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Q&A on UN reform

Author: Esther Pan
September 14, 2005
This publication is now archived.

How much progress has been made on reforming the United Nations?

More than 170 world leaders are meeting in New York September 14-16 to address progress toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG), an ambitious program to reduce global poverty and improve human development that UN member states agreed to in 2000. The MDG are part of a larger, multi-year effort to reform the entire United Nations. This week, leaders will also sign a draft resolution on UN reform; the document emerged after marathon negotiations, including incorporating hundreds of changes made by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton on references to the environment, poverty, and the MDG themselves. Critics say the compromises—and the UN’s culture of consensus, which often leads to indecision and paralysis—have left the document toothless and prevented yet another attempt to achieve substantive UN reform. “It’s a well-meaning document that’s neither realistic nor specific enough in its details,” says James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, a UN policy watchdog group.

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What issues does the draft document focus on?

The 35-page reform document focuses on the following seven issues, many of which have been contested by the United States :

  • Development and trade. The UN wants wealthy countries to commit to giving 0.7 percent of their gross national products (GNP) in development assistance each year, which the United States opposes. In addition, developing countries wanted to refer to a 2004 World Trade Organization agreement that supports reducing farm subsidies and other trade barriers. The United States has also resisted including detailed references to the accord.
  • Disarmament and nonproliferation. U.S. officials felt the original document focused too much on disarmament and didn’t reflect the U.S. belief that the biggest threats to world peace are nuclear proliferation and terrorists’ access to weapons of mass destruction. In the end, no mention was made of either proliferation or disarmament, an omission Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “a disgrace.”
  • Terrorism. During negotiations, the United States pushed for changes to the terrorism section of the document, included dropping language referring to the deliberate killings of civilians as “unjustified” and deleting Arab additions that defended the right to resist foreign occupation.
  • Protection from genocide. This measure would give countries around the world authority to intervene when citizens are threatened with genocide in their own nations. The document originally stated that the rest of the world “has the obligation” to act to prevent genocide; U.S. changes to the wording say only that the world “should be prepared” to act.
  • Management reform. The United States and European Union wanted to give more authority over spending and mandates to the secretary-general’s office, but also make it accountable to auditors. These efforts were resisted by a small group of developing countries, which did not want to cede more power from the General Assembly to the secretary-general. Initial efforts to expand the fifteen-member Security Council have also gone nowhere, experts say, as countries squabbled over who would get the new seats.
  • Establishing a peace-building commission. This group would help establish and maintain peace in war zones after UN peacekeeping missions are withdrawn. The commission was originally meant to anticipate and head off wars, experts say, but countries of the developing world—the G77—resisted the idea of being singled out as presenting threats to peace before the fact. The commission is meant to be a bridge between war and a stable civil society.
  • Replacing the Human Rights Commission. The previous 53-member group was discredited by having countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe serve on it as part of their regions’ rotational systems. The document calls for the creation of a new Human Rights Council. The council will be a standing committee instead of meeting only a few weeks per year, but its size and duties, and how members will be elected to serve on it, were left undefined. A proposal that members must be voted onto the council by a two-thirds majority vote of the General Assembly was dropped at the last minute.
How are the MDG related to ongoing efforts to reform the United Nations?

The MDG are a project of the UN, which is undergoing a multi-year effort to reform its own institutions in the wake of embarrassing mismanagement scandals like that engulfing the oil-for-food program. A report issued last week by an independent committee headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found significant mismanagement and corruption in the program, including UN officials who took bribes from Saddam Hussein. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who took responsibility for the oil-for-food problems, has pushed hard for the last two years to enact real reforms—like expanding the UN Security Council to reflect more of the world’s population—of the United Nations.

What are the Millennium Development Goals?

The eight main goals are:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger . This goal aims to cut in half the number of people suffering from extreme poverty—those living on less than $1 per day. In 1990, this figure was 1.2 billion people, or 28 percent of the developing world’s population. Asia’s economic rise has lifted nearly 250 million people out of extreme poverty in the last fifteen years, but in much of the rest of the world—especially sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS continues to ravage populations—the poverty rate is unchanged or has worsened since 1990.
  • Achieve universal primary education. Around the world, about 115 million people, including 65 million girls, do not attend school. This goal aims to cut that number in half by 2015.
  • Promote gender equality and empower women. Progress toward this goal is measured by looking at parity between males and females in all levels of education, comparing wages earned by men and women, and counting women’s share of seats in national parliaments. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) set a target of at least 30 percent representation by women in parliament in 1990. As of January 2005, only seventeen countries so far have met this goal. Rwanda and the Nordic countries are the only ones who have approached parity in their national assemblies.
  • Reduce child mortality. The MDG aim to reduce by two-thirds the 11 million deaths each year of children under age five. Many of them live in developing countries and die of diseases that could be prevented or treated, including pneumonia, malaria, measles, and diarrhea.
  • Improve maternal health. This goal aims to lower by three-quarters the number of women who die in childbirth—currently 500,000 per year—as well as the many more who suffer serious injuries or complications. Efforts are focused on improving access to skilled health attendants, prenatal care, water, sanitation, and women’s education.
  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. More than 20 million people worldwide have died of AIDS, and some 40 million more are infected. As the epidemic worsens, 57 percent of the infected are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 7.2 percent of all adults are infected. Malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases also take millions of lives per year. This goal seeks to halve the infection rates and start reversing the spread of AIDS, malaria, and other major diseases by 2015.
  • Ensure environmental sustainability. This goal encompasses environmental stewardship—protecting dwindling supplies of wood, coal, forests, and fossil fuels—and ensuring access to clean water for the 2.6 billion people estimated to be without access to dependable sanitation.
  • Establish a global partnership for development. This goal would increase the amount of aid from rich to poor countries, reduce poor countries’ debt, attempt to set up a fairer system of world trade, and encourage foreign direct investment in poor countries. In June 2005, the Group of Eight (G8) countries agreed to forgive $40 billion of debt owed by eighteen poor countries to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and African Development Bank.
What concerns has the United States raised about the MDG?

Bolton says the United States supports the Millennium Goals, but not the codification of them into targets and timetables. The U.S. delegation pushed to change the wording in the draft resolution from MDG to “internationally agreed development goals.” It also wanted to add references to the Monterrey Consensus, the result of a 2002 summit in Mexico that said developing countries needed to take more responsibility for their own growth by fighting corruption, improving their infrastructures, and making themselves more attractive to foreign investment and domestic economic activity.

Will any reform be accomplished at the World Summit?

Experts say it’s possible substantive decisions will be made, even if they are not enshrined in the draft resolution. “Expectations were very high, maybe too high” for the document, says Suzanne DiMaggio, executive director of global policy programs at the UN Association of the USA. “This [struggle] has brought us back to reality.” The resolution—like most high-level documents signed by heads of state—will focus on broad, general values, she says, and the specific details will be worked out during the General Assembly session. “The document is more aspirational than actionable,” she says.

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