Panel Urges Incoming U.N. Secretary-General To Prioritize Reform

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington - A former president of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) and a renowned international scholar are urging the incoming U.N. secretary-general to place management reform at the top of his agenda, arguing that improving the organization’s effectiveness is in the interest of the entire global community.

Speaking in Washington October 25 at a panel discussion held by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Ambassador Jan Eliasson, former Swedish foreign minister who also served in 2005 as president of the 60th UNGA, and Edward Luck, professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University in New York, said there is “unfinished business” for Ban Ki-moon, who will succeed Kofi Annan on January 1, 2007.

“[Ban Ki-moon] has said many times that job one, come January 1, is to do the management reform and move as far as he can on it,” Luck said, adding the new secretary-general will do so “not because it is Washington’s agenda, but because it should be the organization’s agenda.” 

Luck urged Ban to learn from previous efforts to reform the organization and to stay in close contact with the member states in order to give them a sense of ownership in the reform process.  “My impression is he’s not someone who wants to put out huge visions that are his personal visions.  He wants to find out what the member states want,” Luck said.

The United States and other major financial donors to the United Nations have expressed their desire to see the organization become more transparent, accountable, and efficient.  (See related article.)

It is a mistake to believe that other member states, such as the Group of 77 developing nations, view management reform as “somehow … not in their interest,” Luck said.

“I wouldn’t assume that the G-77 are irrevocably and eternally opposed to any sensible reform of management in the organization.  I think the fact that this was assumed at the beginning of the process … tended to have that, I think, unfortunate consequence,” he said.

He said it is unfortunate that more was not done when there was “sufficient” political momentum to move forward on management changes when the Volcker Independent Inquiry Committee issued its 2005 report on the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program scandal. (See related article.)

“In terms of management, I would assume that the new secretary-general will come up with something that is a bit of a mix of the old existing proposals and some new ones.  I think people are looking for new ideas, and yet there are some things on the table that still make a good deal of sense,” he said.

As an immediate priority, Luck urged Ban to focus heavily on human resource questions, saying merit should be used as a means of recognizing and hiring U.N. employees.

Ambassador Eliasson urged the incoming secretary-general to create a broad sense of ownership of the reforms, even before officially assuming the post. 

“Now is the time for this transition team which has two and a half months to go ... to consult with member states and make sure that management is embraced by all member states.  I think he should see some of the key actors and [make proposals] to them so you make sure that management is a responsibility for all,” Eliasson said.

The ambassador also said that throughout the reform process, the United Nations should not lose sight of its three pillars -– peace and security, international sustainable development, and human rights.


Eliasson discussed some of the reforms during his term as UNGA president, such as the creation of the Peace Building Commission, designed to maintain support for countries that have undergone recent conflict in order to prevent violence from breaking out again.

“In 50 percent of the conflicts during the last 20 years they have erupted again in some form within five years.  It is an unacceptable statistic,” he said.

He also welcomed the Central Emergency Response Fund as a means of providing for immediate needs following natural disasters when most fatalities occur and avoiding the delays involved in soliciting funds from donor nations.

Early 2006 saw the creation of the Human Rights Council, a group that the Bush administration has criticized for failing to exclude human rights violators and for focusing most of its attention upon the Middle East conflict as opposed to other global situations.  (See related article.)

Eliasson said he felt the council has “real legitimacy,” but acknowledged that it has “reflected some of the bad habits of the commission,” referring to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that the council replaced in March.

He said he felt that human rights remain a pillar of the United Nations.  “I would go as far as to say that human rights is the soul of the United Nations.”


In his remarks, Eliasson also reflected upon the state of globalization and the continued lack of understanding among peoples, citing the recent controversy over Danish cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad as an instructive example.

“We casually believe that we know so much about each other … and [yet] what do we see?” he asked.

“I would bet you that only 2 percent of the Danish population knew what depicting the Prophet would mean to the Muslim world. … And I would bet you also that of those who rioted on the streets of Damascus and burned the Scandinavian embassies, two percent of them knew that the Danish government could not ban an article in a paper in Denmark,” he said.

He also warned against the risk of defining “outsiders,” such as those of different faiths, nations, or ethnic groups, as threats.  If the outside world or minorities become a threat, extremists and politicians can use them as scapegoats for problems such as crime, drugs, diseases and unemployment, he said. 

“So we would see the outside world as a peril and a danger, and not as a potential of possibility - and in this age of globalization can you imagine the nightmare we are building?” he asked.

More information on the panel discussions and the Wilson Center can be found on the center’s Web site.

For additional information on U.S. policy, see The United States and the United Nations.