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Silverberg Says UN Reform Process Slow and Inadequate So Far

Interviewee: Kristen Silverberg
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
June 26, 2006

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The United States, which funds nearly one-quarter of the UN budget, leads a group of major donor nations pressing for management reforms at the organization. These large states are locked in a struggle with a bloc of developing nations at the UN who fear the loss of influence on budgetary matters. There were concerns, recently eased, that the impasse could cause a freeze in funding for crucial UN programs this summer because major donors had set a spending cap linked to reforms.

One U.S. official at the forefront of reform efforts, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kristen Silverberg, says Washington has no plans to cause a funding crisis at the UN. But at the same time, she says, the United States and other major donors such as Japan will continue to push what she called a sluggish reform process. In particular, she said reformers seek improved accountability and efficiency in a UN management structure found to be deeply flawed in the recent oil-for-food scandal. Silverberg said U.S. officials will also seek to make the new Human Rights Council more credible than its predecessor.

The U.S. and other major donors pressed for a spending cap with the expectation that management reform would be completed by the end of this month. There are now concerns UN funds might run out in mid-July. What are the outstanding issues that need to be resolved?

First, there's no question the cap will be lifted one way or the other and we've made clear that we have no intention or expectation of causing a cash crunch in New York, so every member state is committed to making sure the United Nations has the resources it needs. The question is whether the [spending] cap gets lifted by a vote [in the UN General Assembly] or whether it gets lifted by consensus agreement. The original understanding of the cap was that it should serve as a kind of milestone for the member states to check our progress on implementing these management reforms. And in our view, not enough progress has been made to date. These are reforms that should be acceptable to every member state, they're designed to make the United Nations more ethical, to hold itself to higher standards of integrity, to make sure the United Nations has all of the modern business practices that any organization needs to function effectively, and also to make sure the United Nations uses member state resources in a way that can effectively solve important problems. So these are things we think should be supported broadly but a number of states are disappointed decisions haven't been taken to implement them.

One of the issues at the crux of this is transferring budgetary controls from a UN General Assembly committee to the UN Secretariat, which is where you can instill professional budget and fiscal practices. As far as I know some of these core issues haven't been resolved. Is that correct?

There are a number of issues related to the Secretariat's authority to manage effectively, to transfer resources when necessary from a lower-priority program to a higher-priority program or to have effective personnel practices that reward success and hold UN personnel accountable. All of these things have provoked some controversy in the General Assembly because the General Assembly is accustomed to managing or, in our view, micromanaging, the work of the Secretariat. We think it's important that the Secretary-General be able to fulfill his [UN] Charter responsibilities to manage the organization.

What do you say to the Group of 77 argument that this is taking one of the few levers of influence out of their hands?

We think developing countries have more incentive than anyone to have an effectively functioning Secretariat. The developing countries need a United Nations that can help address critical poverty and development issues, that can address emerging diseases, [and] promote democratic reforms, so an effectively functioning secretary-general is in their interest as much as any member state. We hope we'll be able to get past some of the power politics in the debate in New York and get down to the essence of the issues, which is how do we make sure the UN can effectively address some of these critical problems.

There have been other areas of reform obviously, and other areas charted out during last year's summit. How would you rate the reform process in these other areas?

There have been some steps taken to implement some of the secretary-general's proposed reforms. For example, the ethics office has been established, we have improved whistleblower protections, more financial disclosure, a Peacebuilding Commission. We think these are all a good move in the right direction but we think the process has been too slow.

You mentioned the Peacebuilding Commission. Would a body like this be involved in taking over Somalia-type [failed state] situations or preventing backsliding like in East Timor?

The Peacebuilding Commission is designed as a coordinating body so it won't assume any of the functions from any existing UN entities. It really is a way of getting all of the UN players along with critical donors and other players in one room to help make sure we are working off of a coordinated country plan. So, for example, in a country like Sierra Leone, or Liberia, or Burundi, the Peacebuilding Commission can be a good way of focusing attention on what's needed to move the country past an immediate post-conflict situation and into longer-term development and economic growth.

But in a situation like Somalia where you don't necessarily have a state yet it's not necessarily something that can be effective at this stage?

There's a lot of debate about which countries the Peacebuilding Commission should take on first and in our view the Peacebuilding Commission needs to start with a manageable agenda, we want it to demonstrate success early on and then take on some of the harder issues.

Another new body met this week, the Human Rights Council. What is the U.S. looking for from this council? What sort of signs will indicate that it's different from the previous Human Rights Commission?

We had two primary questions about the new body. The first is the membership: Is it one that would allow persistent human rights abusers to assume a leadership role in human rights issues? Our concern with the draft resolution turned out to be well-founded. There's no question there are some persistent human rights abusers on this council. But the second question was, "What will the council do? Will it be able to take action to address human rights questions in Burma, or Cuba, or Darfur?" The first session is likely to be largely procedural. When we get to the September session, we'll see whether the council is able to take effective action.

There are some in the human rights community and even U.S. lawmakers who say it was a mistake for the U.S. not to [seek membership in the new Council]. How do you respond to that?

We're likely to be very active in general. [U.S. ambassador to Geneva Warren Tichenor] spoke yesterday about our intention to actively support resolutions in the council, to engage with like-minded countries. But we voted against the resolution [creating the council] because we had some very serious concerns. There are a lot of critics of the United Nations who say that the United Nations cannot be an effective player on human rights issues, that the involvement of so many undemocratic and abusive states will prevent the United Nations from ever taking an effective role, and we thought the debate about the Human Rights Council was an opportunity, a critical opportunity for the United Nations to prove critics wrong, to really take on these issues in a way that could demonstrate that the United Nations could speak clearly and unambiguously about human rights problems. We will engage actively to attempt to move it in that direction but we think there's still a question about whether this council has the political will to take key decisions.

The U.S. House has passed reform legislation with something like thirty-nine reform items needing to be met before funding can go forward. How much does this kind of thing complicate or perhaps abet the administration's work on UN reform?

A number of countries, not just the United States but the Japanese also, have made the point in New York that these reforms are necessary not just because they will make the United Nations work more effectively but because they will build credibility domestically for the U.S. public or the Japanese public, that the United Nations uses taxpayer resources effectively. So, we think that congressional activity on UN reform is helpful. We've had a number of members of Congress go to New York to talk directly to leaders of developing countries, to talk to the Secretariat about their interest in seeing more reform at the United Nations, so we welcome congressional attention to the issues. But we oppose any mandatory [financial] withholding legislation that will prevent us from meeting our obligations.

The cause of a lot of this ire is the oil-for-food scandal, which was as much about UN procurement practices as anything. How satisfied at this point is the U.S. administration that some of those practices are now really being handled in a proper way?

We're not satisfied. We think that's an issue that needs a lot of attention. The Congress and the American public deserves to know that there will never be another scandal like oil-for-food and we intend to make sure the UN takes the steps to make sure that it doesn't happen again.

Another thing driving the reform effort is the fact that it's [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan's last year and he obviously wants to see some of the things he introduced come to fruition. In terms of a successor, there are four declared Asian candidates. Is the U.S. indicating any favorites?

We have not. We're still looking at all of the candidates. We've said the job should go to the best qualified candidate regardless of region. So we're looking at the declared candidates from Asia along with many candidates from many other regions. We need somebody who is highly qualified to manage the UN at a time of transition and so we're looking for somebody who can demonstrate a willingness to take on some of these reform issues, who has a strong record on human rights and democracy promotion and someone who we think will, him or herself, meet the highest standards of ethical conduct and integrity.

Perhaps a technocrat more than a diplomat?

We're very open-minded.

The whole reform debate seemed to get sidetracked a little bit recently with the speech that [UN Deputy Secretary-General] Mark Malloch Brown gave and the response of [U.S.] Ambassador [John] Bolton. Can you characterize at this point how the relationship is at the highest levels and address Mark Malloch Brown's central point, which was he thought the UN was being unfairly sandbagged by some U.S. critics?

The secretary-general has been a good partner in this reform process. He really has helped lead the effort to promote a number of these reforms but ultimately this is a member state decision. The member states have to have the political will to enact these reforms. So, we're looking to all of our key partners—Japan, the EU and the G-77—to help make these final decisions. Our views about Mark Malloch Brown's comments were quite clear. Ambassador Bolton spoke publicly and [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] addressed them with the Secretary-General directly. In our view, the United Nations does many good things. We remain strong supporters of the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, many of the other key UN activities and so it's right that we need to recognize the important and good things the United Nations is doing but it's highly inappropriate for a member of the Secretariat to address a member state and particularly the United States in those terms.

A final question on UN reform, to rate it at this point.

We think the ultimate test of the United Nations is whether it can take actions to address critical problems. Can it act to prevent suffering in Darfur, can it promote democratic reform in Burma, can it stand up against Iranian nuclear ambitions or promote economic development in Africa? We don't think that can happen effectively unless the United Nations takes decisions to hold itself to higher standards of integrity and that means higher ethical standards, higher standards in terms of use of member state resources, and we also think the United Nations needs to get out of the business of its obsession with bashing Israel.

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