Thursday, May 24, 2007

Post No. 109: “Does The UN Need A Secretary Or A General?” – A Belated Report

Note: I had initially planned to write this much earlier but I was caught up in other stuff (exam revision, exams & etc.) and thus, I could only find time to write this now. Also, what follows below is based on the very brief notes I made at the seminar. Apologise if what follows below is sketchy.

On the afternoon of 11/4/2007, I made my way down to the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) to attend this seminar entitled: “Does the UN need a Secretary or a General?”. As can be clearly seen, the title of the seminar is in reference to the role of the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) who, according to the programme booklet of the seminar, has been described with various epithets, such as “the world’s diplomat”, “lackey of the United Nations Security Council” (UNSC) and “commander-in-chief of up to 100,000 peacekeepers”. Also, the job of the UNSG has been described as a “most impossible job”, considering that the UNSG faces the consistent challenge of having to balance between what the public and member states of the UN expects him to do, what he himself wants to do and what he can actually do with all the constraints he faces (note: since, at least until now, all appointed UNSGs have been male, I suppose there is no need for me to use the more gender-neutral term of “he/she”).

To act as the speaker of the seminar, the IPS had invited Dr. Simon Chesterman. Dr. Chesterman is the editor of the book: “Secretary or General? The UN Secretary-General in World Politics” and concurrently the Global Professor & Director of the New York University School of Law Singapore Programme and an Associate Professor of Law at the NUS Law Faculty.

The audience size for the seminar was quite small, consisting of only at most 50 plus people by my count. However, I am guessing that perhaps the audience size was deliberately kept small by the IPS organisers, in view of the fact that the seminar was held in a rather small venue of the IPS Conference Room. And, looking at the guest list that came along with the programme booklet, the audience consisted mainly of consuls & ambassadors from the various consulates & embassies situated in Singapore, students & teaching staff from a few local junior colleges and students from NUS.

Introductory Remarks

The seminar began with opening remarks from Mr. Arun Mahizhnan, Deputy Director of the IPS, who gave a brief introduction of Dr. Chesterman and some remarks about the seminar topic. After this, Dr. Chesterman began his speech with some general remarks about the seminar topic.

According to Dr. Chesterman, it can be observed that with almost every UNSG, his appointment has been met with initial great expectations about what he can and will be able to achieve. However, these initial great expectations were turned into disenchantment with the UNSG. An apt example of this would be the most recent ex-UNSG, Kofi Annan, who had a promising start at the UN but, approaching the end of his tenure as UNSG, was bogged down by troubles with the U.S. over its invasion of Iraq in 2003, bureaucratic inertia in the UN and the UN-Iraq oil-for-food scandal. Frequent criticism from the public and the member states of the UN did not make the UNSG’s job any easier. As cited by Dr. Chesterman, there was once, during his initial weeks as UNSG, when Kofi Annan was criticised by the Russian Foreign Minister who said something like this: “What you have done in 6 weeks, Gould have done in 6 days!” and Kofi Annan replied with something like this: “The Almighty had the luxury of working alone and not with a countless number of committees”.

Also, as pointed out by Dr. Chesterman, discussion and analysis about the role of the UNSG has usually been focused on who the UNSG is while little attention is paid to what the job is actually about. And, though he did not explicitly state it, it seems that Dr. Chesterman is of the opinion that more attention should be paid the job of the UNSG and not the personality in the job. The same can be said about the UNSC, considering that people have been paying more attention to which countries should be included in it as permanent members, rather than to the issue of what the UNSC ought to do.

“Chief Administrative Officer” of the UN

Moving on, Dr. Chesterman then discussed 3 issues which perhaps hinder the UNSG’s effectiveness & efficiency. The first of these 3 issues would be that while the UNSG is given much power in theory and personal independence to initiate action & programmes, he faces several constraints in exercising this theoretical power & independence. For one, according to Article 97 of the UN Charter, the UNSG is the “Chief Administrative Officer” and not the “Chief Executive Officer” of the UN. This means that the UNSG has little, if not none whatsoever, executive power to speak of. In other words, though many perceive the UN as a form of “world government” and the UNSG as its leader, the fact is that the UN is not a “world government” and that the UNSG is perhaps to a large extent dependent on the support of the member states of the UN, especially the more powerful and/or richer ones, to be effective & efficient in carrying out his duties. It should also be noted that UN resolutions are in no way binding on their member states but are dependent on the member states’ own willingness to abide by them.

Also it does not help that the UNSG needs to maintain a politically neutral stance while, at the same time, not be ignorant about the international politics which goes around him. In other words, to borrow the words of an ex-UNSG whose name I cannot recall at the moment, a UNSG needs to be “politically celibate” but not be a “political virgin”. This is important considering that UN initiatives tend to be hindered by the conflict and/or involvement of interests between/by member states of the UN, especially the more powerful or richer ones. For example, as any one who has studied Cold War history can tell you all, the UN was frequently in deadlock because, due to Cold War tensions, a veto vote was either cast by the Western powers and/or the Soviet Union in the UNSC. Thus, as pointed out by Dr. Chesterman, the UNSG perhaps needs to pick his battles wisely so as to avoid deadlocks in the UN over its various initiatives and, in order to do so, the UNSG needs to understand international politics while remaining neutral.

History of the veto vote

If I may, I would like to sidetrack a little bit here to provide you all, especially those who are unaware, with a short discussion on why the 5 permanent members (the P5) of the UNSC, i.e. the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia & China, is given the power to cast veto votes in the UNSC.

Well, to completely understand why the P5 has the veto vote in the UNSC, we will need to look at the history of the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations (LON). The LON was established after WWI with roughly the same aims as the UN. However, the LON soon became a toothless tiger. This was because that, although the idea of setting up the LON was espoused by the then U.S. President Woodrow Wilson (as part of his “Fourteen Points”), following the establishment of the LON, the U.S. Congress, hoping to retreat back into an isolationist stance, voted to not ratify the U.S. entry into the LON. And, at the same time, Russia, having become a communist country in 1917, was excluded from the LON while Germany, being perceived as the initiator of WWI, was also excluded (though it was given member ship status in 1926). As for countries such as the U.K. and France, while they were members of the LON, they were only minimally involved in it due their focus on their own national recuperation after WWI. In other words, the LON became a “nobody’s child” due to the absence of involvement & support from the various great powers of that time.

Hence, when countries, such as Italy, Germany & Japan, embarked on various acts of military aggression in the 1920s-1930s, there was little the LON could do without the involvement & support of the great powers. Thus, in the end, though the LON was set up to prevent the outbreak of a war similar to WWI, it was unable to do so and WWII occurred.

Later, at the end of WWII, it was decided that the UN should be set up. However, having learnt from the mistakes of the LON, those behind the setting up of the UN decided to offer the P5 (note: Russia “inherited” the Soviet Union’s seat in the UNSC when the latter dissolved in 1991), which were the most powerful countries of that time, permanent seats in the UNSC and the power to cast veto votes. This was done so to bind the P5 to the UN and to ensure that UN initiatives would have the support of these great powers. And, if I am not wrong, according to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 377, it is possible to over-ride the veto vote cast by one of the P5 if a simple majority against it from the UNGA could be obtained but this resolution is rarely exercised.

Of course, observing how the veto vote was used by the P5 during the Cold War period to frequently lead the UNSC into a deadlock, observers have argued that the veto vote, which was implemented for benign motives, was abused. And, recently, discussion about how the institution of veto votes and permanent seats for the P5 is anachronistical as it no longer properly reflects the situation of today’s world. Thus, much have been said about the need to reform the UNSC through the expansion of its permanent membership to include countries, such as Japan & Germany, but nothing has resulted from all this discussion so far.

Heavy job scope, resources poor

Returning back to track, it was also pointed out by Dr. Chesterman that while the UNSG has a rather heavy job scope and faces a lot of expectations from the world at large, he lacks the necessary resources to fulfil his duties effectively & efficiently. For example, the Asia Pacific Division of the UN, which covers affairs from the Middle East and all the way to North Korea, is grossly understaffed with only 14 staff members in it. Thus, instead of having a situation in which a plan is developed first and then the necessary resources allocated to it, it is more common in the UN to find that plans are developed according to how much resources are available. This, as revealed by Dr. Chesterman later on in the Q & A session of the seminar, has led to the UN partially dependent on the analytical support of external organisations such as the International Crisis Group.

May the best man win?

Another issue which, according to Dr. Chesterman, also hinders the effectiveness of the UNSG is the very process through which the UNSG is selected, nominated & appointed.

As counterintuitive as it may seems, it is not the most capable and competent candidate for the UNSG who is selected but rather it is often the candidate who is least offensive to the members of the UNSC, especially the P5, that get selected. This is considering that the nomination & appointment of the UNSG in the UN entails that the UNSC nominates a single candidate who the UNGA will either confirm or reject (but, so far, the UNGA has more often than not accepted the UNSC’s nominated candidates). Also, though it is not something explicitly stated in the UN Charter, it is an unspoken rule that the P5 would not nominate a citizen from their own countries to be the UNSG. Hence, it often the case that the selected UNSG is not the best candidate, in terms of competency, but one whose appointment would not go against and/or disturb the unspoken rules of selecting, nominating & appointing of the UNSG.

“Not to bring the world to Heaven, but to save it from Hell”

However, despite all the constraints that the UNSG faces, he nevertheless still have one key advantage up his sleeve and that is he has the power to say “No”. In other words, though the UNSG has no authority and/or power to stop the member states of the UN from pursuing a certain course of action, he does have the freedom to express his disapproval. And, imbued perhaps with the moral authority of being the UNSG, his disapproval could have a significant effect, in that his words could sway public opinion on the issue. An apt example of this would be how Kofi Annan expressed his disapproval over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Though the U.S. still went on to invade Iraq, Kofi Annan’s expressed disapproval did contribute to creating public disapproval against the invasion. Hence, it may be seen that though the UNSG may have little power to ensure that member states of the UN make good & correct decisions, he could still, to a certain extent, at least prevent them from making bad & wrong decisions. In the words of an ex-UNSG, the UN is not there “to bring the world to Heaven, but to save it from Hell”.

On that note, the UNSG could, besides sounding his disapproval about certain issues, also focus public attention on key issues that the world faces. Examples of this would include how Kofi Annan espoused the issue of sustainable development, initiated the Millennium Development Goals and how the current UNSG Ban Ki Moon, voiced out about the issue of climate change. As Dr. Chesterman puts it, the UNSG can act as the “voice of the world’s conscience”.

What makes a good UNSG?

The seminar then ended off with a short Q & A session, during which several questions were raised. However, for the sake of brevity, I would just highlight one of the more interesting questions asked.

The questioner asked Dr. Chesterman what he thought were the necessary qualities that a good UNSG should have. And, to this, Dr. Chesterman replied that a good UNSG should ideally be a good multi-tasker, a good delegator, patient, aware of the powers & limits of his position, possess a sense of humour to defuse tense situations, a good speaker to capture the public imagination and have a strategic perspective to pick his battles wisely.

All in all, I found the seminar to be an interesting one which offered several insights into the constraints faced by the UNSG. Of course, perhaps I am being too picky but I thought that the seminar could have been more enlightening.

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