United Nations - Confronting the soft bigotry of disenchantment
Secretary General: Ban Ki-moon
UNITED NATIONS: When the eighth Secretary General of the United
Nations, Ban Ki-moon commenced his tenure in early 2007, he brought with
him his mission statement which is "promises should be made for the
He pledged to seek excellence with humility and to lead by example.
His leadership of an organisation which is modest in its means but not
in its aspirations and performance is yet to be seen, but his vision,
that the true measure of success for the UN is not how much it promises
but how much it delivers, is sound and encouraging.
At a time when the United Nations is shifting its gears of
leadership, from Kofi Annan who guided the Organisation with astuteness,
dedication and vision with a highly proactive agenda, the new leader Ban
Ki-moon comes with impressive credentials and an illustrious career in
He brings more than 35 years of distinguished service both in
government and the international community. This is the ideal profile of
leadership needed to confront globalisation, the boom in information and
communications technology and the robust and rapid urbanization of the
developing world which have entrenched themselves as abiding
characteristics of an evolving world.
The key focus of the United Nations at the present time is on
implementing a global partnership for development, which was the theme
of the debate in the General Assembly at its sixty first session in the
fall of 2006.
General Assembly President Sheika Haya Rashed al Khalifa pledged
during this session that the United Nations would continue to make
development the central goal of the overarching framework of the
Organisation, with sustainable development in its economic, social and
environmental aspects as the key elements of the framework.
Against this backdrop, and at this critical time in the history of
international relations, it is time for reflection as to whether the
world is a better place because of the United Nations.
The most ominous disadvantage affecting the United Nations has been
the prolific rate in which enormous challenges face the Organisation on
a daily basis, obfuscating the steady progress made over time and the
achievements of the Organisation.
Understandably this would inevitably make some feel demoralised and
disgruntled with the failures of the United Nations.
Therefore, it is worthwhile reflecting on some of the many
achievements of the Organisation and distinguish the forest from the
The United Nations has played a role in bringing about independence
in countries that are now among its Member States. Since 1945, the
United Nations has been credited with negotiating 172 peaceful
settlements that have ended regional conflicts.
Recent cases include an end to the Iran-Iraq war, the withdrawal of
Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and an end to the civil war in El
The United Nations has used quiet diplomacy to avert imminent
conflicts. An example of this is the deployment of a total of 63
Peace-Keeping Forces and observer missions from its inception to date,
by which the United Nations has been able to restore calm to allow the
negotiating process to go forward while saving millions of people from
becoming casualties of conflicts. There are presently 16 active
Peace-Keeping Forces in operation.
Also, the UN system has devoted more attention and resources to the
promotion of the development of human skills and potentials than any
other external assistance effort. The system's annual disbursements,
including loans and grants, amount to more than $10 billion. The UN
Development Programme (UNDP), in close cooperation with over 170 Member
States and other UN agencies, designs and implements projects for
agriculture, industry, education, and the environment.
It supports more than 5,000 projects with a budget of $1.3 billion.
It is the largest multilateral source of grant development assistance.
The World Bank, at the forefront in mobilising support for developing
countries worldwide, has alone loaned $333 billion for development
projects since 1946. In addition, UNICEF spends more than $800 million a
year, primarily on immunisation, healthcare, nutrition and basic
education in 138 countries.
Since adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, the
United Nations has helped enact dozens of comprehensive agreements on
political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights.
By investigating individual complaints of human rights abuses, the UN
Human Rights Commission has focused world attention on cases of torture,
disappearance, and arbitrary detention and has generated international
pressure to be brought on governments to improve their human rights
The United Nations has played a vital role in fashioning a global
programme designed to protect the environment. The "Earth Summit," the
UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro in
1992, resulted in treaties on biodiversity and climate change, and all
countries adopted "Agenda 21" - a blueprint to promote sustainable
development or the concept of economic growth while protecting natural
The United Nations, through the International Atomic Energy Agency,
has helped minimize the threat of a nuclear war by inspecting nuclear
reactors in 90 countries to ensure that nuclear materials are not
diverted for military purposes.
Over 300 international treaties, on topics as varied as human rights
conventions to agreements on the use of outer space and seabed, have
been enacted through the efforts of the United Nations.
At this critical time in history, what the United Nations needs most
is empowerment by its member States and their political will to secure
cooperation in the Organisation's efforts. International organisations
can generally only work on the basis of legal powers that are attributed
to them. Presumably, these powers emanate from the sovereign States that
form the membership of such organisations.
Therefore, the logical conclusion is that if international
organisations were to act beyond the powers accorded to them, they would
be presumed to act ultra vires or beyond the scope of their mandate.
The universal solidarity of UN Contracting States that was recognised
from the outset at the establishment of the Organization brings to bear
the need for States to be united in recognizing the effect of UN policy
and decisions. This principle was given legal legitimacy in the 1971
decision concerning the European Road Transport Agreement handed down by
the Court of Justice of the European Community.
The court held that the competence of the European Community to
conclude an agreement on road transport could not be impugned since the
member States had recognised Community solidarity and that the Treaty of
Rome which governed the Community admitted of a common policy on road
transport which the Community regulated.
It should be noted that the United Nations does not only derive
implied authority from its Contracting States based on universality but
it also has attribution from States to exercise certain powers.
The doctrine of attribution of powers comes directly from the will of
the founders, and in the UN's case, powers were attributed to the
Organisation when it was established as an international organisation
that would administer the provisions of the United Nations Charter.
In addition, the UN could lay claims to what are now called "inherent
powers" which give it power to perform all acts that the Organisation
needs to perform to attain its aims not due to any specific source of
organisational power but simply because the United Nations inheres in
organisationhood. Therefore, as long as acts are not prohibited in the
UN's constituent document (the UN Charter), they must be considered
Over the past two decades the inherent powers doctrine has been
attributed to the United Nations Organisation and its specialised
agencies on the basis that such organisations could be stultified if
they were to be bogged down in a quagmire of interpretation and judicial
determination in the exercise of their duties.
The advantages of the inherent powers doctrine is twofold. Firstly,
inherent powers are functional and help the organisation concerned to
reach its aims without being tied by legal niceties. Secondly, it
relieves the organization of legal controls that might otherwise
effectively preclude that organization from achieving its aims and
The ability to exercise its inherent powers has enabled the UN to
address issues on promoting self determination and independence,
strengthening international law, handing down judicial settlements of
major international disputes, providing humanitarian aid to victims of
conflict, alleviating chronic hunger and rural poverty in developing
countries and promoting women's rights, just to name a few.
In his address at the opening of the General Assembly debate on 19
September 2006, Secretary General Kofi Annan was unreserved in his
belief that the only answer to a divided world is a truly United
Nations. He cited climate change , HIV/AIDS, fair trade, migration and
human rights as issues that bring to bear the relevance and usefulness
of the Organization.
In his own words "together, we have pushed some big rocks to the top
of the mountain, even if others have slipped from our grasp and rolled
back. But this mountain, with its bracing winds and global views, is the
best place on earth to be. It's been difficult and challenging, but at
times thrillingly rewarding".
This statement well epitomizes the quintessential role of the United
Nations and the value it brings to the diplomatic table, which is often
grossly under appreciated.
(The writer is Coordinator, Air Transport Programmes International
Civil Aviation Organization Montreal, Canada.)