Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Foreign Affairs. Volume 75, Issue 2. March/April 1996.
The definition of the U.N. secretary-general’s role is far from precise. The U.N. Charter identifies the secretary-general as “the chief administrative officer” of the United Nations, permits him to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security,” and instructs him to perform those functions entrusted to him by U.N. organs, but it leaves much about the position a mystery. This is not a liability but an asset. The leeway the language of the charter provides is essential if the United Nations as a whole, and the secretary-general in particular, are to deal effectively with the rapidly changing complexity of human and international affairs.
During the Cold War, the superpowers controlled global decisions, and the ideological contest between them constrained the secretary-general. Today we are living in the midst of a worldwide revolution. With the end of the Cold War, an international system that had politically, economically, and strategically involved every country in the world disappeared almost overnight. As international trade and commerce have rapidly expanded, peoples and places have undergone unprecedented change. The explosion of scientific knowledge has produced remarkable inventions, and human horizons appear limitless. With the communications revolution, image is becoming more influential than fact.
As the 21st century approaches, the planet is in the grip of two vast, opposing forces: globalization and fragmentation. Globalization is creating a world that is increasingly interconnected, in which national boundaries are less important, and it is generating both possibilities and problems. Alarming environmental developments expose the earth to permanent damage and spur massive human migration.
Transnational criminal activity grows. Even the spread of communications technologies, which has produced so much good, engenders pressures that our institutions were not designed to address.
And then there are the forces of fragmentation. Rising insecurity and unmet needs are leading people everywhere to seek refuge in smaller groups. This tendency can promote the healthy growth of civil society, as evidenced by the burgeoning of citizens groups and nongovernmental organizations acting in pursuit of public purposes. But fragmentation can also breed fanaticism, isolationism, separatism, and the proliferation of civil conflict.
History reveals that those caught up in revolutionary change rarely understand its ultimate significance. The outcome of the current transition period cannot yet be foreseen, but we are not helpless in the face of these global developments. The United Nations can help deal with the challenges that globalization and fragmentation pose now and in the future. It was designed to be both the world organization and the organization of its member states, responding both to global concerns and to the needs of member states and their peoples.
As if in training for precisely this moment, the United Nations has in its 50 years gained enormous experience in contending with the problems that both trends have spawned. In response to globalization, the United Nations has defined human rights for the international community. It has fostered the progress of international law. It has transformed the law of the sea.
Through a series of global conferences, it is promoting international consensus on disarmament, the environment, population, social development, migration, and the advancement of women. Confronted by fragmentation, the United Nations played a key role in decolonization, giving international recognition and economic and social support to wave after wave of newly independent states. It has responded to civil wars in Zaire, Cambodia, El Salvador, Angola, and Mozambique. It is today helping economies in transition move toward more open and inclusive economic and social systems. And it is assisting states all over the world in the process of democratization.
But the United Nations cannot meet these new challenges, for it is trapped by a second dilemma. With the emergence of the problems associated with globalization and fragmentation, the world body has been given vast responsibilities, but it lacks the political, military, material, and financial resources required to accomplish these tasks.
Today and for the foreseeable future, the secretary-general must operate within the context of both the world dialectic of globalization and fragmentation and the U.N. dialectic of an increasing burden and decreasing resources. If the United Nations is to serve the new range of requirements of member states and their peoples, the role of the secretary-general must be created anew. Faced with these obstacles, what is the role of today’s secretary-general? What can the secretary-general do? I believe a great deal can be done. I believe the secretary-general can be crucial.
Bigger Is Not Always Better
The Secretary-General has the overriding responsibility to heighten international awareness that the immensely powerful and potentially positive process of globalization brings with it some major problems. Globalization, largely an economic phenomenon, is failing to reach all peoples. Too many are excluded, unable to obtain access to the prosperity it offers. At the same time, the market economy that is the engine of this movement is, by its very logic, driving large numbers of people-in developing, transitional, and developed countries alike-into deeper poverty and despair.
As secretary-general I have placed great importance on international conferences as a way of raising the world’s consciousness about these problems. International conferences are not a new idea; they have played a part in diplomacy since antiquity. But the conferences convened since 1992 represent something new and different. They are linked. They are cumulative. They foster global consensus on interlocking global issues. They generate specific commitments. And they provide a comprehensive framework for international action in fields that are drastically affected by the negative side of globalization: the environment and development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), human rights (Vienna, 1993), natural disasters (Yokohama, 1994), population (Cairo, 1994), poverty, unemployment, and social disruption (Copenhagen, 1995), the advancement of women (Beijing, 1995), housing (Istanbul, 1996).
A broad assortment of new actors is appearing on the world scene. This phenomenon, a reaction to globalization, is indicative of fragmentation. Paradoxically, the globalization that is creating new problems is also contributing new solutions, for these actors have much to offer. As secretary-general I have warmly welcomed and strongly supported their emergence. Many have contributed to and participated in the U.N.-sponsored series of international conferences. In their almost infinite variety, they will shape much of the future of international life in the next century. Indeed, they will redefine the term “international.”
Regional arrangements, nongovernmental organizations, parliamentarians, transnational business, academic and policy research institutions, the media-all are taking on greater global roles. Their collective impact on world events now surpasses that of traditional international structures. As civil strife and social disarray undermine the authority of the state, these networks of new actors also erode it.
Although one of the major tasks of the world organization of sovereign states is to support the state, the secretary-general and the United Nations must also help these new actors find their places within a coherent international community of the future.
As globalization increases, the need to revitalize international law and promote its progressive expansion has taken on even greater urgency. Ideology and power politics have in recent decades dealt serious blows to international law. As more and more problems of order and justice are experienced transnationally, the international community must recognize that the pursuit of more effective international law and legal institutions is one of the most compelling challenges it faces.
As secretary-general and as someone with a lifelong involvement in the field of international law, I have worked ceaselessly to encourage and facilitate the use of the United Nations for this most important cause. The United Nations, with the International Court of Justice, commonly known as the world court, among its principal organs, provides the forum and mechanism for the advancement of international law. All member states should accept the general jurisdiction of the world court without reservation; where domestic constraints prevent this, states should provide a list of the matters they are willing to submit to the court. The dispute settlement clauses of treaties should permit the exercise of the court’s jurisdiction. I have called attention to the power of the Security Council under Articles 36 and 37 of the charter to recommend that member states submit disputes to the International Court of Justice. I continue to urge that the secretary-general be authorized by the General Assembly, pursuant to Article 96 of the charter, to turn to the court for advisory opinions, providing a legal dimension to his diplomatic efforts to resolve disputes.
The next step must be the expansion of international jurisdiction. The combined actions of the Security Council and the General Assembly establishing international tribunals on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda are important steps toward a world governed by law. The General Assembly is now considering the establishment of a permanent international criminal court. New global problems such as transnational crime, uncontrolled migration, and the rights of ethnic, cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities all require the benefit of international law.
Caring for Orphans
Fragmentation calls for a role for the secretary-general as well. This process, running counter to globalization, has a positive dimension, as powers devolve, participation widens, and democratization becomes more possible. But the dangers are immense and require immediate action.
Fragmentation has provoked an upsurge in confrontation and conflict. At the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the prevailing assumption was that interstate warfare would continue to be the dominant threat to peace. The greatest fear throughout the Cold War was of a nuclear war that could devastate the planet. Today’s wars, by contrast, occur mainly within, not across, state borders.
The secretary-general can play an extremely important part in helping to settle these conflicts. Preventive diplomacy, conducted early in a dispute, can ease tensions and resolve problems before they erupt in war. Its techniques-from confidence-building measures to fact-finding, from early warning to preventive deployment-were surveyed in An Agenda for Peace, my 1992 report written at the request of the first-ever meeting of the Security Council at the level of heads of state. Since then, preventive diplomacy has increasingly been recognized as a distinctive and indispensable field of endeavor.
However, the secretary-general is most effective when engaged in the quiet practice of preventive diplomacy. As an impartial figure with a global mandate, relatively unencumbered by political or bureaucratic pressures and without the desire or compulsion to publicize his role, the secretary-general can achieve a great deal behind the scenes to help parties settle their differences before their confrontation becomes public. While many solutions involve mutual accommodation and compromise, others may require one side to give more than the other. In such cases, resolving an issue early and privately can be the key to preventing bloodshed.
The secretary-general also has a responsibility to take a public stand on another product of fragmentation, which I have named “orphan conflicts.” The forces of fragmentation can cause a state particularly the poorest ones-to fail, leaving its people without a government to protect them from chaos. The ethics of the modern world have stressed the dignity of the individual, the equality of states, and the need for universal principles of justice, but the reality is too often otherwise. Lives lost in one place seem to matter more than lives lost in another. War in one country may get enormous attention, while war elsewhere may be virtually ignored. Violations of the rights of one people arouse far more concern than violations of the rights of another. These latter conflicts are orphans, deprived of international attention, concern, and effort. They demand and deserve that the international community commit the needed political, financial, humanitarian, civil, and, in some cases, military resources.
But most of the conflicts around the world fail to make the headlines. Many get only minor and sporadic press attention, while some are not reported on at all in the major media. To a distant public, such conflicts may seem inevitable, incomprehensible, and impossible to resolve. With many in the international community inclined to turn inward after decades of global ideological confrontation, it is all too easy for governments, in the virtual absence of public pressure, to consider such disputes outside their national interest and to see no reason for action, direct or indirect. The secretary-general has a moral responsibility to call the world’s attention to these orphan conflicts, which have in some cases killed thousands of people and devastated the lives of tens of thousands. And the secretary-general has an obligation to point out the ultimate consequences for international peace and security of allowing the disease of civil conflict to rage unchecked across large areas of the world.
Fragmentation also compels the secretary-general to take a critical part in disarmament. A tidal wave of weapons has provided protagonists in poorer countries with the means to wage wars that are fracturing their societies. As the Cold War neared its end, the superpowers took the first steps toward a reduction of their nuclear arsenals. In the post—Cold War period, the major powers have turned their attention—and that of the United Nations—to the problem of the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. This “macrodisarmament” is vital for the future of international peace and security, but it must not come at the expense of “microdisarmament”: action to control and reduce the production, transfer, and stockpiling of conventional light weapons.
Both suppliers and recipients resist microdisarmament. The richest countries, which possess major weapons, enthusiastically advocate the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction but have little interest in stopping the spread of light weapons because they are the primary manufacturers of such arms. The poorest countries, which lack major weapons systems, are also enthusiastic about macrodisarmament, for they cannot hope to acquire such systems, but they oppose microdisarmament because the huge small-arms arsenals are essential to the survival of their regimes and their control of their people.
The widespread presence and availability of light weapons was a leading cause of the collapse of state authority in Somalia. As secretary-general I must draw the world’s attention to these weapons as a cause of fragmentation; I must point to the terrible toll they are taking on innocent human life. The most devastating of these weapons are land mines. Intended to destroy entire populations and the prospects for development for decades, land mines hurt primarily civilians, not soldiers. I have called for an International Convention on Land Mines to ban the production, stockpiling, trade, and use of all mines and mine components. By revealing where such weapons are produced, by tracking their transfer, by regulating their acquisition, and by finding ways to collect, control, and destroy them, an international microdisarmament regime can come into being, and the world can be rid of this source of fragmentation and death.
The world is witnessing amazing contradictions. Arms are manufactured in rich countries for sale to poor ones at a healthy profit. These same wealthy states later spend much greater sums on relief for the victims of the wars their arms made possible and on clearing the mines they sold from the lands they were designed to destroy. These are aspects of a larger and even more disturbing pattern: the international community’s increasing willingness to let conflicts continue until the devastation is complete and then to expend huge amounts of money, material, and personnel to restore the shattered situation, requiring sums hundreds of times greater than the cost of early intervention.
Media coverage contributes to this senseless trend. Since they are seen as undramatic, preventive measures that help avoid conflict are not reported, while action in the aftermath of tragedy generates emotion and produces striking images. As the Chinese proverb wisely notes, it is hard to get money for medicine but easy to raise funds for a coffin.
Responsibility without Resources
In the context of the dialectic within the United Nations itself, the secretary-general faces the critical task of maintaining the credibility of the organization, preventing its misuse, gaining support for it through its reform, and seeking to find a basis for its financial stability. The demands on the United Nations continue to increase in complexity, danger, responsibility, and cost. The United Nations cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can solve some of them. Deciding when to act and when to refrain presents a profound ethical dilemma, but at present these choices are informed not by ethics but solely by power politics.
The secretary-general stands at the center of this quandary. On the one hand, choice is a practical reality of international life. On the other hand, the United Nations is the world organization, and its outlook must by definition be universal. It has no grounds on which to respond to one member state’s request for assistance while denying that of another. The secretary-general is called upon, therefore, to analyze, recommend, and take action on cases as they arise, navigating as best he can within a set of fundamentally incompatible factors. My role as secretary-general is twofold. I endeavor to uphold each member state’s right to request and receive U.N. assistance in a form suited to the specific situation. At the same time, I am obligated to draw attention to those needs that should take priority as determined by the principles and purposes of the United Nations. As the international community works its way toward a consensus on these intellectual and moral questions, the secretary-general must take a central role in resolving the conflict between realism and responsibility.
The secretary-general can deal with the problem of increasing demands on the United Nations in several ways. First, he can decentralize and delegate, so that all parts of the organization are utilized to their full extent. On social and economic matters, the creators of the United Nations clearly intended a broad division of labor among many institutions, agencies, and programs. Second, he can encourage regional organizations to act as surrogates of the United Nations.
As secretary-general I have actively sought the involvement of regional arrangements and agencies. Chapter VIII of the charter allows such cooperation and permits great flexibility in this regard. Third, the secretary-general can encourage ad hoc arrangements that will support his efforts by bringing their influence to bear on the parties; one such informal group was “The Friends of the Secretary-General,” which brought together several nearby states to help resolve the conflict in El Salvador. Finally, the secretary-general can collaborate with nongovernmental organizations and international business.
What are the dangers that these approaches might pose? A multiplicity of actors is difficult to coordinate, and duplication and harmful rivalries may arise. Authorization to serve as a surrogate might strengthen a particular power’s sphere of influence and damage the United Nations’ standing as an organization intended to coordinate security across regional blocs. The overuse of authorization and delegation may also damage the United Nations’ image, and the public may fail to understand why the world organization is not directly engaged in addressing the problems.
Above all, these methods of coping with the increasing demands on the United Nations raise the danger of overreliance on a particular state or group of states, undermining the principle of universality. U.N. operations are multinational and are, therefore, likely to be seen as impartial. They bring together troops from far-flung lands such as Venezuela, Jordan, and Bangladesh, strengthening transnational solidarity. And U.N. operations bring a political dimension to what has thus far been the predominantly economic character of globalization. All these U.N. attributes are giving meaning to the concept of international community, now being defined for the first time in history.
The secretary-general must insist that mandates given to the United Nations itself be clear, realistic, and backed by the human and material resources required to complete the assigned task successfully.
Nothing would be more detrimental than permitting a continuation of the disparity between responsibilities and resources that would doom the organization to repeated failure. The United Nations cannot expect to avoid being used as a scapegoat in the future, and as secretary-general I have unfortunately had to endure such treatment on occasion. But member states cannot use the United Nations to avoid a problem and then blame the United Nations for failing to solve it, and the secretary-general cannot permit them to do so.
The secretary-general must also address the problem of resources. Three areas require action: emergency financial measures, organizational reform, and the search for long-term financial stability. In relation to the scope and significance of the organization’s activities, the U.N. budget is remarkably small: the regular budget for 1994 was only $1.3 billion, with another $3.3 billion for peacekeeping activities. Yet many member states refuse to pay their assessed contributions fully and on time, leading to a chronic shortage of cash and placing a severe strain on the organization.
As secretary-general I have taken every conceivable step to acquire the needed funds. I supported a wide variety of financial measures proposed by my predecessor to solve the cash-flow problem. I convened the Independent Advisory Group on U.N. Finances, which produced the 1992 Volcker-Ogata Report. I put forward a bond-issue proposal to the Group of Seven in 1995. None of these proposals has been adopted.
At the same time, I have carried out a series of stringent budget-cutting measures. I have reduced the number of posts in the Secretariat, dramatically streamlining and rationalizing the bureaucracy. I have supported the appointment of an inspector-general for internal oversight, consolidated 13 offices into 3 departments, curtailed travel, established accountability standards, strengthened managerial training, simplified regulations, trimmed the regular 1994-95 budget to nearly no-growth, and proposed a budget for 1996-97 that is 4.2 percent lower than the current one. These cuts have reduced expenditures, but the possible savings are minuscule compared to the magnitude of the crisis. And the financial gymnastics the crisis has required cannot long be maintained.
With long-term change in mind, I have committed myself to a mission of continuing reform. Far-reaching reform is essential if the United Nations is ever to enjoy the steady financial support of its member states. The job is not complete, nor will it ever be. The secretary-general must accept managerial, administrative, and structural reform as a perpetual responsibility.
The main arena for reform, however, is the intergovernmental machinery of the United Nations. The objective must be not only to gain greater efficiency but to promote the democratization of the U.N. system. The composition of the Security Council, and its relationship to the other principal organs, will be at the heart of this endeavor. The decisions are for the member states to take; indeed, the secretary-general is properly constrained from speaking too specifically on this question. But now and in the years to come, among the secretary-general’s priorities must be the promotion of democratization within both the United Nations and international relations as a whole.
While addressing the immediate financial emergency and pursuing systemwide reform, the secretary-general must try to place the world organization on a stable financial footing. But he cannot succeed without the help of the member states. They must recognize that publicly criticizing the organization while continuing to benefit from its work is self defeating. They must become willing to establish sources of funding that are not dependent on their political and budgetary constraints.
Now is the time to address seriously the need for a United Nations that can operate on a secure and steady independent financial foundation. More resources are needed, and mandates must be soundly related to capabilities. Predictability in funding is essential so that operations are not undermined once under way. A system of assessed, negotiated, and voluntary contributions for financing the world body can be designed that will permit governments to maintain proper control over the U.N. budget and agenda.
In view of the importance of the United Nations for the future of human security in all its dimensions, it is reasonable to contemplate the creation of some procedure by which the organization could regularly collect a relatively small amount from one of the many daily transactions of the global economy. Measures for consideration could include a fee on speculative international financial transactions or a levy on either fossil fuel use or the resulting pollution; the dedication of a small portion of the anticipated decline in world military expenditures or the utilization of some resources released by the elimination of unnecessary government subsidies; a stamp tax on international travel and travel documents or an assessment on global currency transactions. Finding the right formula that will enable funds to flow automatically while keeping expenditures under control is a project the secretary-general must bring to fruition in the next century.
A Declaration of Independence
These are the two dialectics as I see them: globalization and fragmentation characterize the world at large, while growing demands and diminishing resources affect the United Nations specifically. The secretary-general is and will continue to be central to the resolution of these issues and to the creation of a synthesis, the shape of which is still unknown. It will be, I am confident, a better world. Solidarity will mark relations among peoples, and universality will bind nations ever closer. The credibility of the United Nations will deepen year by year. And the peoples of the United Nations will support and be well served by an organization with a proven capacity to effect peace, development, and democratization.
This vision cannot be achieved unless countries transcend their preoccupation with the short term. Democratic states focus on the next election. States in transition must, on a day-to-day basis, balance economic dynamism and social needs. The poorest nations cannot look beyond their immediate struggle for survival. Meanwhile, media practices continue to keep the public attention span short.
In opposition to these forces, the United Nations is required to contemplate the long-term future. Globalization is the world’s long-term problem, and the United Nations has been engaged with its implications for decades. For decolonization, development, human rights, the environment, and many other global matters, attention within the world body has preceded effective global action. The United Nations is well placed to play the role of think tank for the global future.
The key to this future is credibility. Nothing is more precious to the United Nations than its reputation. That reputation rests on four pillars: impartiality, equity, efficiency, and achievement. A fifth, indispensable principle is independence. If one word above all is to characterize the role of the secretary-general, it is independence. The holder of this office must never be seen as acting out of fear of, or in an attempt to curry favor with, one state or group of states. Should that happen, all prospects for the United Nations would be lost. Article loo of the charter is Psalm 100 to the secretary-general. He must be prepared to resist pressure, criticism, and opposition in defending the charter’s call for all member states to respect the “exclusively international character of the responsibilities of the Secretary-General and the staff and not to seek to influence them in the discharge of their responsibilities.”
As legal commentators on the U.N. Charter have noted, these words are strong and were meant to be strong. They mean that the secretary-general’s loyalty must be international and nothing but international, that the international civil service must be a real civil service, and that the organization’s integrity must always be sustained. Independence is the keystone of the secretary-general’s mission.