Strengthening the Economic and Social Council

By Rosenthal, Gert | UN Chronicle, March-May 2004 | Go to article overview

Strengthening the Economic and Social Council


Rosenthal, Gert, UN Chronicle


In January 2004, I ended my one-year term as President of the UN Economic and Social Council. It was, to my mind, a productive and stimulating year and also a learning experience. Although I had participated before in Council activities in my previous capacity as a staff member of the UN Secretariat, this was my first hands-on experience as a delegate in its day-to-day activities. I learned that this organ of the United Nations has a unique role to play in the furthering of development, international cooperation, the observance of human rights and humanitarian assistance. At the same time, I felt that it was not making optimal use of its potential. Now that various initiatives for change are in the air--notably the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, designated in October 2003 by Secretary-General Kofi Annan--how can we move ahead with the strengthening of the Economic and Social Council?

I believe that the key can be found in a more ample, focused and rigorous fleshing out of each of its generic functions, as spelled out in Articles 62 to 64 of the UN Charter. These include analytical, normative, advocacy, coordinating and oversight activities, and I would like to suggest the direction in which we should move in some of these areas.

Firstly, the Council is a unique forum for policy debate Indeed, one of the things the United Nations does best is explore emerging development issues and make them understandable not only for policy makers but also for the proverbial man on the street. Indeed, the UN debate ultimately does impact on public awareness and also on policy prescriptions. The Organization has multiple arenas where debate can and is undertaken, but, in my opinion, the global forum best suited for a serious policy debate is the Economic and Social Council, given its mandate, limited composition (54 members) and tradition.

From time to time, the Council has risen to the occasion and made a substantial impact on the real world. An example can be found in the significant boost that the 2000 substantive session gave to the role of information and communications technologies in the development process. (1)

However, not all of the debates are as successful. I have argued that the Council needs to heighten the bar as a forum for policy debates in the future, and this begins with the selection of the themes to be examined at the yearly high-level segment. Whether or not that theme meets the test of relevance will determine the quality of the discussion, the level of participation and the impact of the debate on the real world.

Secondly, the Council should make better use of three potentially powerful instruments that it has at its disposal in order to fulfil its role of promoting coherence, coordination and cooperation within the UN system, and even within the Secretariat. These are as follows:

* The integrated and coordinated implementation and follow-up to the outcomes of major United Nations conferences and summits, all of which offer internationally agreed development goals, and especially those contained in the Millennium Declaration. General Assembly resolution 57/270 B and Economic and Social Council resolution E/2003/6 have enhanced the capacity of the Council to use conference follow-up as a framework for planning, monitoring and assessing United Nations activities, which basically is another manner of introducing coherence coordination and cooperation into its work.

* The annual spring meeting with the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Trade Organization and, as of this year, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. Since the International Conference on Financing for Development took place in March 2002, the spring meeting is part of the conference follow-up procedures. However, that meeting far transcends follow-up activities; rather, it offers the possibility of introducing a much greater level of coherence, coordination and cooperation into the work of the main multilateral institutions through closer interaction and understanding at the management and intergovernmental levels. …

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