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The Guest Column

2nd March 1997

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan walks a tight rope

by Stanley Kalpage

Kofi Annan, who has worked in the UN secretariat for 30 years under four secretaries general, would know only too well what a secretary general can and cannot do to reform the United Nations. And this is just what Jesse Helms, the republican chairman of the US foreign relations committee chooses to ignore.

The secretary general of United Nations is not the prime minister of a world government who can effect reforms on his own initiative without consultation with, and approval of, the majority of the 185 member states in the Organization, which the UN Charter says "is based on the sovereign equality of all its members". The Charter enjoins all members to adopt democratic procedures. There can be no imposition of reforms; nor can be any excuse for non-payment of UN dues.

Kofi Annan's dilemma is whether to please the US Congress, which insists on 'instant reforms' in accordance with its own ideas and certain "benchmarks", or to heed the wishes of the majority of members, mostly from the Third World, with vastly different views of the United Nations Organization and of their own needs.


The Committee on Contributions advises the General Assembly on all questions relating to the apportionment of the expenses of the UN. Article 19 of the Charter applies in cases of arrears in the payment of financial contributions. This article deprives members who are in arrears of voting rights in the General Assembly. If the US or any other member state wants a revision of its assessed contribution, the proper authority to decide on its case is the Committee on Contributions. There can be no excuse for not paying one's contribution 'in full and on time'.

In view of the refusal of the US Congress to pay its arrears amounting to US $ 1.4 billion, the UN can of course consider the possibility of redistributing assessments so that a greater share is borne by other members, particularly those who have improved their gross domestic product in recent years, like the Republic of Korea and Singapore. The apportionment of the expenses of the UN is certainly in need of reform.

There are other reforms that are necessary and on which Kofi Annan can show rapid results. These concern the UN Secretariat - one of the principal 'organs' of the UN Charter - on which member states depend to recommend courses of action, prepare for diverse contingencies and implement the decisions of member states. If the Secretariat is inefficient, poorly staffed, or badly organised, the effectiveness of many UN activities will suffer accordingly. It is here that the secretary general is in complete charge and can effect reforms without necessarily consulting member states.

The US proposal to merge eight UN departments to just five and have them deal with political affairs, peace-keeping, international economic co-operation and sustainable development, humanitarian affairs, and administration and conference services, is reasonable and worthy of adoption.

Sunset policy

Kofi Annan is also slow in accepting a new "sunset policy" in order to provide accountability and improved performance. If such a policy is adopted, it would be a standard practice throughout the UN system for programmes to end after a specified period, unless they have "conclusively demonstrated their continuing relevance and value according to established criteria". Here is a proposal which would result in greater efficiency and cost-effective use of scarce funding.

Nor has this any link with western suggestions that the UN's leadership role in development issues on the ground and in trade matters be handed over to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation which Third World countries fear are only too willing to favour the industrialised countries.

Before Boutros Ghali assumed office in January 1992, a group of about thirty member states including Sri Lanka, proposed ways of improving the efficiency of the UN secretariat. One proposal was the creation of the post of Deputy Secretary General, who would assist the Secretary General in co-ordinating the varied activities of the secretariat .Boutros Ghali did not want to delegate his powers in this way. Kofi Annan will recognise the usefulness of such a delegaion of his powers.

It has been suggested that the departing Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland would make a good choice for a post of Deputy Secretary General. Brundtland is known to project a Third World point of view at conferences on the environment. Kofi Annan has said that he would support the creation of a post of deputy and would look for women candidates to fill it. Any deputy's functions would have to encompass political and security issues rather than simply economic and social ones.

Retaining the old

Kofi Annan is being criticised for keeping intact almost all of the high ranking officials who served under Boutros Ghali, including those who canvassed openly for a second term for Boutros Ghali. He has defended his position by saying: "I think the implication that old hands or people who are in the house cannot be effective is something I do not share. When you look at the team I came up with, there were two new appointments in important areas in the departments of peacekeeping and political affairs. There are several promotions from within, and then continuity for others. So you have three groups; new elements, promotions rewarding talent and competence, and continuity". Despite this assertion, however, the changes made so far do not seem to satisfy the critics.

On the other hand, Annan's creation of a de facto Cabinet, the policy co-ordination group, has its merits. The group consists of the senior UN secretariat and funding officials and meets fortnightly to develop policy and eliminate overlap.

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