Between Politics and Efficiency: United Nations Reform and Conflict of Interests

By Muller, Joachim | The Ecumenical Review, July 1995 | Go to article overview

Between Politics and Efficiency: United Nations Reform and Conflict of Interests


Muller, Joachim, The Ecumenical Review


Discussion about the need for reform of the United Nations is certainly not new, nor is it confined to eliminating the countless shortcomings of the organization in the realm of work procedures, efficiency and cost. Various reform initiatives in the past have always been marked by deep-seated conflicts of interest among member states and have thus usually led to relatively insignificant changes to the bureaucracy. But reforms are now being attempted in all areas of the organization's work.

The Charter of the United Nations distinguishes between the maintenance of world peace and security and the promotion of international cooperation in solving economic, social and humanitarian problems. As far as the organization itself is concerned, a distinction should be drawn between the level of governments - bodies comprising member-state representatives such as the General Assembly, the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) - and that of the Secretariat headed by the Secretary-General. The Secretariat reports to the aforementioned bodies, prepares negotiations and executes their decisions.

In the first years after the founding of the UN, the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council were given substructures in the form of committees; the Secretariat evolved its own work structures. At the same time, there was decentralization from New York to regional centres in Geneva, Bangkok, Addis Ababa and Santiago de Chile. The first specialized agency, the children's charity UNICEF, was set up in 1946, and in the course of that year several other organizations and programmes came into being.

The first decisive reform in the realm of security was the development of peacekeeping measures. The UN Charter envisages only the peaceful settlement of disputes and the use of enforcement measures against the will of the states concerned. Peacekeeping troops - as a rule deployed to oversee a ceasefire - do however operate with the agreement of the parties to the conflict. The UN's first experiences with the new peacekeeping instrument came in 1949 in the Middle East and one year later in the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan.

With intensified East-West antagonism during the 1950s the majority which then prevailed was able to isolate the Soviet Union and other socialist states. The Soviet Union criticized both General Assembly decisions and their implementation by the Secretariat as Western-dominated. This conflict of interests came to a head over resolutions adopted in connection with the Korean crisis in the early 1950s. The Soviet Union refused to cooperate with Secretary-General Trygve Lie of Norway, which ultimately led to his resignation in 1953.

His successor, Dag Hammarskjold of Sweden, was also accused of a policy bias against Soviet interests. The socialist states charged the UN Operation in the Congo (ONUC, 1960-64) with staffing the Secretariat with persons from NATO countries while rejecting persons from socialist countries in technical cooperation with developing countries, which in any case served only to further the influence of Western industrialized nations over the countries of the third world. These reservations led to a major crisis when the socialist countries refused to join in sharing the costs of the Congo operation or to make any further payments for the Blue Berets stationed in the Middle East since 1956. As no political solution was found, the General Assembly appointed an eight-member group of experts in 1961 to work out suggestions.

This group was unable to agree on far-reaching recommendations. Their only suggestion for improving the efficiency of the Secretariat was to curb the growth of expenditures and cut the number of posts. The Soviet expert made a spectacular demand to curtail the Secretary-General's independence by replacing the post with a "troika" of one representative each from the socialist states, the Western military alliance and the non-aligned states.

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Between Politics and Efficiency: United Nations Reform and Conflict of Interests
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