether the May 9 vote for the 47-member rights council will lead to a credible rights body. The General Assembly picked China, Cuba, and Pakistan to serve on the body, but not candidates Iran and Venezuela. The U.S. task force on UN reform lists human rights and management reforms as central to making the organization run properly.

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