“How to keep the peace” is a question at the core of the 60-year old United Nations, the only international organization with a universal membership. An institution that has helped shape the world of today. “How to keep the peace” is the seminal question through which the United Nations is seen throughout the world. But this week, it is neither Iraq, nor Palestine that is prompting this question. Neither the Sudan nor some other bloody conflict or looming crisis calling for the UN to mediate or intercede. It is a conflict among its members that is becoming acrimonious and is testing the strength of an institution plagued by scandals and assaulted by detractors. A conflict that is jeopardizing its credibility and capacity to orchestrate and give effect to the common will of its Membership. The buzzword these days in the corridors and conference rooms of the aged UN Headquarters in New York is ‘reform’. At stake is the politically sensitive issue of where the ultimate authority of the United Nations should lie: with the Secretary-General or with the General Assembly and its 191 Members who all have one vote. Whether small island states, or superpower America, all are equal in the General Assembly — albeit some more equal than others.
Paradoxically, the United States is today forcefully advocating the strengthening of the managerial prerogatives of the Secretary-General who already wields considerable power in shaping the agenda of the United Nations. At the other end of the spectrum, slowly reclaiming its lost political clout of the 1970’s, the Group of 77 and China, which represents 132 developing countries, is adamantly opposed to this scheme for fear that the United States would be able to overuse its influence over the Secretary-General who nowadays has an unprecedented margin of action. None of Kofi Annan’s six predecessors could steer the UN with such autonomy –some would argue impunity– as the seventh Secretary-General. The end of the Cold War has indeed catapulted the office of the Secretary-General to new heights, and in no small measure due to his charm, suaveness and seeming calm, Kofi Annan has aggrandized the prestige of his position. But the debate over ‘management reform’ in the aftermath of the 2005 September Summit is pitting the more-than-ever united developing countries against the United States –and the Secretary-General accused by many of doing Washington’s bidding. Keeping the peace will not require blue helmets as the crisis among Members of the United Nations now entangled in divisive debates is becoming a test of wills, Washington having proclaimed that ‘management reform’ will determine its stance vis-à-vis the UN. In plain English: no reform, no money.
In a sharply worded letter dated 8 November sent by the Group of 77 and China to the President of the General Assembly, Annan’s authority to take proactive management decisions was frontally challenged “in view of recent initiatives and actions that have been taken by the Secretariat, which appear to be in contradiction with very delicately balanced agreements reached in September 2005.” Seriously undermined by the “Oil-for-Food” saga, Annan is accused by some at the UN of seeking to “rehabilitate himself by becoming more deferential to the Americans, but in the process, he is losing credibility with the wider membership of the UN so much so that there is now a lack of trust in the Secretary-General. The term ‘management reform’ becomes synonymous with giving carte blanche to the Americans to do as they please.”
Whilst negotiations on the Human Rights Council and the Peace-building Commission promoted by Annan enter a critical phase, Member States are also considering the budget proposed by the Secretary-General for the biennium 2006-2007. And with less than four weeks remaining to reach an agreement, ‘keeping the peace’ becomes essential to enable the UN to avert a major financial and political crisis. Against this backdrop, selecting the next Secretary-General before Annan concludes his second 5-year term on 31 December 2006 augurs to be particularly arduous.
After the failings of the UN to reform the Security Council, the ongoing wrangling regarding a prospective Human Rights Council, and Management Reform –three important reform planks put forward by Annan– the 191 Members of the UN should consider a truce. And as a confidence-building measure, they should focus their energies on one single reform proposal: the establishment of a non-renewable seven-year term of office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations with a view to ensuring his or her independence. If only they could agree on this simple and yet profound reform, chances are that other reform proposals would suddenly seem far less controversial in early 2007. Everyone would stand to benefit from such a step — “keeping the peace” often only requires small steps to diffuse tensions and convert enmity into amity.