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The United Nations: Pressures for Change

A lecture to the Centro Argentino por Relaciones Internacionales, Buenos Aires, 25 March 1997-03-25

After the ups and downs of the recent history of our two countries, it is heartening to see the blue helmets of Argentina and British troops together under the command of an Argentine general in Cyprus. The symbolism is almost too great for me. It reaches beyond Anglo-Argentine relations, beyond the problems of a divided island, and beyond peace keeping operations, all the way to the place of the United Nations itself in world affairs.

Symbols resonate within us. During the last ten years the image of the United Nations has changed like a tragi-comedy mask. At one moment it is all smiles. Next it is a grimace. With the ending of the cold war and the successful expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait under UN auspices, the United Nations seemed the best hope for the future of orderly international relations within the framework of law. By 1995 it had become associated with political misjudgment and administrative incompetence, and was the world’s most useful scapegoat for diplomatic failure.

How did this happen? Has the United Nations, like any other organism, been evolving in the right direction, or evolving at all? Why were the high hopes expressed at the Summit meeting of the Security Council in January 1992 so quickly disappointed? Why has so little happened to give effect to the previous Secretary-General’s ideas about preventive diplomacy, peacemaking and peacekeeping set out in his paper of June 1992? Was the United Nations really to blame for such events as the havoc created by civil war in Somalia and Yugoslavia? Why have so many countries still failed to honor their obligations to the United Nations, and give it the resources it needs? (In short why is it, in the words of Boutros Boutros Ghali, that the reach of the United Nations has so far exceeded its grasp?)

Before trying to answer these questions, we need to look at the United Nations as the most recent expression of repeated efforts to establish mechanisms for maintenance of international order. Big wars usually breed big attempts to create new mechanisms. Thus was born the League of Nations after the First World War, and the United Nations after the Second. Perhaps inevitably such mechanisms tend to be consecrations of the status quo. Such was the case in 1945 with the device of a Security Council whose five Permanent Members were the victors in the war, and whose task was seen as guardianship of the world which has emerged from it.

In the half century which has followed, the United Nations has survived extraordinary changes in international relationships, and adapted itself pretty well in the process. It has survived, albeit at high cost, the East-West polarity created by the hostile coalitions led by the United States and the Soviet Union. It has survived the North-South polarity created by the breakup of the old colonial empires and a vast increase in its membership: many of the new members see the United Nations less as a guardian of the status quo than as an agent of change to put right inequities between states. It has survived the changes brought about by the end of the cold war, which like the end of the ice age, revealed international landscapes riven by geological pressures and faults which had long lain hidden beneath the ice. Finally it has survived the current changes not only between nation states but within their frontiers, and thereby found itself drawn into disputes where it has no clear mandate under the Charter of fifty years before.

Perspective as British Permanent Representative

I was the witness of five main changes, or groups of changes during my time as British Permanent Representative between May 1987 and September 1990. First and most obvious were the changes in attitude caused by the ending of the cold war. The process was astonishingly rapid. Suddenly Permanent Representatives were able to talk to each other with a measure of common understanding and purpose. This was particularly so within the Security Council and among the Five Permanent Members who found themselves at last able to fulfil most of the role given them under the Charter. New combinations developed among them: on some issues I found myself closer to our former adversaries that our friends. I was the informal chairman of the Five for almost two years. Some of our first essays in the management of crises took place in my apartment looking over the East River.

I was also the witness of the general replacement of confrontation by co-operation among the vast majority of United Nations members. The arguments between rich and poor, between so-called developed and so-called developing countries, over such notions as new world economic orders or new world information orders had long proved sterile. Those who sang hymns to development were rarely clear about what they thought development meant. Many of the underlying problems remained unresolved (and indeed have got worse since then). A new approach to them was – and is – clearly required. With this went a fragmentation of the Group of 77, or coalition of non-aligned countries, who found themselves as much non-aligned with each other as with anyone else. I think that Argentina did well to withdraw from this curious and heterogeneous club.

At the same time I was the witness of a new willingness to contemplate the use of force in the name of the international community. There is no easy way to deal with the kingdoms of Caliban – the Hitlers, Saddam Husseins and other criminal mavericks – and each creates its own challenge to international order and ethics. The real test came in the reaction to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the creation of the coalition under United Nations auspices to expel the Iraqis. This coalition was a classic example of the United Nations exerting the powers given it under the Charter.

I was also the witness to the development of new attitudes towards national sovereignty, a political concept first given legal force by the United Nations Charter. So far respect for sovereignty has been a foundation stone of the United Nations and its various institutions. Those who have the least sovereignty are always keenest to protect it. But over the years recognition of the constraints on it has become general, and erosion of the practice if not of the concept of sovereignty is widespread. It is evident over the management of problems within states. It is evident over problems affecting the global commons. It is evident over such problems as terrorism, arms proliferation, and the drugs business. It is evident over problems concerning the rights of individuals under the Declaration on Human Rights. Generally states are no longer watertight – if they ever were – from international law and practice, the behavior of the global economy, transnational business and financial activity, and, with the development of information technology, communications on a global scale.

Last I was the witness of – and of participant in – the process of drawing up a new agenda of points of global concern. Most now realize the dangers our little animal species has created for the good health of the planet, in particular the vertiginous increase in our numbers, pollution of land, water and air, consumption of resources in industrial countries, pressure on resources elsewhere, and destruction of other forms of life. The report of the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development in 1987 had a major impact. There was also the succession of international agreements on depletion of the ozone layer.

I was a member of the ginger group which began the preparations for the United Nations Conference at Rio in 1992 (the first meetings of this group were in the British Mission). Other obvious points were new threats to human health, in particular AIDS, a vast increase in the numbers of refugees, a resurgence of ethnic and religious strife, the more assertive role of non-governmental organizations, and not least increasing polarization of the world’s rich, and the world’s poor.

Of course these changes as seen from the glass tower of the United Nations in New York were no more than a reflection of changes elsewhere. Others looking from another perspective may see them differently. There can have been little more dramatic than the collapse of the Soviet Union and its economic system, the relative decline of the other super power with its signs of reversion to isolationism, and the subsequent dismantling or disposal of much of the stock of super power armaments. There was the rise of Japan and Asian tigers at one end of Asia, and the European Union and its associated states at the other. There were the present and future problems of the poor, accounting for at least a fifth of humanity, with particular difficulties in Africa. There were also continuing crises along the geological fault lines, from the Balkans to Palestine, from Indochina to former colonial territories where the frontiers were wrongly drawn. Perhaps more important was a decline in the integrity of the nation state itself.

The United Nations Institutions

Singly and collectively these changes had direct effects on the functioning of the main UN institutions. Within the General Assembly, which is the debating society of the world, there is more consensus, but also perhaps more unease. Most governments have yet to come to terms with change, and to see their way ahead. The economic side of the United Nations remains a Cinderella. Most of its original functions are discharged elsewhere in such bodies as the annual G7 summits, regional economic organizations, the OECD, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and some of the UN agencies. Until recently the performance of the United Nations in protecting human rights has also been a disappointment. There is a clash of cultures which remains unresolved even if the Declaration of 1948 has almost universal acceptance.

Likewise work on disarmament within the United Nations has made little real progress. Arms control arrangements elsewhere have proved a more effective way forward. The scandal of the international arms trade continues unabated in spite of the introduction of an arms register. Many of the poorer countries still have more soldiers than teachers. I sometimes wonder whether aid to such countries, whether bilateral or through UN Agencies, should be linked to reductions in military expenditure.

On the more positive side such new institutions as the Commission on Sustainable Development, created as a result of the Rio Conference, have real potentialities. But if the bodies within the General Assembly family are to be effective and more efficient than in the past, then there must be a weeding out of the ones that no longer serve a useful purpose – and there are still many such (may I mention the Committee of 24?) – as well as the creation of new ones.

The Security Council is the most conspicuous institution of the United Nations system, and here the impact of change has been most evident. Working together, the Five permanent Members were able to give leadership within the Council in bringing an eventual end to the war between Iran and Iraq, in promoting the independence of Namibia, in finding a settlement in Cambodia, and in creating the coalition which led to the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. Obviously the Five cannot even pretend to rule the world. When they began to work together, the others felt a mixture of relief that they should be doing so with apprehension that they might be trying to form some five power directorate. But in the last few years neither the Five nor the Council as a whole have given consistent leadership, and have reverted to ambiguous resolutions and unwillingness to match means to ends. This was particularly evident over Somalia and former Yugoslavia.

Of the United Nations institutions, perhaps the International Court of Justice has so far changed least. It is a pity that more countries have not yet accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court, and made wider use of its facilities for resolving disputes between states. There are possibilities for developing the use of Chambers in which issues can be settled within ad hoc tribunals outside the glare of international publicity.

Finally there are the UN Agencies and Associated Bodies and Programs (over forty in number) which have already changed substantially over the years. They bring together technical expertise in dealing with global problems, from health to meteorology, and the best of them are indispensable. Obviously some have worked much better than others. Recently UNESCO, the FAO and UNEP have been badly managed. UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development) and UNIDO (the UN Industrial Development Organization) are ripe for abolition. There is overlapping. More and better co-ordination between the agencies is urgently needed. Here the governments represented on their governing Councils carry particular responsibility. They alone can control the UN barons. Yet after their representatives have been there for a while, they tend to speak for the Agency to which they are accredited rather than for their own governments.

There are some encouraging signs. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are co-operating more closely with other UN institutions. The new Global Environment Facility of the World Bank may come to have a significant role. The work of the Agencies and Associated Bodies constitutes an important if still somewhat dispersed effort at global management of issues beyond the competence of nation states.

In my view the United Nations and its institutions suffer from four main handicaps. In spite of recent shortcomings, the UN system has almost excessive political credibility. Far more responsibility is loaded on it than it can possibility carry. Secondly the tasks it is given are often confused or imprecise, not least because member states themselves do not know how to cope with them. Thirdly it is not given the financial and other resources it needs to function effectively. Last it is not allowed to carry through necessary internal changes and reforms.

There is a curious and unbridged gap between the often repeated wish of governments, expressed in the Security Council, the General Assembly and elsewhere, for the United Nations to defend international order, fulfil its obligations under the Charter, and take on new responsibilities; and the means – political, financial and administrative – by which it could do so. Governments often blame the United Nations for failures. Some people in Washington have made it part of their political roadshow. More legitimately the United Nations blames governments.

The 1990s are not an easy time for governments. Even though many governments want or expect more of the United Nations, and accept the substance of the new global agenda, most also want to hold on to their sovereignty – and money – as long as possible, and in some cases keep the United Nations from interfering in their affairs. The United Nations can thus be both a friend and an enemy. In the meantime the pressures are unremitting. The world is not a more peaceful place. In the words of the last Secretary-General in June 1992: Since the creation of the United Nations in 1945, over one hundred major conflicts around the world have left some twenty million dead. There have been many such conflicts since 1992.

Peace Keeping

Peace and security – the constant theme of the Charter – are the most conspicuous activity of the United Nations. How does the system work? The Secretary-General has particular responsibilities in preventive diplomacy: in helping to build confidence between states, establishing the facts of a dispute in impartial fashion, giving early warning of danger, and where possible establishing preventive deployments. The cost of such activities is of course much cheaper for everyone than that of clearing up the mess afterwards, and the Secretary-General deserves credit – and recognition – for conflicts averted as well as resolved.

Peace keeping is a more public and certainly more expensive activity. Holding the ring is no easy task. It can sometimes inhibit as well as promote the settlement of disputes by removing pressure on the parties. The need for such operations has steadily increased over the years. There were thirteen peace keeping operations between 1945 and 1987, but since 1990 twenty new ones have been created. At present there are eighteen. Current costs are around US$1.4 billion a year. But lest anyone should think this expensive, compare it with global defence expenditures of over US$1 trillion a year (or US$2.5 billion a day).

Over half a million military, police and civilian staff from around sixty countries have at one time or another worn blue helmets; and around one thousand people from forty-three countries have died. The list of such operations is long but worth recalling. Continuing from the past are peacekeeping operations in Kashmir, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, Lebanon and Cyprus. More recently there have been operations in Afghanistan, along the border between Iran and Iraq, in Angola, in El Salvador, in Mozambique, between Iraq and Kuwait, in the Western Sahara, in Rwanda and Uganda, in Georgia, in Liberia, in Somalia, in Cambodia, and in former Yugoslavia.

In all these operations, it is vital that the United Nations should be able to get out of as well as get into crises, should not exceed or change its mandate under pressure of events, and should avoid becoming a part of the problem which it was called upon to solve. Peace keeping and peace enforcing rest largely on credibility and legitimacy. There must be no bluffing.

It is more than clear that the mandates given UN forces are often defective. Before authorizing the creation of any force, the Security Council should answer the following questions. Will the force function with the consent of the parties in conflict, whether they be states, or contending parties within states? Are its purposes humanitarian? Are they to establish the peace? To keep the peace? Or to enforce the peace? How is the force to protect itself? How is it to be commanded and controlled? How is it to be trained? Are the United Nations and its member states willing and prepared to give it the help and resources it will need to discharge its mission? Obviously the size and character of the force will vary greatly according to the answers. But in no circumstances should the United Nations agree to take actions unless and until there is clarity.

The scope of the United Nations extends beyond peace into war. Under Article 42 of the Charter, the Security Council may take such action by air, sea or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade and other operations by air, sea or land forces of members of the United Nations. The Security Council may also delegate action to member states to maintain peace and security under Articles 39 and 40 of the Charter, under the impulse of Article 51. So far the United Nations has twice gone to war: over the North Korean invasion of South Korea, and over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. In both cases the Security Council delegated the power of action to member states and did not attempt military operations of its own.

Assuming that the Security Council can establish a clear mandate for United Nations action, then the choice of means and mechanisms becomes critical. Should there be a delegation of power to member states, and if so on what terms? Should a UN intervention force be created? Should it be permanent, or consist of earmarked forces on call? What would be its relationship with the Security Council (fifteen fingers on the safety catch, or fifteen fingers on the trigger)?

The delegation of powers to member states creates a special range of problems. At present it is fair neither to the United Nations nor to the forces over which it exercises only some measure of control to leave matters as confused as they now are. Current setbacks should help persuade the Security Council to work out arrangements well before they need to be put into effect. Such occasions will surely recur.


Hanging over all the activities of the United Nations is the problem of finance. Arrears are and have long been a major scandal. At the end of 1996 they stood at US$2.2 billion of which US$511 million was owed to the regular budget and US$1.63 billion to peacekeeping budget. Some countries, notably the Russian Federation, have had genuine difficulties in paying. For them it is a question of priorities. Others, in particular the United States, have used failure to pay as leverage in defiance of their international obligations. US arrears on both the regular budget and the peacekeeping budget have been reduced under the Clinton Administration, but they still amount to enormous sums: at present US$1.3 billion. The United States is still trying retrospectively to reduce its obligations. At present the UN coffers are nearly always empty. Votes in New York are cost free, but the UN is not.

You will be aware of proposals for reform put forward by the European Union. I know that they would have the effect of increasing the Argentine contribution, but this is only to recognize the realities of your relative strength. They would not get the United States off the hook of discharging past obligations and of paying the lion’s share in the future. There have been other more general ideas to mitigate the problem.

They include a levy on arms sales which could be related to maintaining a United Nations arms register; a levy on air travel, which is, after all, dependent on maintenance on peace; new penalties on offending states in terms of deprivation of votes within UN bodies; and – a small but potentially important bureaucratic change – payment of peacekeeping contributions from Defence Ministries, which are usually well provided for, rather than Foreign Ministries which always suffer budgetary discrimination. But such devices would postpone rather that deal with the problem, and might make it worse in the longer term. The only real solution is simple: governments have to meet their international obligations.

Changes and Reform

The recent successes and failures of the United Nations have brought out the need to reform its structure. The fiftieth anniversary helped put the issue back on the international agenda. Obviously the first requirement is for member states to make the United Nations work as it could and should. This does not mean only paying subscriptions in full and on time. It means giving the United Nations moral and public support. The new Secretary-General has put ideas for reform which I know are under discussion in Buenos Aires as elsewhere. Such ideas as the White Helmets initiative seem to me doubly welcome as an extension of UN work into a new area, and recognition of a large and growing problem worldwide.

In many eyes a prime target for reform is the Security Council. The composition is certainly anomalous. Why should the victors of a war which ended 52 years ago enjoy a permanent place upon it and the right of veto? Yet we should be cautious in changing an institution which is – by and large and at last – discharging its original functions. The Permanent Members ensure continuity and stability. Their veto power has ensured that the Council remains a serious body and has not dwindled into yet another resolution-passing organization of no consequence.

It is hard to think of new and satisfactory criteria to govern permanent membership. Geographical area? Size of population? Gross National Product? Possession of nuclear weapons? Readiness to act, if necessary with military force, on behalf of the international community? Any choice bristles with difficulties. Would Pakistan and Bangladesh welcome India as a Permanent Member? Would Argentina and Mexico welcome Brazil? If the European Union replaced Britain and France, would it ever take any decisions?

A number of ideas are being looked at. Last week the President of the General Assembly came out with some. Nearly all, including his, suffer from obvious defects. In my view the time for change will come only as part of wider institutional reform, including for example conversion of the Trusteeship Council into a Council for protection of the global commons and the good health of the planetary environment.

Governments are not the only players. As national sovereignty has eroded, so a broad array of non-governmental organizations, including minorities, have sought to make their voices heard in international as in national affairs. This was particularly evident at the Rio conference, and will be again at the Special Session in June. But the United Nations still has to establish the means by which such organizations can express themselves from within the system rather than from outside it. This raises the interesting question of whether the United Nations should provide some means to establish whether governments are governing with the consent of the governed; and if not, and in the event of flagrant abuse of human rights, be entitled to intervene in the affairs of a member state.

A high priority is to bolster the role of the Secretary-General. At present his responsibilities are more than human flesh and blood can bear. There is a strong case for a kind of UN cabinet to include heads of the various Agencies. In that case the Secretary-General, as Chairman, would need powers over the others greater than he now enjoys.

In the meantime I see a shift of loyalties and a switch of focus among people of many member states: upwards to inter-national institutions to cope with the problems on the world agenda; downwards to local organizations and communities with identifiable local interests; and sideways in direct communication between individuals through television, E-mail and other means, often focused on single issues, whether political, economic or environmental. What the long term result will be it is impossible to say, and goes far beyond the scope of this lecture.


After the end of the war over Kuwait, there was much talk of a new world order. I doubt if that was the right phrase. If anything the future could be less ordered as the structures built into East-West rivalries and North-South contentions collapse further. Politics remains far behind technology in the governance of a global civil society.

At present the United Nations is more than the sum of its parts. But only just. It is true that if it ceased to exist, it would have to be reinvented. But it is still primarily a jousting ground for governments, each trying to get more out of it than it puts in.

In these difficult times it is important that we should hold on to the uplifting idea as the United Nations as the magic world in which humankind is one. Here symbols are vital. Seen from space as a passenger in the solar system, the earth is a tiny bright dot, or from closer to it, the blue water world. No matter that the myth does not always correspond with the reality, nor that its principles and standards are not always observed. The truth behind any set of myths, principles and standards is acceptance of aspirations held in common. That is the ultimate strength of the United Nations.

This paper is also published on the LEAD International website at


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