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Reform Meets Resistance at the U.N.


The reforms recently unveiled by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to overhaul the world body's operations have met resistance, both from U.N. staff and from some developing countries. The proposals are a response to long-standing pressure for major organizational reform, which many experts say, is needed to make the United Nations more efficient.

The charter creating the United Nations was signed by representatives of 50 countries in June 1945, as World War Two was drawing to a close. The document set out several goals for the U.N., including maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among countries, promoting human rights and fostering cooperation in solving international problems.

Since the charter was signed, the United Nations has grown to 191 members. And its work has evolved from primarily holding meetings and forums to deploying peacekeeping and humanitarian missions around the globe.

Reforming the U.N.

Recognizing the U.N.'s more active role, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has unveiled a major overhaul of its operations, saying the organization's current situation is hampering its work. He says, "If I may put it bluntly, in one sentence, in many respects our present regulations and rules do not respond to our current needs. And, indeed, they make it very hard for the organization to conduct its work efficiently or effectively."

The proposed changes would streamline the U.N.'s procedures, including the budget process, make multi-million dollar investments in training and technology, and set up a mobile corps of 25-hundred peacekeeping professionals.

Even though the United Nations has traditionally been involved in peacekeeping, this role has grown substantially. In the 16 years since the Cold War ended, the U.N. has taken on twice as many new peacekeeping missions as in the previous 44 years while spending on peacekeeping has quadrupled. About 70 percent of the U.N.'s 10 billion dollar annual budget is now devoted to supporting more than 80,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world in places like Haiti, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kosovo.

Because of the U.N.'s expanded peacekeeping role, Linda Jamison of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says the proposal to create a rapid deployment force is a good idea.

Jamison contends, "The U.N. really does have to have a rapid reaction capability, which means communication, boots on the ground. But it also should be observers, military experts -- all kinds of people at different levels to report back to the Security Council about what is really taking place in a conflict region, immediately. There has to be this immediate function and the U.N. hasn't been very good at it."

Out-Sourcing Jobs

With peacekeeping and humanitarian missions its main focus, much of the U.N.'s work is now done in the field, away from offices in New York, Geneva or other cities. Mr. Annan's reforms are aimed at improving field staff while making personnel cuts at home offices, and out-sourcing some administrative tasks such as billing and translating.

These proposals are already meeting resistance from staffers concerned about the future of their jobs. Shortly after Mr. Annan unveiled his reforms in March, the organization's Staff Union issued a vote of "no confidence" in the proposals, especially those calling for out-sourcing work.

Opposition to Reform

Also, the Group of 77 developing countries led by South Africa is lining up against some of the proposed reforms, which it sees as an effort to concentrate more power in the Secretariat and Security Council. These member states say the reforms are being forced on the world body by the United States in an effort to dilute the influence of developing nations in the General Assembly.

Such suspicions are not unusual, according Edward Luck, a professor of international organizations at Columbia University in New York. He says, "There is often an effort to counterbalance the U.S. in the U.N. If the U.S. is on one side, some states rush to the other side or perhaps they think there is some sort of hidden agenda here that they ought to question. So that makes it more difficult. And when the U.S. adopts more confrontational kinds of tactics, tries to push the other states around, I think that makes it worse. It tends to build this feeling in other states that they have to resist the U.S. because the U.S. is trying to dominate the organization in some other way."

At the same time, Professor Luck points out the proposed reforms are aimed at improving the U.N.'s efficiency, which will benefit all member nations -- not just the United States. He says, "To want the U.N. to be better managed, to have its operations function more smoothly, to have better coordination and coherence in the system -- these are not favors to the United States. These are favors to the U.N. and to all the member states to have it operate more effectively, to have more transparency and accountability."

One impetus for reform was last year's investigation of the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food program for Iraq, which concluded that shoddy U.N. oversight was partly to blame for widespread corruption. The investigation, led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, found that weakness in oversight and accountability at the U.N. allowed companies to receive millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from the program, which was designed to ease the impact of U.N. sanctions on the Iraqi people during Saddam Hussein's rule.

Mr. Annan's proposal to upgrade the job of Deputy Secretary-General to become like the general manager of the Secretariat is seen as a response to some of the recommendations of the Volcker probe.

In the past, Mr. Annan has complained that his job requires the Secretary-General to be both the world's chief diplomat and manager of the world's largest international organization.

The United States, which contributes 22 percent of the payments to the U.N.'s budget, has welcomed Mr. Annan's effort to reform the world body. The U.S. envoy to the U.N., John Bolton, recently called for approving the reforms. He says, "What the chances are for a truly successful reform, I don't know. But it is a test for the United Nations. It is a test for the seriousness of the commitment of member governments for wanting to have a truly effective United Nations system. And that is what we are pressing for and that is what we hope we will succeed in achieving."

But getting the reforms approved may be difficult, in part because Mr. Annan's term as Secretary-General comes to an end later this year.

Edward Luck of Columbia University says, "This is a very difficult political time to start a reform. First of all, it is usually an incoming Secretary-General that offers a reform plan, not an outgoing one. Second of all, the member states are divided over Iraq and many other issues so it is a very hard time to move institutional change [through the world body] when they disagree very much on many of the major political issues."

Observers say the future of the reform effort will depend on who is chosen as Secretary-General and whether he or she presses to get Mr. Annan's proposals adopted. It also will depend on how strongly the United States will back the proposed reforms.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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