The Guest Column

5th January 1997

Kofi Annan facing challenges of reforms

by Stanley Kalpage

There was general and heartfelt jubilation in the UN Secretariat. The champagne that flowed when Kofi Annan's election was announced symbolised a genuine sense of relief that there is new leadership at the United Nations. Kofi Annan is the first black African to become secretary-general from sub-Saharan Africa and has been widely hailed as the most popular executive in the United Nations today.

Fifty-eight-year old Kofi Annan of Ghana, a career diplomat, was unanimously elected by the UN Security Council to lead the United Nations into the 21st century. France withdrew her initial veto when the other African nations in the Council, including Egypt, rallied behind Kofi Annan. Boutros Boutros-Ghali then bowed out after a five-year term without achieving the second term that he had hoped for. Many would agree with President Clinton who exulted: "I knew this would be a controversial decision, but it was the right thing to do."

Financial crunch

While his staff rejoiced, Annan was reported to be "an oasis of calm-smiling, shaking hands and posing for photos." With expectations high that he would reform the United Nations to meet the challenges of the next millennium and would also solve its financial problems, Annan would need all the patience and aplomb that he is already credited with.

As an insider who has served under secretaries general Thant, Waldheim, de Cuellar and Boutros-Ghali, Annan knows only too well that reform and cost-cutting would depend not so much on the secretary-general but on the commitment and political will of the 185 member states of the UN and especially of the more powerful of them. No reform could be effected without the concurrence of the five permanent members.

Unpaid assessments as of 31 July 1996 exceeded US $3 billion. The US and Russia are the UN's most prominent debtors; the US owes the UN as much as US $1.5 billion. If the US and its one-time co-super power pay their debts in full and immediately, Kofi An-nan could make a good start in leading the world organization to an adequate financial base. Kofi Annan has many friends in the US political establishment, not the least of them the new secretary of state, Madeleine Albright who tried to get the US to pay up its debts during her stint as US ambassador at the UN. She may have more clout now.

UN reform

The UN Charter has endured for fifty years and its principles and purposes need no revision for the next half century. But the vastly changed circumstances in which the UN will be operating require modifications in the organisation's structure and in its operational practices.

UN reform has stalled for the most part because of an unwillingness on the part of the western powers to realize that the world has changed unrecognisably since the end of World War II. Any restructuring of the Security Council must recognize that fact. In re-vitalising the General Assembly to make it more than an unwieldy debating society, the five permanent members of the Security Council must be willing to allow the Assembly to assume at least the powers conferred on it by the Charter. They must recognise the primacy of the General Assembly as the only body with a universal membership among the principal organs of the organisation.

There have been enough and more deliberations both in-house and outside on how the UN should be reformed. Numerous bodies and groups have made recommendations. Now is the time for decision. And these have to be collective decisions of member states, with the concurrence of the permanent five. Kofi Annan can use his diplomatic skills to urge member states to agree on more result-oriented procedures than the perfunctory meetings of open-ended working groups attended by relatively minor officials.

He could urge a final summit meeting of heads of state, if necessary, to take the decisions which a preparatory committee of the General Assembly mi-ght prepare on UN reform. Kofi Annan has the necessary personal qualities to try to break the impass on UN reform.


Kofi Annan has directed UN peace-keeping operations during the past five years. In 1993 he oversaw the withdrawal of UN forces from Somalia and, in 1995, took over UN peace-keeping operations in Bosnia. He would know the manner in which UN peace-keeping has escalated in recent years.

A crucial question that the UN would have to answer is whether and when it should get involved in the numerous situations of intra-state conflict around the world. Will the UN intervene in every internal conflict within member states?

Costs of peace-keeping missions have escalated from US $230 million in 1988 to US $3.6 billion in 1994. In his quest for a "leaner, more efficient" United Nations, Kofi Annan would have to look closely at the legacy of peace-keeping he has inherited and use the pruning knife effectively. Peace-keeping missions, other than those officially approved by the Security Council under the Charter, have mushroomed with not much to show by way of results.

These have been commissioned in the guise of preventive diplomacy' but little preventive action has been evident before a crisis has erupted. It is important for a secretary-general to use his personal influence and good offices rather than to employ numerous missions headed by persons of little ability and still less clout.


Kofi Annan has said : "I don't think reform need necessarily be brutal. Reform should be explained. Let it be realised that it is our reform." The only nagging doubt is that Kofi Annan may not wish to alienate old friends in the UN's bureaucracy.

On the other hand, Kofi Ann-an's experience of how the UN functions would help him to understand that the UN is neither a national parliament nor a private corporation. He should make it a point to attend important meetings of the General Assembly, the Security Council and of important committees like the Fifth Committee (the Budgetary and Financial Committee), which examines the biennial budget.

He will then not miss the opportunity of learning at first hand of the thoughts and concerns of representatives of member states. He must communicate effectively with them and with the media making use of his undoubted ability to articulate his own views directly in a disarming manner.

"I have 185 masters," said Kofi Annan after his election. He must work closely with them, sovereign member states, through their permanent representatives at the United Nations. With his quiet and unassuming dignity, his deep understanding of how the UN system works, and his thoughtful, soft-spoken, candid responses to questioners, there is every likelihood that Kofi Annan would win the confidence of his masters' and be a successful secretary general.

A law professor at Yale said recently, "Annan is a confidence-building measure in and of himself." "It is important that the UN do a much better job in public relations," says Kofi Annan. His greatest strength is his own personality. Brian Urquhart, former UN under-secretary general, described him as "an extremely decent and honourable man, with great experience and ability. There is every reason to hope that Kofi Annan will do a most difficult job very well.

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