The Guest Column

1st September 1996


The United Nations in Crisis

By Stanley Kalpage


Fifty years after its establishment on 24 October 1945, the United Nations is in crisis and faces daunting problems. These are many and may be grouped as financial, management, the changing nature of conflict, operational problems and structural inadequcies.

Financial crisis

The United Nations is in deep financial crisis. Member States are in arrears both with regard to their annual contributions to the regular biennial budget of US $2.6 billion and also in paying their assessed dues for the UNís peace-keeping operations, which cost around US $3.6 billion annually. Member States owe the United Nations $ 2.1 billion of which the US alone is in debt to about $ 1.5 billion. The climate in the US Congress is against the concept of the UN itself and it is unlikely that the US would pay up its debts in the near future. Contributions to the regular UN budget are levied on an assessed scale depending on the physical and economic size of the Member State; that is, on the real capacity of Member States to pay. The US contribution is assessed at 25 percent of the annual budget, with Japan (12.45%) and Germany (8.93%) as the next largest contributors.

A few years ago, the US indicated its wish to reduce its contribution to 20 percent, with the extra 5 percent being distributed proportionately among the other members which have grown economically. Small countries such as Sri Lanka contribute 0.01 percent of the total budget.

Management Problems

Stories of waste and extravagance, bad management and fiscal indiscipline are reported from different parts of the far-flung UN system which now includes not merely the six main organs stipulated in the Charter but over 75 programmes, specialized agencies, other bodies, functional and regional commissions and the Bretton Woods funding organizations (the World Bank group and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is a vast and sprawling organization with some 3000 staff in the Secretariat at different UN centres in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi, and another 20,000 in the field.

The management crisis in the UN result in part from poor management practices and the kind of bureaucratic inertia that plague most national government agencies. More professional recruitment and hiring practices, elimination of the practice of reserving top Secretariat jobs for citizens of specific countries, personnel policies that reward performance, greater authority for managers to weed out dead wood, competitive bidding and contracting out for goods and services and similar measures are needed.

Conflict resolution

Public opinion the world over is deeply sceptical of the UNís efficacy in maintaining peace and security in situations in which it finds itself involved. Some 78 instances of racial, ethnic, and religious strife and conflict are said to be raging in different parts of the globe.

Everyone was appalled at the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the UN was seen to be confused and completely ineffective in preventing the Serbs from defying UN forces sent to ensure that Bosnian territory was not swallowed up. In Somalia, the rebuff suffered by UN peace keeping forces compelled the US to pull out its troops. In Burundi, warring tribes, mainly Tutsies and Hutus, have killed millions and have not yet given up their hatred and fierce propensity for murdering each other. Both in Somalia and in Bosnia, the UN has been used as a scapegoat by powerful nations. There was no serious commitment or political will by these countries to support the UN effort.

However, it is important to note that the nature of conflict has changed. Most ongoing conflicts are within, rather than between, States. The end of the cold war removed constraints that had inhibited conflict in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. As a result, there has been a rash of wars within newly independent States, largely of a religious or ethnic character. In addition, as in Afghanistan, some of the proxy wars fuelled by the cold war within States remain unresolved. Inter-state wars, by contrast, have become infrequent.

UN intervention in intra-state conflicts is constrained by Article 2.7 of the Charter which does not authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. Intra-state conflict are usually fought not by regular armies but by militia and armed civilians with little discipline and with ill-defined chains of command. New approaches are needed to resolve intra-nation disputes of the post-cold war period. Greater use of regional arrangements and mechanisms are probably one such approach.

Another feature of intra-state conflicts is the collapse of state institutions, especially the police and judiciary resulting in a paralysis of governance, a breakdown of law and order and general banditry and chaos. The functions of government are suspended, its assets are destroyed or looted and experienced officials are killed or flee the country. This is rarely the case in inter-state wars. International intervention, in most current conflicts, must therefore extend beyond military and humanitarian tasks and must include the promotion of national reconciliation and the establishment of effective government. This was the case in Cambodia, where there has been a fair measure of success.

Operational problems

United Nations operations in the field have changed in scope. In the cold war era, United Nations peace-keeping operations were largely military in character and were usually deployed after a cease-fire but before a settlement of the conflict in question had been negotiated. Since the late 1980s, peace-keeping operations have been established after negotiations had succeeded, with the mandate of helping the parties to implement the comprehensive settlement previously negotiated. Such operations have been deployed, with success in most cases, in Nambia, Angola, El Salvador, Cambodia and Mozambique.

Humanitarian emergencies are commonplace and the combatant authorities lack the capacity to cope with them. Refugees abound and the number of refugees registered with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has increased from 13 million at the end of 1987 to 26 million at the end of 1994. The number of internally displaced persons has increased even more dramatically.

United Nations forces are being increasingly used to protect humanitarian operations. Warring parties can hinder such operations either because relief of a particular population is contrary to the war aim of one or the other of the parties or because they divert relief supplies for their own purposes.

Restructuring system

The UN is an organization which needs to be overhauled to meet new and challenging times. The present system is the product of a long succession of ad hoc decisions made during the cold war. The post cold war world is different from the world which emerged in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. The Charter was formulated to deter aggression such as that which the Allied Forces had overcome when they defeated Germany. Italy and Japan. Those who framed the Charter had in mind principally conflict between States. The Charter itself refers to international peace and security.

With the need for consensus among 185 Member States, the work involved in reforming the UN is extremely slow. It was thought that this could be speeded up so that a new United Nations, capable of dealing more effectively and efficiently with the numerous situations calling for UN action, would be in place by the time the 50th anniversary session of the General Assembly commenced in September 1995. However, this was not so.

Restructuring the Security Council has been extremely difficult, In 1965, its composition had been increased from 11 to 15 to make it more representative of the UNís membership which had, by that year, grown to 118. Today a similar exercise is under way to restructure the Security Council to make it more representative, effective and efficient. However, here again, progress is painfully slow.

Peace-keeping operations have distorted the UNís image. One misconception is that peace-keeping is all the UN does. It is often forgotten that the UN has a number of substantial achievements to its credit. For example, it has successfully dismantled colonial empires and admitted a number of former colonies and non-self governing states into its fold. As a result, the original membership of 51, when the Charter was signed, has increased to 185. The UN has succeeded in eradicating apartheid in South Africa where non-racial and democratic rule has been established. Again, the UN has done so much to alleviate poverty and suffering, to improve health, prevent hunger and banish ignorance. In several other fields, such as the well-being of children, the status of women, assistance to refugees and displaced persons, and in a multitude of other ways, the UN has been a blessing to mankind.

Despite the bad image that the UN sometimes gets, it is the only forum where all nations meet. If supported fully and strengthened, the United Nations could achieve the Charter principles enunciated in its preamble - to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, to ensure the observance of fundamental human rights, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for international obligations would prevail, and to promote social progress and better standards of life for all in larger freedom.

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