The Ironies of UN Secretariat Reform

By Frohlich, Manuel | Global Governance, April-June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Ironies of UN Secretariat Reform


Frohlich, Manuel, Global Governance


In his last annual report on the work of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold contrasted two views on the world organization: members would either regard it "as a static conference machinery" or "as a dynamic instrument of Governments through which they ... should also try to develop forms of executive action." (1) Against the background of UN involvement in the Congo, which had brought unprecedented tasks but also strong political criticism with it, Hammarskjold wanted to convince member states that the second view of the organization is in their best interest and in line with the UN's mission according to the charter. Forty-five years later, Hammarskjold's successor, Kofi Annan, in a dramatic appeal to the General Assembly, said, "Our current rules and regulations were designed for an essentially static Secretariat, whose main function was to service conference and meetings of Member States, and whose staff worked mainly at Headquarters. That is not the United Nations of today." (2) Echoing the words of Hammarskjold, Annan pointed to the large increase in quantity and quality of UN action: Since 1990 alone, forty-two new UN missions were established (compared to a mere eighteen missions in the preceding forty-four years); instead of 20,000 personnel in field missions, the number grew to roughly 80,000, with an expenditure of up to US$5 billion instead of $1.25 billion in 1990. In addition to that, mandates today go as far as temporarily taking over "executive functions of government," as Annan underlined in his report "Investing in the United Nations" (IUN). (3) This overall need for reform of the Secretariat originating from an expansion of its tasks was reinforced by a number of obvious failures in the way the UN operated.

The findings of the Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC) into the oil-for-food program revealed stunning information on "the politicization of decision-making, the managerial weaknesses, the ethical lapses" (4) that characterized UN administration of the program. This negative impression received further support from an internal investigation of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (5) and an internal audit that disclosed serious flaws in UN procurement services. (6) The Outcome Document of the UN Summit 2005 therefore stressed the need for "a culture of organizational accountability, transparency and integrity." (7) However, such superficial concurrence of Secretariat and member state diagnosis did not lead to far-reaching changes in the UN's administration. Quite the contrary: Secretariat reform became a divisive issue that led to spending caps in the budget, controversial votes in the General Assembly, and a lot of personal allegations between the main protagonists. Administrative imperatives had turned into political preferences. One reason for that can be found in the observation that the debate on UN Secretariat reform is characterized by various ironies, notably differences between words and deeds with actions that lead to results contrary to their original aim, and arguments that conceal rather than reveal central aspects of the reform issue. Acknowledgment of these ironies may serve to better understand the way the UN operates.

Reform as Modus Operandi

The tension between the political and administrative work of the UN is already planted into the consciously ambiguous language of Chapter XV of the UN Charter. On the one hand, the secretary-general is introduced as "chief administrative officer" according to Article 97; on the other hand, Articles 98 and 99, with their vague language (and subject to the trust of member states), open up rather remarkable political competences--for example, organizing a peacekeeping force, taking a stand on various international issues, negotiating for peace, and arguing for the allocation of budgetary resources. (8) This context at times leads to a situation where much of the political criticism aimed at the secretary-general inevitably has administrative repercussions, and much of the administrative criticism directed at the Secretariat has political motivations. …

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