A New Bargain for UN Reform

George Soros is founder and chairman of the Open Society Institute.

The United Nations is torn apart by internal tensions. No sooner was the controversy over the creation of a Human Rights Council satisfactorily resolved than a new battle has erupted. The United States is pressing for administrative reforms and threatening to cut off funding if the reforms are not forthcoming.

The Secretary General has submitted a reasonable reform plan, but a majority of UN member states, acting together as the so-called G-77, are balking, because they regard it as another step in reducing the authority of the General Assembly relative to the Security Council. In particular, they object to the plan’s proposal to give increased powers and responsibilities to the Secretary General, whose selection is effectively in the hands of the Security Council’s five permanent members, which wield veto power.

Many UN members, believing that power within the UN has been shifting from the General Assembly, resist giving up what they regard as its last vestige: control over the budget through the work of the Assembly’s Fifth Committee. In practice, the Fifth Committee has exercised the kind of micro-management over personnel and expenditure that ought to be exercised by the Secretary General if the UN is to operate effectively and to have a staff which is up to the challenges facing the organization. This is the basis of America’s insistence on administrative reforms.

There is an urgent need to find a way out of this impasse. Failure of the current proposal would mean an effective end to all efforts to reform the UN, with disastrous consequences for people across the world who depend on the aid provided by the UN Development Program, the security provided by the UN’s numerous peacekeeping operations, or the myriad other services rendered by UN agencies. For example, failure of management reform would fuel demands by the U.S. Congress to withhold America’s contributions to the UN budget—a policy that would greatly undermine America’s own interests, such as the planned expansion of the mission to stop genocide in Darfur.

The path to a satisfactory resolution is clear: give the General Assembly a greater role in the selection of the Secretary General so that members would be delegating powers to an authority of their own choosing. This solution would not only permit the much-needed administrative reforms to be implemented; it would also bring clarity and transparency to a process that is in great need of improvement.

After all, the UN Charter provides that “the Secretary-General shall be appointed by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” The original concept was that the two bodies would reach a consensus on a candidate. In practice, however, the five permanent members now agree on a candidate, and their decision is rubber-stamped first by the Security Council and then by the General Assembly. Real discussions about a new Secretary General are currently being conducted in secrecy among the permanent five, adding to the frustration of other UN members, including large powers that have been seeking without success to enlarge the Security Council.

To achieve the reforms of the budget process that it wants, the U.S. will need to lead the way in persuading the other permanent members of the Council to give the General Assembly a greater role in the process. This might be done in several ways. The Security Council might agree to recommend several candidates from which the General Assembly would select one. Alternatively, the General Assembly might propose several candidates to the Security Council, from which the Council would choose one to refer back to the Assembly for approval.

Either way, the selection process would benefit from greater transparency. For example, the General Assembly should hold public hearings in which candidates are interviewed, thereby greatly enhancing the stature of the candidate who is eventually selected. Such proposals, if accepted, would help resolve the current dispute to everyone’s satisfaction. Indeed, they could make the UN stronger than it has ever been.

©2006 Project Syndicate

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