Securing the future: a new United Nations agenda

By Newton R Bowles | 1995-11-01 12:00:00

What is it about fifty years that grabs our imagination? Perhaps the conjunction of the decimal system and medical science has stretched our mindspan from four score to five: we can dream of 100 healthy years. At fifty, half way into this dreamland, we pause to reflect: a time to look back, a time to look forward, a time to look in. Is this where we had hoped to be at fifty? What vision led us to this place? What went right and what went wrong? Of course, the life of one person is profoundly different from the life of a social organism, but the analogy may help our reflection about the United Nations at fifty, our comprehension of what has been attempted so far and what course corrections can be derived from a rational analysis of experience.

During the past year, there have been many studies and conferences about the future of the United Nations. Most often these exercises were announced as "Reforming the U.N." The choice of the term "reform" seems to imply that the structure, the form of the U.N. is defective; and that, if you fix the structure, you will fix the U.N. There is something in that, of course: the medium is the message, to cite McLuhan. But I think this is an awkward way of approaching the contemporary architecture of the Bauhaus: Form follows function. What is, or what should be the function of the U.N.? What authority and what resources will the membership confer on the U.N.? Only after we have answered those questions can we go on to structural reform.

As defined its Charter the U.N. is essentially the creature of the victorious allied powers in 1945. Their urgent concern was to avoid another global war, to assure inter-state security; and to that end the powerful Security Council was established. With the five Allies as its core, the Security Council has overriding authority on security matters, with real power to act. The U.N. has no comparable authority over any other aspect of international affairs or international concerns. There are good words in the Charter about social and economic justice, but ECOSOC--the Economic and Social Council--has no binding authority: it can recommend but not decide. The Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF and the World Bank, were created before and outside the U.N., making it plain that the major industrial nations had no plans to turn international financial institutions over to the U.N. This arrangement prevails today.

This is not to say that the U.N. and its affiliated organs have done nothing beyond conventional security. Our media pay little attention to the work of the autonomous specialized agencies (in health, agriculture, and education, inter alia). Then there are several programs directly tied to the U.N. itself--humanitarian aid, refugees, UNICEF, the U.N. Development Program, the Population Fund and the Environmental Program. There are also many regulatory agencies that facilitate international communications, trade and travel; and there is an array of conventions and treaties defining norms for social and political behavior, even for behavior in war. Here we have many elements of a planetary system, still in its infancy. We don't put much money into this system. We have a World Court, but we don't have world police.

Working our way through this complex of institutions and Conventions, we come back to the heart of the matter: what do we want the U.N. to do?

A good way to come at this question is to ask: what are the big threats confronting humanity today? Here is my list:

Every one of these issues is a source of insecurity and none of them has a military solution. It will also be clear that these are transitional issues, requiring convergent national and international action.

Since the Cold War, the thinking of the international community has been shifting to these pervasive sources of conflict. A series of conferences has been setting the table: the World Summit for Children, the Rio Conference on the Environment and Sustainable Development, the Human Rights Conference, the Cairo Conference on Population, the World Summit on Social Development and the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Emerging from these conferences is a new international agenda, addressed to human well-being, justice, and equity, the only sure foundation for peace and security.

But, you say, this is not what we read in the papers, what we see on TV. What we see is the U.N. pulling out of Somalia, the U.N. bogged down in Rwanda and in old Yugoslavia, the U.N. pulling back from its security agenda. Yes, the media feed our fears with scenes of disaster. These dreadful conflicts are not what was foreseen in the U.N. Charter: they are essentially civil wars and the U.N. peacekeeping role, pioneered by Canada, does not fit because there is no peace to keep. We have a lot to learn about how to calm such raging storms, what to do for failed states. Central America, Cambodia, and Mozambique are success stories, not perfect, but the raging has subsided. One clear lesson of Somalia, where we spent ten times as much on the military as on humanitarian assistance, is that you cannot restore order and rebuild a nation by putting an army in the field. We seem to have forgotten the aftermath of World War II, the massive Marshall plan that put Western Europe back on its feet. Our amnesia is slowly lifting through the shock therapy of events. Old style military power does not fit in today's world. The Security Council has been forced into nation-building.

This extension of Security Council operations is, in fact, the link to the new U.N. agenda, the people's agenda. The U.N. is not there yet. What is an agenda without the means to act, the resources, the executive authority, something like a U.N. Development Council to complement the Security Council?

Nevertheless, we are not starting from scratch. Many development conferences have entailed the preparation of national plans of action; and without national action, international declarations are meaningless. Existing U.N. capacity is not more exemplary than are most national governments, but it is there. For better or for worse, it works; something of an unprecedented experience is there. But the brutal fact remains: for the new agenda, the U.N. has only a trickle of funds, hardly enough for start-up in many areas. Even for core functions and peace-keeping, the U.N. lives from hand to mouth; and for its development activities, the new agenda, funds are in decline. The agenda is clear, the commitment to get on with it is not.


At the heart is poverty. The market economy is not a magic formula for the billion people in South Asia and Africa surviving on $1 or less each day. The U.N. is not in the big economic game, not yet. Will the rich club of the G7, hosted by Canada in Halifax last June, hear those billion voices? Such desperate poverty, more than war, is the great evil of our time.

The U.N. is governments, and governments are people--people who have struggled to gain and retain power. Government leaders are overwhelmed by pressures at home and are slow to accept the encroachment of the big world on their uneasy fiefdoms. Governments are sensitive to domestic pressures of all kinds; sometimes we invoke non-governmental organizations, citizens' organizations, to save governments from themselves, from their folly and apathy. NGOs have made a big contribution to defining the new U.N. agenda. With governments faltering, including our own, the NGO community has its work cut out for it. A long journey lies ahead, the road is rough and mine fields abound. Nobody knows what way this world will go. What surprises lie ahead? Some day we may be able to say: in human affairs, surprises don't happen, they are made.

Newton R Bowles is a longtime diplomat at the United Nations.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1995, page 6. Some rights reserved.

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