“What Should the United Nations Be Doing?”

Fiscal Crisis, Representation, and UN Reform


Owen Thomas Grimes


            Shortly after being appointed Secretary General of the United Nations and declaring his aspirations of “working with the member states” and “[redefining] the goals of the United Nations” on December 17th, 1996, Kofi Annan asked that “as we move into the twenty-first century…what should the United Nations be doing?” 1  Before the United Nations can concentrate on a stable agenda for the future, the most important issue the United Nations should be “doing” is internal reform.  This issue can dictate whether the international organization will function as a protectorate and advocate of world peace not only for the twenty-first century but also for centuries to come.  Alternatively, it may follow the example of its predecessor, the League of Nations, a failed attempt at bringing global stability.  In the last twelve years, the objectives of the United Nations have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. 

At the beginning of the Cold War when the United Nations was organized, the charter was written for a bipolar world that one super-player, the Soviet Union, espoused the cause of the nonaligned Third World states to undercut the United States, as reflected in the unicameral General Assembly where one country has one vote, while the other super-player, the United States, rallied for the protection of democratic ideals, such as human rights, to counterattack the Soviet Union, as reflected in the five permanent-state positions on the Security Council, four positions being (at the time before October 25, 1971 when the Republic of China was represented by Taiwan) democratic cohorts. 2  However, since the revolutions of 1989 and the downfall of communism in 1991, United Nations structure and policies that were created during this “dual hegemony” have become unresponsive and unproductive to the needs of newly declared states and the economic and political rise of old states. 

Today, the United Nations is at a critical point where reform is the only option for survival, economically and politically.  Kofi Annan has proposed reform to solve the UN crisis by implementing a “zero growth budget,” departmental consolidation, and strict interpretation of Article 19 of the UN charter stating that a member will lose its General Assembly vote if its arrears equals or exceeds the amount of the contributions due from it for the preceding two full years, in order to slow the increasing debt. 3  However, these reforms will only solve short-term problems.  Besides the economic crisis, the aftermath of the Cold War has caused a representation crisis.  A global arena in which two superpowers dominate, while other countries act as mere spectators has given way to an unstable global federation where feelings of nationalism are strong and the role of the last remaining superpower, the United States, is questioned.  In order to overcome these crises and preserve a stable United Nations where peace and cooperation can prosper, the UN must enact a series of reforms:

            When the United Nations was established in 1945, the charter that created the international organization was the result of immediate actions to prevent the outbreak of another world conflict, thus reflecting cautionary clauses implemented by the victors; for example, the five permanent positions on the Security Council.  However, that was during a time when United Nations membership totaled fifty-one states and consisted mainly of the two resulting superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their respectable alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. 4  In the aftermath of the Cold War, the foundation for the UN that the charter established to maintain stability, instead created chaos, ineffectiveness, and bankruptcy.  In order to pinpoint one of the many causes for this current state of the UN, one must examine the General Assembly.  According to the UN Charter of June 26, 1945, each member of the General Assembly shall have one vote and cannot have more than five representatives per member in the General Assembly, still with only one vote.  5  At the time of its implementation, this unicameral governing body was adequate in stabilizing a balance of power between members and maintaining, to a degree, a healthy environment that was conducive to democracy and peace.  Among the original fifty-one members, at least twenty-six members were part of NATO or anti-communist, giving the United States a majority of the General Assembly vote in its political philosophy.  Also, each member had enough voting power to check each other; each member had 1.96% of the total vote, a percentage that closely resembles the proportion of the United States Senate.  6  However, with the increase of members of the United Nations to the present membership level of 189, the power of the vote for each member decreased almost 75%; the current voting power of each member is 0.529% of the total vote.  This present voting environment gives rise to doubt in the minds of larger and wealthier members about their influence on important issues like international peace and security.  United States Senator Bartlett of Maryland addressed that “[he] could easily name 15 or 20 countries…with a population less than the District of Columbia…that if [the United States] voted yes and they voted no, then they could cancel [the United States] vote.”  7  This scenario not only applies to the United States and larger members, but to all members.  The voting-portion issue was not a dilemma during the organization of the United Nations because there was bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union, resulting in a clear voting process for one or the other’s political intentions, and fewer states to join the United Nations, respectively.  However, the United Nations is in a state where reform, especially at the General Assembly level, needs to occur. 

The most logical solution for General Assembly reform would be the creation of a complementary governing body consisting of present members of the General Assembly that would base voting power for each member by assessing each member’s population and gross domestic product.  It is surprising that, with American influence paramount in shaping the original United Nations system, there was not a creation of a bicameral governing system.  8  It can be inferred that the Americans did not want its hegemonic rival controlling one of the governing bodies.  However, a new era of globalization and de-colonization had taken the place of a Cold War society.  The proposed “second assembly” would base a member’s total percentage vote on two separate  stipulations: population and gross domestic product.  It would be partial to find a quotient of population and gross domestic product because that would place the nations with smaller populations and larger wealth ahead of the nations with the larger populations and lesser wealth.  Separately, wealth and population have equal status in commanding world events.  For example, India has the second highest world population with 1,014,003,817 people and a gross domestic product of 1.805 trillion US dollars.  Germany is the twelfth highest world population with 82,797,408 people and a gross domestic product of 1.864 trillion US dollars.  9  Both Germany and India command approximately the same gross domestic product, but solely judging by population, India has a 931,206,409 population lead over Germany.  However, it one takes the quotient (gross domestic product per capita) of population and GDP, Germany would command a 1,288% lead over India in its GDP per capita.  10  Because these figures are partial to wealth, that is why it is necessary to separately assign voting appropriations per category and then adding the separate totals, similar to the process of the Electoral College in the United States of totaling the number of senators and representatives to determine the political weight of each state towards the presidency.  With this “second assembly,” nations that had been excluded from powerful positions because of war stereotypes like Germany and Japan and nations that had been labeled “Third World” but commanded 1/6 of the world population and have progressed forward in industry like India, could be constantly assessed after a certain duration of time to determine their global political power in a rapidly growing and changing world. 

            Although considerable reform to the General Assembly can alleviate much of the representation problems, it cannot ameliorate the crisis.  The other “half” that works very closely to the General Assembly that has been a focal point on reform debate is the Security Council.  Originally established as an eleven-member council with five permanent “seats” (United States, Soviet Union (now Federation of Russia), United Kingdom, France, and China) and six non-permanent seats (increased to ten on December 17, 1963 but not implemented until 1965) that are elected by the General Assembly for two-year terms, the Security Council has also been hindered by Cold War politics like the General Assembly.  11  The issue that the Security Council has faced from idealists and realists about reform is the size and veto power of the Security Council.  While many idealists see the expansion and “broader representation” of developing nations on the Council as more conducive to democracy and legitimacy, the realists express concern that too large of a Council can render it less effective and troublesome.  Although a proposal by a working group on Security Council reform proposed an addition of five permanent members and four non-permanent members, bringing the total to twenty-four, is extreme and cumbersome, a United States proposal, adding Germany and Japan, without the right to veto, as permanent members and three other developing countries, bringing the total to twenty, seems more probable.  12  However, a more plausible solution would be the sole addition of Germany and Japan as permanent members with the power to veto only if the two nations would hold a referendum with the other permanent members on the veto, also bringing the total number of the Security Council to seventeen.  In effect, this not only would protect the veto power of the original five permanent members, but also would provide a more stable and influential position for Germany and Japan. 

Besides the issue of representation in the Security Council, the idealists and realists also criticize the Security Council for its role in peacekeeping, thus demanding reform.  Since 1948, there have been 49 UN peacekeeping operations with 17 operations currently in progress; there are two operations that have been “in progress” since 1948 (conflict in Pakistan/India and conflict in Middle East) and one that has been “in progress” since 1964 (conflict in Cyprus).  13  In result of these unresolved conflicts and the surge of new conflicts during the 1990’s, the Security Council’s peacekeeping operations are aiding the UN in accumulating massive debt.  In order to “curb” the debt due to peacekeeping, it is logical to terminate the operations that have not fulfilled its intentional mandates for peace and stability.  However, this is not practical due to American political interests involved and the vagueness of the UN Charter for a termination strategy without successfully completing the operation and establishing stability.  14  There have been suggestions to invoke a UN-version of PDD 25 (Presidential Decision Directive 25) that was issued as an executive agreement by President Clinton in May 1994 that supposedly provides a framework for US participation in UN peacekeeping activities.  PDD 25 is believed to provide a strategy of handling  and terminating ongoing operations; however, the document is not classified to Congress or the public due to it being an executive branch document.  PDD 25 might already be a prototype for reforming UN Security Council peacekeeping operations, but due to the inactivity of resolving the “in progress” operations suggests that no action has been taken by the UN at the present time.  15 

            Due to the United Nations lack of momentum to enact reform in policies of the General Assembly and the Security Council, the international organization has continued to increase its debt, thus increasing the crisis that could eventually lead to its downfall.  Many reformers have blamed the debt on the actual structure and functioning of the UN, concentrating on reforming bodies like the General Assembly and Security Council.  However, what about reforming the debt itself by evaluating the abilities of the non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) and the body of employees that operate the UN?  The UN debt has had many contributors, especially nations that have not paid their arrears to the UN on a yearly basis.  The United States recently has led the nations in being the major contributor to the debt, having been in the 70% range of total debt to the UN since 1995, causing the US to almost lose its General Assembly vote many times by the stipulations of Article 19 of the UN Charter.  16  However, due to Kofi Annan’s launch of financial reforms for the debt and budget during the Millennium Summit, the UN has allowed the debt of the United States to be downsized from US monetary “gifts” to peacekeeping.  17  This reform also mirrored some proposals from US Senator Olympia Snowe in which the US would utilize a five-year plan to repay the arrears while the UN remained at a “zero budget growth” and allowed member states to audit UN accounts.  18   Although Annan’s reforms are creating better financial relations with the nation that has the most influence on sustaining the UN, the reforms have not substantially solved the continuing debt crisis.  Because the majority of the UN budget is supplied by dues from member nations who rarely pay their bills completely (in 1999, only 18.04% of the debt was paid by member nations), the UN needs to search for more nonvolatile monetary sources; for example, the loose affiliation of non-governmental organizations.  19 

The NGOs have had powerful influence on people more directly than the UN has.  For example, the NGOs have persuaded the World Bank to involve local populations in the development of World Bank programs, altered world opinion of environmental issues that otherwise have been ignored, and organized political machinery for human rights in inhumane governments.  20  By utilizing the persuasive nature and publicity of the NGOs, the UN could receive financial support from global industries, corporations, and private donors on an impacting level like the $1billion donation from television mogul Ted Turner if the NGOs stress the UN financial crisis as a priority.  The increase in nation-payment on arrears and private donations could relieve the financial burden in the short run, but internal auditing needs to occur at the UN in order to ensure financial posterity.  Recently, Canadian government auditors completed an audit on UNESCO, revealing overspending totaling to $2 million.  21  There is also speculation of similar mismanagement in the UN’s seventy other agencies.  If the current reforms of Kofi Annan continue on structural reform and internal audits, the financial crisis of debt would not place the United Nations in the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations. 

            The United Nations current representation and financial crises cannot be addressed within the current framework of the original UN charter.  It must be altered for a changing world, or at least contain mechanisms that adjust automatically to future international needs.  By allowing the creation of a “second assembly” that reflects changing boundaries, finance status, and population around the world, with a more cooperative Security Council, through a direct role for non-governmental organizations, and through monitoring of the internal workings of the UN by its members, the United Nations will be able to focus on a stable agenda for the future.  When Kofi Annan asked “what should the United Nations be doing” as the world continues through the twenty first century on the day he was announced Secretary-General, the answer should be a reaffirmation of the original purpose of the United Nations – leading the world as protector and advocate of peace and stability.                 


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       2Benjamin Rivilin, “UN Reform from the Standpoint of the United States,” The Ralphe Bunche Institute on the United Nations (Tokyo: United Nations University, 1995). Available [Online]: <https://wwwc.cc.columbia.edu/sec/dlc/ciao/wps/rib01/rib01.html> [25 October 2000].

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       9Worlds 50 Most Populous Countries: 2000. Available [Online]: <http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0004391.html> [4 November 2000].

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       11UN Charter.

         12 “General Assembly Takes Decisive First Step on UN Reform”

       13 “UN Peacekeeping Missions.” Available [Online]: <http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0862135.html> [4 November 2000].

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        15Cliff Kincaid, “The United Nations Debt: Who Owes Whom?” Cato Institute. CIAO: Columbia International Affairs Online. Available [Online]: <https://wwwc.cc.columbia.edu/sec/dlc/ciao/wps/kic01/kic01.html> [25 October 2000].

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        17 “US Welcomes Shift on Funding of UN Operations,” Financial Times. Global Policy Forum. UN Millenium Summit. Available [Online]: <http://www.globalpolicy.org/msummit/millenni/usarrear.htm> [6 November 2000].

       18Weekly Defense Monitor. Center for Defense Information, Volume 3, Issue 4, (28 January 1999). Available [Online]: <https://wwwc.cc.columbia.edu/sec/dlc/ciao/pbei/cdi/cdi0304.html> [25 October 2000].

       19List of Members Paying Promptly and Fully 1991-1999, Global Policy Forum. UN Financial Crisis. Available [Online]: <http://www.globalpolicy.org/finance/tables/honroll.htm> [6 November 2000].

     20Peter Willets, The Conscience of the World, (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1996).

     21Steven Edwards, “Nepotism and Excess Found Rampant at UNESCO,” Toronto National Post, (2 October 2000). Available [Online]: <http://www.gobalpolicy.org/finance/docs00/unesco.htm> [6 November 2000].