In 2016, the UN Will Be Transformed. Will That Be Enough to Bring It Back to Life?

In 2016, the UN Will Be Transformed. Will That Be Enough to Bring It Back to Life?

In 2016, the UN Will Be Transformed. Will That Be Enough to Bring It Back to Life?

A new secretary general, a powerful bloc of developing nations, greater transparency—the 70-year-old global organization has a host of opportunities coming up.


The United Nations is exhausted. Conflicts that might once have responded to mediation—as in Namibia in the late 1980s, El Salvador in the early 1990s, and Timor-Leste at the turn of this century—are now marked by nihilistic, sometimes genocidal brutality beyond the effective reach of UN envoys. Budgets for life-saving humanitarian relief—desperately needed in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where millions of refugees are on the move—are dwindling to near-bankruptcy. There are more UN peacekeepers on the ground than ever before, with 124,746 military and civilian personnel deployed in 16 operations in West and Central Africa, the Middle East, and Haiti by the summer of 2015. Yet UN troops, now working with modern weapons of war, face greater dangers, both to their own lives and to the people they are sent to protect. More than 1,600 peacekeepers have died in these current missions. Democratic governments are stumbling under the weight of strongmen or dangerous nationalist movements. In an unsettled world, women suffer worsening violence and abuse, while numerous governments still deny basic rights and dignity to LGBT people.

The 70-year-old international organization needs to be rejuvenated. Fortunately, a year of great possibilities lies ahead, if member governments are serious about keeping their promises. Significant changes are on the calendar in 2016: A new secretary general will be elected, a new global-development policy will fall into place, and a climate-change agreement that long eluded member nations will begin to test countries’ commitments to averting catastrophic global warming. An independent expert report released in June 2015 proposing radical changes in the institutional structure of UN peacekeeping is on the table, along with the fate of the Peacebuilding Commission, which has failed to live up to expectations. Members of civil society—nongovernmental organizations and experts from every region—are taking more assertive roles in these debates, signaling that the “We the peoples” for whom the UN Charter was written are becoming more active participants in the UN process.

And developing countries are taking on bigger roles in designing global programs that in past decades were delivered top-down from the secretariat and other UN agencies working in the field. What these players in the Group of 77—now numbering more than 130 developing countries, a solid majority in the UN General Assembly—will do with their rising influence is one important question. Another is whether the powerful permanent members of the Security Council—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—will make a concerted effort to avoid the deadlocks that stymie critical decisions on global crises, such as on Syria. (After four Russian vetoes, the Security Council offered some hope for an end to that crisis on December 18, when it adopted a resolution laying out a path to peace and the possibility of a transitional government in 2017. But the central issue of whether President Bashar al-Assad would have any role to play in the process was left unmentioned, and plans for a cease-fire were vague.) The Security Council may even consider restricting the use of the veto, which only those five nations have the power to use. It’s an unlikely move, but one that is much discussed in the ongoing, contentious discussions about Security Council reform and enlargement.

But the most critical decision to be made in the coming year will be the choice of a secretary general to replace Ban Ki-moon, a former foreign minister in South Korea who has held the position since 2007. A genial, even courtly gentleman whose stewardship of the office has generally been valued as honest, capable, and well-intentioned, Ban has often stayed in the background, surrounded by loyal colleagues, except at ceremonial occasions. He has made some good appointments and others that are puzzling, preferring candidates as low-key as he is. This has made his office and several important UN agencies virtually invisible at a time when the system most needs bold direction. More than some of his predecessors, Ban has bent to the will of influential governments, which lobby for—or demand—the naming of their chosen (and not always qualified) nominees for important posts. For example, the appointment of Helen Clark, a former prime minister of New Zealand, as administrator of the UN Development Program has all but removed this critical agency from public view. To some extent, the same is true of UNICEF, whose executive director, Anthony Lake, an American national-security adviser under President Bill Clinton, was a puzzling choice to head an agency for children. At UN Women, a still-shaky new agency, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, a South African with scant feminist credentials, was named executive director. And though Ban initially had a good record of hiring women, he recently replaced some notable ones with men.

“Ban Ki-moon has a good heart, and he responds the way good secretaries general should respond to the critical issues of the day, but he has no ‘presence’ to him,” says Stephen Schlesinger, author of the classic Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations, and a frequent commentator on the history of the organization under eight secretaries general. Ban followed Kofi Annan, the most charismatic secretary general the UN has ever had. Annan had his critics, too—which is inescapable in an organization mixing so many nationalities and cultures. But “Annan, even if you disagreed with him, was a visible representation of the world organization—and he counted,” Schlesinger continues. “Ban Ki-moon doesn’t really represent the UN in a way that you would think, ‘This is the titular figure on the world stage.’”

But is the system capable of finding a successor with global influence? The search has already begun, with some new, encouraging twists. Traditionally, a secretary general was chosen by the world’s most powerful nations—the permanent members of the Security Council or a subset of them—behind closed doors. A former Italian ambassador to the UN remarked to me that the process was a lot like choosing a pope: Everyone else stood around waiting for the puff of white smoke. The Security Council nominee then went to the General Assembly for a pro forma election that was rarely seriously challenged—the hours of high tension were reserved for that unseen Security Council backroom decision. The atmosphere was especially acrimonious in the autumn of 1996, when the skittish Clinton administration refused to anoint Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a second term for purely domestic political reasons: He was unpopular with the Republican far right. The French, who strongly supported him, were livid.

The final choice was Annan, the American-backed candidate, a Ghanaian and career UN official who had been head of peacekeeping. The Clinton team apparently thought he could be easily manipulated and wouldn’t provoke Congress. How wrong they were: Throughout his 10-year term, which began in 1997, Annan proved to be an independent voice. In 2004, Annan called the US invasion of Iraq illegal, and he later defended the UN—ultimately, at significant cost to his health—against attacks by virulently hostile members of Congress, who called for his resignation while blaming him for an earlier oil-for-food scandal in Iraq, before the US invasion. That “scandal” was later revealed to be mostly a boondoggle for crooked American, European, and Australian companies that violated UN sanctions to do business with Saddam Hussein’s government. Ban Ki-moon, selected during the administration of George W. Bush, was always considered the Americans’ preferred candidate, whose steady campaigning for the job pulled him ahead of the pack.

In 2016, a number of nations, alone or in groups, and a phalanx of civil-society organizations are determined to make the process of choosing a secretary general transparent, with full résumés on display in the public domain and interviews conducted in a more open manner. In September 2015, the General Assembly passed a resolution to this effect, asking the Security Council and General Assembly presidents to explain in a letter to member states how a new, more transparent election would take place this time around. That letter, finally released to the UN’s 193 member nations on December 15, announced that the selection process would begin by the end of July and invited them to nominate candidates. As General Assembly president Mogens Lykketoft told reporters, “The wish is that the membership, for the first time in UN history, is included totally in the discussion of the next secretary general…. This is a watershed in the way that we are doing things.”

“The window may be more open than I thought on the selection of the secretary general,” says Thomas G. Weiss, director emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies and the Presidential Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York Graduate Center. “I never would have thought that the General Assembly resolution would pass, but it did.”

And for the first time, a campaign to name a woman as secretary general has been getting broad support. No woman has ever held the position, and the letter to the General Assembly members emphasized that female candidates should be among their nominees. Several feminist groups are compiling lists of qualified women drawn from the growing number holding high government office around the world or within the UN system. Schlesinger said that in meeting with ambassadors, he sensed that “there is going to be a great emphasis on getting a woman.” Others close to the UN agree, arguing that such a dramatic change at the top would alone help to revitalize the organization.

The search for female candidates has led to a wider debate about whether the UN should ditch the unofficial regional rotation system for choosing secretaries general. The Eastern European bloc of countries insist that it’s their “turn” to choose a candidate, since no one from that region has ever held the post. But what if no qualified woman (one deemed acceptable to the Big Five powers, at least)—or man, for that matter—can be found there? Should candidates be sought in Latin America or Canada, for instance, where women have risen to important positions? Enter Russian President Vladimir Putin, who may be the decider in this 2016 race. UN watchers are focused more on Russia than on the United States at this point; many see it as the country that could and would choose an Eastern European, woman or man, acceptable to Moscow. And Russia’s veto in the Security Council could block candidates from other regions. (Both Russia and the United States are on record as saying they will not make a decision based solely on gender.) Russia also has a very astute foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, a former ambassador to the UN with years of experience and a great deal of respect in and around the UN, as well as a good working relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Most countries hope that any nominee backed by the United States during President Obama’s last year in office will be a strong one, given the fear that if a Republican is elected as the country’s next president, or the GOP isolationists in Congress remain influential in international affairs, the UN could suffer much like it did when John Bolton was George W. Bush’s combative ambassador to the organization. Money is a factor: The United States still pays far and away more to the UN than any other country, both in budget assessments and voluntary donations. If a Republican presidential candidate wins in 2016, the first ax to fall would surely be on the UN Population Fund, whose work in women’s reproductive health led to the Bush administration’s withholding the annual American contributions to the fund. (Obama restored the payments.) Some members of Congress would also like to pick and choose among other UN programs that the United States should or should not support.

The UN has adopted a new set of development goals, this time written by member states in a bottom-up process. A new 15-year policy based on Sustainable Development Goals will replace the Millennium Development Goals, whose time has run out—with mixed results. The MDGs were handed down by UN experts; the 17 SDGs were designed by governments and civil society. The new goals don’t diverge substantially from the intent of the eight MDGs, with an emphasis on ending poverty and hunger and ensuring healthy lives and equitable educational opportunities, among other aims. Because the SDGs have been born of compromises among nations and cultures, governments can choose which ones to emphasize and how to measure their progress. The SDGs have been applauded for their strong statements on the equality of women and girls, though they don’t specifically back women’s reproductive rights. Three of the goals deal with environmental protection and restoration, and one asks that “cities and human settlements [be made] inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” A few seem to be far-fetched hopes, such as Goal 10: “Reduce inequality within and among countries.”

But compromise meant that the framers avoided confronting important social and demographic changes that will be felt globally, like it or not, over the 15-year life of the development goals. Aging populations everywhere present challenges, including widespread poverty among the elderly and a growing phenomenon of “elder abuse” within families. None of this is explored. Nor are new definitions of families, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriages, or the rights of transgender people or LGBT people generally. There is no call for a broad definition of violence against women, which is particularly important, since governments will be able to focus on goals that are in their national interests (read: those of mostly male politicians) and within their perceived cultural traditions—which is almost always a red flag for women. But outside governments can exert influence in the coming months, as UN members choose indicators by which to measure progress on the admittedly unwieldy 17 goals and 169 targets. Civil society will again have a role to play where it can be heard, close to home in the countries’ capitals.

Development policy, which is also important to rebuilding societies after conflict, is in need of rethinking when peace-building missions seem to go wrong, as in the case of Burundi this year. Carolyn McAskie, a Canadian diplomat and development expert, headed the UN mission there as the secretary general’s special representative from 2004 to ’06—the period when a new political system was created and hopes ran high—before becoming the UN assistant secretary general for peace-building from 2006 to ’08. These days, she has watched the democratic process in Burundi unravel as the country returned to violence. “It’s easy to say that the system didn’t work, or the UN didn’t work,” McAskie says. “But countries didn’t put up resources.”

As peace-building comes under increased scrutiny, McAskie, now retired from the UN, proposes quicker and less grandiose responses, especially when a country is painfully poor. “You can make any system work if you can get a few of the right people in there and give them the wherewithal to do it,” she says. “UNICEF has a School-in-a-Box that they can set up in a refugee camp. Why couldn’t we send 500 Schools-in-a-Box and 100 people into Burundi to get the schools going?”

In New York, the diplomatic missions around the UN have come under increased scrutiny. Many of the diplomats sent to the UN don’t have the expertise or ability to keep up with these new demands. “Issues that the world is dealing with are getting more complex,” says Hardeep Singh Puri, an outspoken former ambassador from India who is now a vice president of the International Peace Institute. “Missions, by and large, are drawn from the foreign offices of the member states and include lawyers, environmentalists, etc.—but these subjects, when they come up before the UN, do not lend themselves to easy categorization.” Look at terrorism, he continues: “Issues relating to terrorism have several dimensions—identity politics, ideology, organized crime. You have to know how an issue fuses with other issues.” Or take peace and security: The UN framework on both issues shifted dramatically in 2000 with the adoption of Security Council Resolution 1325, which brought the involvement and protection of women into mandates on conflict resolution and peacekeeping.

David Malone, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN and until 2013 the president of the International Development Research Centre, is now rector of the United Nations University, a think tank based in Tokyo. He told me that many foreign ministries are out of touch with their diplomatic missions in New York—and vice versa. In recent travels around the world, Malone has found that government ministers and parliaments often haven’t given much thought to the SDGs, even though it will be their mission to frame policies around them at the national level in early 2016 and then monitor their progress. “Frankly, it was news—or it isn’t even news—in most capitals, because most capitals haven’t come to grips at all with the SDG-implementation process yet,” he says.

For Malone, the UN needs to rethink its communication technologies and strategies generally, which he calls “very, very outdated” in a fast-paced media world. A shake-up of old management thinking is even more necessary, he adds, since the organization will be dealing with “the reality of less money and more activity” for years to come. “These international bodies are challenged by new realities that are not yet understood internally.” Because of this, Malone says, the secretary-general race in 2016 will be critical.

For the United Nations, a door opens on January 1 to let in more sunshine and fresh air. This will be an invitation—and also a challenge—to the UN’s 193 member states to rise to the responsibilities of the new programs and initiatives they have helped to create. Those oft-scorned UN “bureaucrats” must adapt, too. What is certain is that an untold number of people around the world—people who are neither government leaders nor UN officials—have found a voice in crafting these policies, and they’re in a stronger position to keep up the pressure for change. As far as the UN (and the world) is concerned, it could make for an unusually interesting year.

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