William H. Luers, president of the United Nations Association of the United States, says the United Nations (UN) had a "surprisingly positive" record in 2005, which was marked by a number of new reform initiatives.
But Luers, a veteran Foreign Service officer, who was ambassador to Venezuela and later to Czechoslovakia, says the Bush administration has missed an opportunity to take the lead in some of the reform efforts.
"The U.S. government chose to be a different sort of partner," he says. "And I think it was a lost opportunity. Whether or not the State Department would have liked it differently, I don’t know. I don’t know to what degree this was supported fully by Washington, or not. But we are where we are. The reforms that have taken place so far are hopeful and I think more are coming. If the reforms get through as now programmed, I think we’ll have a better organization."
He was interviewed on January 4, 2006, by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org.
How would you describe the United Nations’ past year? There was, of course, the anniversary summit meeting in September that was preceded by Kofi Annan’s report outlining possible reforms for the United Nations. How do you think the UN ended up?
As 2004 ended, Kofi [Annan] described it as "Annus Horribilis" for a variety of reasons, including the oil-for-food scandal. This year, I think was surprisingly positive, even though the media didn’t really cover it that way. A lot of ground was covered. There were four areas:
Second, there was an acknowledgment of the need to treat collective security very differently from the way it was originally described in the [UN] Charter, taking into account that the world situation had changed dramatically in recent years. The problem really wasn’t threats from nation-states so much as threats from terrorists, disease, and poverty. In short, the nature of security had changed in that no country was immune.
Third, the range of issues today is much broader than was perceived when the United Nations was originally created. That raised the question of, "How do we change ourselves to be more adaptable to the new world?" There was the Mitchell-Gingrich report, which USIP [United States Institute of Peace] put together, and the Volcker report [on the oil-for-food program], which sort of overlapped and dealt with similar issues.
These reform proposals, said, "Look, the UN is ok. We got to have it, but it’s so miserably managed. We have to find a way to rethink the leadership structure and particularly the whole set of issues having to do with oversight and management." The question of how individuals are accountable and transparent to what they do, and that whole set of issues including the ethics office, the independent audit committee, all of those issues, were raised in quite considerable detail because of the way the USIP study went. The types of people they had on it focused very heavily on internal structural management. And Volcker did the same thing in his report. He was quite obsessed by the fact that they needed chief operating officers. That’s an American overlay on the United Nations reform agenda.
Let’s go backwards in a way. Let’s start with the management issues, which of course are of great importance to the United States. Are there likely to be any management reforms of some significance?
Absolutely. What’s interesting, and I’ve talked to a lot of people at the UN about it, is that it’s being done at three levels. There’s Christopher Bancroft Burnham, the undersecretary-general for management, who is an American, who came in last summer having been undersecretary for management in the State Department. He’s a former Marine, he was a representative in the assembly of Connecticut, and he was involved in the private sector and is a very forceful person. He came in with a real determination to get at some of these issues.
In talking to him, I am quite convinced that he has a whistleblower protection facility already in place; the ethics office has been approved, which will start ethical training and programs throughout the United Nations. By April, they will have a whole range of proposals with regard to oversight. They are now putting in place the suggestions for an expansion of the Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS), which has been the UN’s internal auditing office. This office has been strengthened; it has been given a better budget. I don’t think there is a lot of resistance to it.
The second level is at the UN General Assembly, which must eventually approve most of the management reforms. The argument of the G77 [Group of 77] the largest grouping of member states within the General Assembly—is that they are concerned these management reforms are the U.S. way of taking over the running of the United Nations and taking it out of the hands of the General Assembly. But the General Assembly will still have the budget oversight. I think it’s working out because the combination of Burnham—who’s really quite effective even though he’s breaking a lot of china in the process, combined with the president of the General Assembly [Jan Eliasson]—who is responsible for finally delivering this and getting the General Assembly approval for a lot of these changes, and a Secretariat staff that is really quite shaken by the last couple of years and realizing it’s got to get things fixed, provides an environment that is moving in the right direction.
Then at the third level is the leadership necessary to bring about these cultural shifts within the organization and among the member states. There are going to be problems, but there’s going to have to be years of changing the culture. Just putting in place regulations isn’t enough. Secretary General Annan is committed to beginning to institute these quite fundamental changes, but his successor and the new leadership will be working at these changes for a long time.
Let’s move on to the budget, which you’ve mentioned in passing here. The newspapers have been talking about a temporary budget while they work on a longer-term budget. What is the situation?
Much of this was driven by the beliefs of the Europeans and the Japanese as well as the United States that the United Nations should have a two-year budget but only a twelve-month assessment. That means you go to the member states and say, "Ok, we’re going to have a two-year budget as usual, but we’re only asking you this year to commit to one year of budget assessments from your governments to support the UN." So they give the governments of the member states a number and each country has a percentage of that number and then they have to go to their legislatures and get approval of the money.
Then [the Europeans, Japanese, and Americans] decided to give the United Nations only six months of spending authority. That’s a device—sort of like a continuing resolution in U.S. Congress—that says, "Look, we want these reforms in place by June. And we all want to commit ourselves to this. So we’re not going to go forward with money for the full year until we know what’s going to change in terms of the management of the UN."
There’s a practical reason for that approach because part of the management reforms will include a buyout authority of the secretary-general to try to eliminate some of the less efficient aspects of the United Nations so he can hire new people and start from scratch. This has never been done before and it’s going to cost some money. There’ll be new positions created that will cost more money. Whether they can create these positions out of what savings they get from the buyout, is a budgetary issue. So it makes sense for the managers to say, "Ok. We’ll go with the six-month spending authority because when we have these changes in place, we’ll know better what it’s going to cost us going forward."
Let’s talk about some specific issues. There was a proposal for increasing the membership of the Security Council, but I haven’t heard much about that lately. Is that dead in the water?
I think it is. The permanent five really don’t want this to happen. The United States wanted Japan in; China’s not sure they want that. There’s Pakistan and India; India really has to be in, Pakistan is not sure they want that to happen. There’s the whole question of, if you put Germany in, you’ve got three Europeans. Why? So there were a lot of conflicting issues that made it very easy for member states to say that it was still too tough. And it’s unfortunate because it results in a Security Council that is not the least representative of the emerging power in the world today.
Will there be a new Human Rights Council?
I think there will be. The core issue is how to assure that the offending nations do not become key members of the commission. How do you keep these governments out of it so that there can be a real serious effort at overseeing and reporting on human rights violations? In my view, this is an important step. The U.S. Congress finds this one of the most important reforms; I think it’s the top agenda item for the U.S. government because of the low regard in which this Human Rights Commission is held. What’s going to happen is, I think, there’ll be a Human Rights Council that will be more or less the same size as the Human Rights Commission. It will probably be in place by late February.
And the key issue is the selection of the membership. It will not be based on regional groupings, which is the way it used to be. For example, if Libya was selected by the African group, they would get membership. Under the new plan, members will be selected by the General Assembly and hopefully by a two-thirds vote. Since a large majority of the member states are more or less democratic, there’ll be an overriding influence of the democracies on a two-thirds vote and so the states that are put up will be put up not by regional groupings. And a two-thirds vote will probably reduce significantly the chances of human rights violators being voted in.
One of the things, ironically, is that the U.S. government stated recently that the five permanent nations are always represented on the Human Rights Commission. That of course would place China and Russia always on it—and that cuts against the desire to keep off some of the countries which are serious violators of human rights. I think, however, that there will be a new Human Rights Council. I think it will be formulated in the next month or so and it will be a permanently sitting body as opposed to a group that meets twice a year. It will be a body with more teeth in it and more active in going in and checking out questions of [human-rights] violations. I think we’ll see an improvement, maybe not as much as the U.S. Congress would like, but it will be a better body.
There’s been friction between the United States and particularly its European allies since the Iraq war. Has the Bush administration made its peace yet with the United Nations or its European allies?
I think there is no question that when Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state, the administration made a commitment to restore the U.S. relationship with Europe, which was badly damaged [after the Iraq war]. They went about this in various ways over the first several months of 2005. There were somehat successful beginnings. Since then, there have been some setbacks in this important relationship with Europe. What’s happened is, one, this recent meeting in Montreal on environmental issues turned out badly for the United States; the nonproliferation review meeting last spring in New York was not successful. There’s been a renewal of friction over traditional issues that have arisen between Europe and the United States over multilateralism. This particular issue, how to proceed with these UN reforms, has made tension particularly high here in New York. I think it’s been a tough period; not a very collaborative period. How much this plays out in the capitals, I don’t know. The United Nations so often is seen as a separate issue from general foreign policy by many countries.
But I think these issues have been an impediment that has returned in the U.S.-European relationship. I think it’s ironic that the administration has Karen Hughes assigned [at the State Department] to public diplomacy and greatly improving the image of U.S. policy and it could have been so easily accomplished here [at the United Nations]. Much could have been different here. And I think we would have come out better.
In all fairness, I do think the U.S. mission to the UN is also driven here in some way by [the administration’s] awareness that the Congress is very concerned about these reforms, particularly the management reforms, and is threatening to cut off money anyway. I think there is a need for the mission to be perceived as very tough on some of these issues.
Did the Clinton administration do much better? I’ve heard criticism that the Clinton administration was rather tepid toward the United Nations also.
The Clinton administration didn’t have the abrupt manner in dealing with the United Nations that has been characteristic of the last several months [under the Bush administration]. What happened with the Clinton administration is more complex. They came in wanting to have this assertive multilateralism, which is the way they worded it. They had great intentions of working closely with the United Nations and then came  Somalia [peacekeeping mission where eighteen U.S. soldiers died]. And the Clinton administration really blamed the United Nations for the failure of that peacekeeping mission and the death of those Marines, when in fact these were all decisions made by the U.S. forces in charge of the mission.
And then it proceeded to become very negative toward the United Nations after [the 1994 genocide in] Rwanda, but the United States, with the British, are the ones who decided not to send troops to Rwanda or to Srebrenica [during the 1995 massacre]. So that series of peacekeeping efforts which resulted in such disastrous situations, most particularly Rwanda and in the former Yugoslavia, soured the Clinton administration considerably on the United Nations.
As you recall, during the last two years of Clinton’s administration, the Republican Senate rejected the comprehensive test-ban treaty, which was a key item in the Clinton administration’s agenda. And the Clinton administration stopped taking leadership in encouraging multilateral treaties. The one exception is NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and the series of issues around trade, where the United States has been very active in leading multilateral agreements. But all other issues have fallen away. It must be said that Clinton did sign the Kyoto Protocol [on environmental standards] and he did sign the International Criminal Court, which were two big issues for the Europeans. He wasn’t sure he could get them ratified, but he did sign them. Now we don’t sign treaties anymore; we don’t join the international community.
You’ve been critical of the Bush administration over the last couple of months. Now, U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton’s been there for several months. Is he responsible?
I don’t know. As I say, I think he is very sensitive to his congressional supporters and the conservatives who are highly worried whether the United Nations can reform itself at all. All I can say is that, given the importance of our relationship with the world today, given the problems we have, this was a moment when we really could have been part of a significant effort to change and improve this organization.
We chose to be a different sort of partner. And I think it was a lost opportunity. Whether or not the State Department would have liked it differently, I don’t know. I don’t know to what degree this was supported fully by Washington, or not. But we are where we are. And I think the reforms that have taken place so far are hopeful and I think more are coming. If the reforms get through as now programmed, I think we’ll have a better organization.
It still hasn’t resolved a big issue though, which is the role of the United States in the United Nations, and that’s really what started the reforms in the first place, when Kofi called for this reform effort in the summer of 2003. It was his concern over the use of force and how does the United Nations manage to exert its influence on restraining the use of force and a whole series of issues around multilateral commitments. Do nations have to agree to work with other nations to resolve problems? These are big U.S. issues. I think they are still up in the air and it’s unclear whether the United States will become a full-time participant or an ad hoc member, using the United Nations whenever it needs to, but not really committing itself to multilateral approaches to problems.