As Ban Ki-moon prepares to step down as the UN’s eighth Secretary-General, Rita Payne examines the multiple challenges his successor will face

The gathering of the United Nations General Assembly in New York every September signals a return to often grim realities after the slow, lazy days of the northern hemisphere summer. But this year the mood may be more sombre than most.

For a start, some parts of the world have had a violent summer, above all in Syria, where a wrenching image of a bloodied five-year-old boy reminded the world that 16,000 children had been killed in five years of civil war. But it was not only Syria: from Turkey to Pakistan, suicide bombers have wreaked death and havoc. In many of these conflicts, the UN has appeared a helpless spectator, despite the deployment of 125,000 peacekeepers, contributed by 120 countries, to serve in 16 missions.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who this year will preside over his tenth and final General Assembly session
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who this year will
preside over his tenth and final General Assembly session

This year’s General Assembly session will be the tenth and last held under the tenure of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, making it an appropriate moment to ask whether the 193-member organisation is still fit for purpose, seven decades after its creation. Ban himself dismisses any suggestion that the UN is outdated, insisting that it will always be subject to the highest of expectations, and that fulfilling those expectations remains a massive challenge.

Despite myriad setbacks, Ban is convinced that there can be no military solution to disputes, and that peace can only be achieved through dialogue. He recognises, ruefully, that the Secretary-General is invariably cast as a scapegoat for the perceived failures of the United Nations, but responds that the UN can only be as strong as its members allow.

All the same, when maintaining peace and security is one of the UN’s key aims, it is discouraging, to say the least, that it has been unable to prevent or even reduce ethnic and sectarian violence in Syria, Sudan, or the Central African Republic, to mention just a few of the peacekeeping missions in which it is involved.  The number of people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and violence has continued to rise since the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, reported last year that displacement had surpassed 50 million people for the first time since the Second World War.

KEEPING THE PEACE?: United Nations peacekeepers at work in Syria
KEEPING THE PEACE?: United Nations
peacekeepers at work in Syria

The Palestine-Israel issue remains intractable, though Ban had regular meetings with both sides. ‘All the problems are on the table, and I ask them to make hard choices,’ said the outgoing Secretary-General. ‘They are just afraid to take action. During my time there have been three wars. Each time I rushed to the region to prevent more deaths and destruction. It is up to leaders from both sides to resolve this. You cannot change [your] neighbours…’

The reputation of peacekeepers has not been helped by accusations that some have been implicated in sexual offences committed in Somalia, Rwanda and other countries. To add to the UN’s woes, nearly six years after a cholera epidemic killed thousands of Haitians, Ban has acknowledged that peacekeepers played a role in the initial outbreak.

In many of these conflicts, the UN has appeared a helpless spectator, despite the deployment of 125,000 peacekeepers, contributed by 120 countries

Then there are the structural failings of the UN, an organisation with 85,000 employees which costs $30 billion a year to run. UN workers feel stifled by a bloated bureaucracy in New York, Geneva and Vienna, some of the most expensive cities in the world, and the accountability of managers and leaders is weak. An extraordinary amount of time is spent on bureaucracy – obtaining agreement, and then monitoring programmes – rather than on getting the job done.

The UN lacks effective enforcement powers, because member states do not want their sovereignty infringed. The humanitarian agencies, which have to pick up the pieces when political agreements fail, are chronically underfunded. The UNHCR has received less than half of the $4 billion it sought to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis this year.

But as the UN’s defenders keep emphasising, the organisation can only be as effective as its members want it to be. It is not the Secretary-General’s fault, for example, that the Security Council remains stubbornly unreformed, consisting of a Permanent Five representing the victors of the Second World War rather than today’s global powers. The membership at large should put its money where its mouth is: the vast majority of the funding of UN operations, including peace-keeping, comes from the United States, Japan and a handful of other rich countries, giving them undue influence.

‘As the funding model is so skewed,’ said one UN official, ‘it feels as though only the major donors care about efficiency reforms and value for money in the UN.’ The official added that ‘some of these countries still don’t want a strong Secretary-General’, fearing the kind of criticism they heard from Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan.

Still, as one official stated: ‘It can truly be said of the UN that if it didn’t exist, it would need to be created. It does extraordinary work on the ground – taking on jobs that individual countries either can’t, or won’t… and it performs extremely well, given resource constraints and logistical problems. Moreover, peacekeeping by the UN is far cheaper for member countries than doing it themselves.’ Only multilateral action can provide a solution to so many of the biggest issues facing the world today, such as terrorism, climate change, disease, energy security and corporate taxation.

Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain’s former ambassador to the UN, is eloquent in defence of the organisation. ‘The UN is the first to arrive and the last to leave when conflict or national disaster strikes,’ he says. ‘It feeds 90 million people a year, has vaccinated over half of the world’s children, and is assisting 50 million people fleeing war, famine or persecution.’

Sir Jeremy continues: ‘The UN stands for legitimacy at the global level. It has laid out the norms and principles that should govern international behaviour, and created the whole concept of an international community. The creation of a rules-based system internationally has had an effect on everything from trade to human rights to aviation. Narrow sovereign interests complain about it, but as soon as there is a crisis or an issue that needs solving, we ask what the UN is doing.’

But the former ambassador sees ‘a real risk that this international system could break down. There are patterns of polarisation and miscommunication, especially between big powers, that recall the trend before the First World War.  Another global war would not be survivable. We need to invest time, money and energy in collective solutions to problems, because even an imperfect UN offers us a workable system which previous eras lacked.’

Since sweeping change is so difficult, Sir Jeremy is in favour of pragmatic and informal improvements to UN practices, and that includes the selection process for the next Secretary-General. Given all the problems stated above, one might imagine that there would be few candidates, but several have come forward. In answer to ever louder calls for transparency in choosing Ban Ki-moon’s successor, the contenders have been taking part in public debates, and submitted to questioning by member states of the General Assembly.

Early straw polls place Antonio Guterres, a seasoned Portuguese politician who has also held several senior UN posts, in the lead. A number of women are also in the running, including Irina Bokovo of Bulgaria, who is Director General of one of the UN’s largest agencies, UNESCO, and is actively engaged in efforts to pursue gender equality. Another strong female candidate is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark, with a reputation for being tough and outspoken.

Choosing a female Secretary-General for the first time in the UN’s 70-year history would be one way to show that the organisation is serious about embracing change, but it is crucial that whoever becomes the ninth holder of the top post has the strongest possible mandate from member states. A more open selection process is one way of ensuring that he or she has the legitimacy to tackle the myriad problems facing the UN and the world.

Rita Payne, born in Assam, India, is President Emeritus, Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News (TV). She is an adviser to Asian Affairs and The Democracy Forum.

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