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Values and Principles in U.N. Reform
Kim R. Holmes, Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs

September 3, 2004

(Originally published in The National Interest Online)

Even as the world waits to see how the United Nations will become more involved in helping the Iraqi people, talk of U.N. reform has increased. Much of it comes from the U.N. itself whether in consideration of agenda items on reform, the reports of open-ended working groups, or the upcoming report of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change.

The United States has long sought reforms that make the U.N. more efficient and effective. We recognize that no other multilateral forum exists where nations as old and large as China and as new and small as Timor-Leste can work together as partners on such global threats as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and on such difficult problems as famine, HIV/AIDS, or trafficking in persons.

When we talk of the need for U.N. reform, we are careful not to lump all U.N. bodies into one basket. Some U.N. technical and specialized agencies, like the World Food Program (WFP), the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), and the World Health Organization (WHO), operate relatively well. Reform in those cases generally means finding ways to improve their operations and make better use of resources.

Other parts of the U.N. system, like the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the U.N. General Assembly, however, require more serious consideration. Such bodies often adopt resolutions that have little or no impact on the problems at hand. Reforming them will be more difficult, addressing questions that range from membership to scope of work.

In some cases, we do not believe it is the machinery or the doctrine of a U.N. agency or body that needs fixing. Rather, it is the mindset of members who are making the decisions. Political realities outside the UN, narrow parochial interests, and preferences for the status quo too often prevail over upholding the values and principles such as peace, security, human rights, and freedom upon which the U.N. was founded. Yet the U.N. Charter states that members must abide by the principles in the Charter itself.

The founders understood that it is the character of member states that will matter to the success of the United Nations. Giving equal status to the views of democratic countries and non-democratic countries whose decisions rarely reflect consent from those they govern creates an inherent tension in U.N. forums that undermines effective decision-making. Giving equal credence to the views of governments who respect the rule of law and to those like Saddam Hussein who blatantly disregard it is hardly a recipe for progress, or peace.

The world has become increasingly more democratic since the first 50 nations signed the U.N. Charter. According to Freedom House, since the middle of the 20th century, the percentage of the world's population living in countries with democratically elected governments has more than doubled. And the number of these countries has increased more than fivefold.

With so many democracies now engaged at the U.N., one might expect its bodies and work to take on more of the character, values, and vision of democracies. But that is not always the case. The Commission on Human Rights, for example, counts among its members some human rights abusers and autocratic regimes like Cuba, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

We often are asked, how can this be? The simple but unsatisfying answer is that their candidacies for the world's foremost human rights organization were put forward by their regional voting bloc which can include countries who sometimes seem to work harder to protect their errant neighbors from criticism than they do to encourage them to change their ways, or to promote the values and standards enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Commission on Human Rights may be in the spotlight today, but for many other U.N. bodies the record of achievements is also mixed. Actions do not always reflect founding principles. The U.N. system itself has become huge, costly, and cumbersome; often slow to act; and sometimes lacking in accountability.

It is right for people to question such a system. After six decades of U.N. activity, far too many people still live under brutal dictatorships, are caught in the crosshairs of conflict, or are denied their human rights. Far too many innocent people are victims of terrorism. It is right for countries to press for changes that would better enable the U.N. to help these people.

The lack of reform, not its prospect, poses greater risk to the people of the world. For the Commission on Human Rights, and for some other U.N. bodies, I believe the key to success lies in improving the character of its members. If CHR members were more committed to protecting and promoting human rights, its decisions would bear the moral weight the world wants them to have.

The key to reform of any part of the United Nations system will be whether member states, as well as officials of the Secretariat, have the will to hold fast to principle and make the hard decisions.

Recognizing Where the U.N. Works Well

UN agencies are involved in much good work from refugee relief, food delivery, election monitoring and democracy building to SARS containment, immunizations, and airline and maritime safety standards.

Last year, for example, the World Food Program fed some 104 million people in over 81 countries. The World Health Organization acted swiftly to stem the outbreak of SARS; it is quickly nearing its goal of eradicating the scourge of polio. As part of this worldwide initiative, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) vaccinated over 500 million children in 2002. Each year, it immunizes more than 100 million infants against major childhood diseases, and it continues to work with numerous countries to help prevent mother-child transmission of HIV/AIDS.

The U.N. Environmental Program (UNEP), working with the United States, has provided NASA satellite data on land use in 1990 and 2000 to governments in Africa to help them make wise land use decisions. UNESCO is doing important work as well, such as helping to rebuild education infrastructure in post-conflict societies and standing up for press freedom. To a large extent, our reentry into UNESCO recognizes the effective management, personnel, and policy reforms instituted by Director-General Matsuura.

There are many other examples of good work by U.N. technical and specialized agencies. The International Civil Aviation Organization, for example, has strengthened aviation security standards and is actively auditing compliance with them, while the International Maritime Organization has strengthened security measures applied on ships and at ports. Generally, these good results have occurred because these agencies have focused on clear and achievable missions, and for the most part they have kept their work non-politicized.

Political entities like the Security Council can do good work when their members can collectively agree on a way forward. The work of the Council in particular always reflects realities outside the Council. Yet Council members frequently come together to authorize important activities, such as to help implement peace agreements and maintain ceasefires, thereby strengthening international and regional peace and security.

In addition, since 9/11 the Counterterrorism Committee and the 1267 Sanctions Committee have helped strengthen states' capacities to fight terrorism and the international dragnet around terrorists and those who support them. And, the Security Council recently adopted a resolution on nonproliferation mandating that member states criminalize the transfer of dangerous weapons and materials to non-state actors. It also calls on states "to take cooperative action to prevent" proliferation, consistent with national and international law. This is precisely what countries that have joined the Proliferation Security Initiative are doing; so we regard this resolution as lending political support to that important initiative.

Where the U.N. Falters

The U.N. at its core is a political body. Its members are states whose sovereignty is recognized by the U.N. Charter. In its forums, great powers work with rising powers, with nations developing free markets, and even with states on the verge of failure in order to address some of the most difficult problems facing the world. It is in every nation's interest to protect peace, promote security and prosperity, and preserve freedom.

The U.N. system falters when programs that began with the best intentions continue long past their usefulness and consume resources that could be better used elsewhere. It falters when issues become so politicized that workable solutions cannot be reached. It falters when members choose the lowest common denominator solely to reach consensus, and when those who abuse their citizens, sponsor terrorist acts, or participate in proliferation are allowed to determine an outcome.

History may well remember this year's Commission on Human Rights for its failure to take a strong stand against the tragedy unfolding in Sudan's Darfur region. This failure was more remarkable in that it came on the heels of the Secretary-General's statement before the commission about that deteriorating situation. He was concerned that, on the 10th anniversary of Rwandan atrocities, the international community would not let history repeat itself.

A strong resolution condemning the human rights violations in Darfur was not only appropriate; it was expected. In fact, a strong resolution supported by the United States had been tabled by the European Union. It never came to a vote. Instead, process became more important than results, and other negotiators lost sight of principle. Their goal became reaching a consensus with the African Group, and the strong resolution on Sudan was bargained down into a weak declaration that offered technical assistance and a mild reprimand, but no strong condemnations of human rights abuses.

There are two sad postscripts to this failure by the CHR to grapple effectively with the Darfur atrocities. The first was when Sudan was re-elected to a seat on the Commission via a consensus slate offered by the African Group. The second was the report of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights that was issued just two weeks after the CHR concluded. The report noted "disturbing patterns of massive human rights violations in Darfur, many of which may constitute war crimes and/or crimes against humanity." It also noted that, "it appears that there is a reign of terror in Darfur"1 belated affirmation for those who argued the voiceless victims in Darfur deserved a strong CHR resolution.

The Commission on Human Rights needs reform, and so too does the U.N. General Assembly. In this universal membership body, member states have equal voice no matter their record or behavior. Representatives of 191 countries spend months debating, negotiating, and voting on the same resolutions year after year. The General Assembly also presides over a maze of committees, agencies, conferences, programs, and commissions. As the Secretary-General has observed, "time and institutional energy urgently needed to advance the policy consensus on current or emerging issues of global importance are wasted on reports and debates that are repetitive and sterile."2 Members who foot most of the bills have insufficient voice over budget and program priorities.

Surely more could be done to make the General Assembly's work more meaningful. To their credit, many countries are offering suggestions. Little will change, however, if the decision-makers do not gather the will to adhere to sound principles and to put long-term interests over short-term political gains or parochial interests. This is just as true for other U.N. bodies like the Economic and Social Council, whose actions often make little difference in the lives of real people.

The Keys to Effective Reform

To make the U.N. more effective, the United States has been working with other states and with the U.N. Secretariat on administrative and programmatic reforms. For example, we supported giving the Secretary-General more flexibility to move positions around as needs arise. In the Secretariat, the World Health Organization, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), we welcomed the establishment of Inspectors General positions, as well as the initiation of program evaluations and results-based budgeting.

We believe that every reform should reflect the core principles of accountability, responsibility, effectiveness, stewardship, modernization, and freedom. We believe if you get the principles right, long-term positive changes will follow.

But what does this mean in terms of the U.N. and its programs?

Real accountability means those who bear the burden of implementing and funding the decisions should have more of a say in those decisions. It means that countries that contribute significantly to international peace and stability have a strong case for serving on the Security Council; terrorist-sponsoring states do not. Whatever is done to change the makeup of the Council, we believe it must reflect these principles of responsibility and accountability, without making the Council any more unwieldy than it already is.

Stewardship of the resources the world gives the U.N. is very important. While world events will always generate pressure on the U.N. to take on new work, an ever-increasing budget is not sustainable. No matter the agency, every U.N. program should target funding so that the intended beneficiaries will, in fact, benefit. This means eliminating any waste and duplication that rob resources, promoting the sensible consolidation and rationalization of programs and activities, and adding mechanisms, like sunset provisions, to new programs to foster accountability. It means the UN's development work should help developing countries learn how to harness market forces, tackle corruption, and consolidate the rule of law.

Helping individuals secure human rights and fundamental freedoms should infuse everything that the U.N. does from advancing free elections and women's political participation to protecting freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and religious freedom.

Making decisions based on these core principles will no doubt require fresh thinking. It will also require members to take a more critical look at the regional bloc system. This system needs modernization to adapt to modern realities, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, the enlargement of the EU (with its members in different regional groups), the fact that a country such as Israel is denied a voice within its geographic region, and the rise of crosscutting market and democratic values among countries across regional groups.

In the recent past, a cluster of regional and ideological caucuses have been effective in shaping the UN's culture and agenda. Democracies among them, in the interest of consensus, have not always challenged actions that undermine political, economic, and civil freedoms.

To change this tendency, a growing caucus of democracies has come together to encourage each other to stand on principle. An outgrowth of the Community of Democracies that met in Warsaw in 2000 and in Seoul in 2002 to focus on democracy building, this grouping is looking at ways to promote democracy, the rule of law, good governance, human rights and fundamental freedoms across the U.N. system. By harnessing their shared values and power, they hope to help the U.N. live up to the values and principles on which it was founded.

An example of such collaboration came during the Commission on Human Rights, when the United States worked with Peru, Romania, and Timor-Leste on a resolution that would promote and consolidate democracy. The 32 democracies on the 53-member commission worked hard to build support for the resolution, and it was adopted by a vote of 45 to 0, with 8 abstentions. Notably, it collected 73 co-sponsors, including a number of non-members of the commission. Among those who abstained on this resolution were Cuba and Sudan.

The resolution reaffirms the fact that the promotion and protection of human rights is a prerequisite for a democratic society. It acknowledges that democracy contributes substantially to preventing violent conflicts and accelerating reconstruction. It asks the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to serve as a focal point to coordinate the good work being done on democracy building by UNESCO, the ILO, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP), the U.N. Elections Assistance Unit, and others. The resolution also shows that democracies and non-democracies can agree on important principles.

Real reform of the U.N. will require more of the vision and collaboration and willpower among democracies and non-democracies alike that brought this resolution to fruition. Basing policy and programs on founding principles can similarly facilitate good outcomes in the Secretariat, the Security Council, the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council, the technical agencies, the budget committees, and the UN's many committees and commissions.


For over five decades, the United States, the United Nations, and a good number of its members have shared a vision of the world in which peace and prosperity are the property of all people. That has not changed. Neither has the fact that most of the people of the world share core values of freedom, democracy, good governance and human rights.

The United States will continue to engage the U.N. system because it is in our interest to do so. We want the United Nations to live up to its purpose. Reform will not be simple; but if it is done thoughtfully and fairly and adheres to core principles, then the outcome can only strengthen the UN's ability to serve its crucial goals.



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