Date: 17 April, 1995

United Nations: Reforms Must Correct Imbalances of Power

By Chakravarthi Raghavan, Third World Network Features. 17 April, 1995.

Geneva: Any reform of the United Nations must be from the perspective of its purposes and objectives and must move in the direction of redressing the "all-pervading imbalances of national power," remaining as a universal body and "applying its Charter-based laws and procedures to all -- the powerful as well as the weak," the Chairman of the South Centre and former Tanzanian President, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, has declared.

Nyerere was speaking in Vienna at the Forum on the Future of the United Nations System which was convened by the UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Nyerere said that while the UN was founded on the principle of legal equality of all States, and is respected fully by the staff and machinery of the Organisation and all its branches, the UN itself did not remain unaffected by the "overriding factor in world affairs at end of 20th century . . . the all-pervading imbalance of national power based primarily on comparative wealth and control of advanced technology."

Internationalism and idealism had pervaded the purposes and the negotiations preceding the foundation of all the major international institutions at the end of the War -- the UN itself and, in terms of the objectives, even the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. That internationalism was limited by considerations of power -- in exclusion of Germany and Japan, in many current members still under colonial rule and in the financial institutions whose executive boards did not even acknowledge the principle of democracy. Even then, while internationalism was limited by considerations of power, and the recognition of equality and democracy was tempered by the reality of that power, it continued to be a factor through the 1950s and 1960s.

But gradually, and especially since the 1970s, it has been "virtually overwhelmed by that reality and imbalance of power" and even at the UN itself the use of that power was evident -- with discussions and decision-making on economic and trade issues increasingly moved away from the UN to the Bretton Woods institutions (BWIs) or to the General

Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) where negotiations are made unequal by structure and even in principle there is no democracy in decision-making.

The IMF, dedicated to safeguarding international monetary stability and promoting prosperity for all, has become in practice an instrument for collecting debt from the Third World and restructuring their economies according to a particular ideology. And the World Bank's decisions on loans are based on whether the applicant's policies or ideology are approved by those with power. Neither of them report to the UN Secretary-General, much less to the General Assembly or the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), from which they should be taking policy guidelines.

"It is in this context of unbalanced power that the UN reform is now being discussed," Nyerere continued. "But the questions asked affect the answers, and it appears that the issue is being looked at almost entirely in terms of management and administration."

Everyone wants to see the UN well-managed, "but the UN is not a business, nor can its operations be judged solely by efficiency in money terms." He had not heard arguments that attempts to prevent or settle conflicts should be ruled out because very often they don't succeed and thus are "not cost-effective," Nyerere wryly pointed out.

Reform of the UN, he continued, should be approached from the viewpoint of its purpose -- "building and preservation of peace in the context of equal rights of all Member States."

The question then is how the UN can be reformed in a manner that promotes peace among equals and helps to reduce or counteract the overwhelming nature of the present unbalanced world power distribution. How can reforms make the UN more effective in pursuing the intentions set out in the Preamble to the Charter: maintaining international peace, employing international machinery for economic and social advancement of all peoples and enhancing human rights?

In the modern world, Nyerere said, people-centred development is the only long-term hope for peace -- not only when one looks at the hundreds of millions living in absolute poverty, but also when one looks at relative poverty and the gap between rich and poor within a country or between countries and regions of the world.

This gap is getting wider between nations and within nations and, not surprisingly, insecurity is growing daily, in both the South and the North.

The UN thus has to remain a universal body, with Charter- based laws and procedures applying to all -- the powerful and the weak. High in the priority for reforms must be the gradual coordination of policies and activities of the IMF, the World Bank and the newly formed World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the rest of the UN economic and social policy decisions and activities, the South Centre Chairman said.

This can be done through their accountability to the UN General Assembly and the ECOSOC in accordance with the clear intent of the UN Charter. There is also a need to make the Special Drawing Rights the main reserve asset for the international monetary system.

"But power is rarely, if ever, voluntarily surrendered to democratic institutions. As part of the movement towards greater balance between the poor and underdeveloped majority of the world's people on the one hand, and the rich developed minority on the other, there is need for UN reforms aimed at strengthening and giving higher status to those institutions and departments within the UN-family which help poor countries and poor groups to help themselves."

This can be done through technical and economic cooperation among developing countries, and also provision by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and other UN bodies and specialised agencies "of objective factual collection and analysis of trade and development matters."

At the same time, Nyerere said, the countries of the South must work together to reduce the imbalances of power by strengthening themselves. "The recommendations of the South Commission for national and collective self-reliance, for South-South cooperation and South solidarity," Nyerere added, "are not invalidated by the strong trend towards globalisation of the world economy. Those recommendations are not alternatives to global cooperation; on the contrary they are essential to development, if it is not to mean the insecurities of permanent subordination of the weak by the strong."

The developing countries have little problem with the calls to them to move towards greater democracy within nations. Their problems sometimes arise when mechanisms of democracy, evolved over hundreds of years in European cultures, are assumed to be the only valid forms everywhere.

Also, democracy and rule of law cannot be important within nations, but unimportant when nations establish institutions of international cooperation. Internationally and nationally we have to be more flexible about the machinery of democracy and a little less flexible on principles of equality.

The rich and technologically developed are powerful under any system of governance. Nationally and internationally, democracy can do no more than try to check the worst abuses of that power.

Within nations, the need for fast decision-making is not considered an argument against democracy. Yet within the international system, there are executive boards or councils with overwhelming powers based not on democracy but on a combination of history and wealth, and not in any way accountable to, or even influenced by, truly representative bodies.

"This inconsistency should not be allowed to continue," Nyerere said. There are now international economic forces pursuing their own interests without national loyalties -- many environmental polluters, the transnational corporations, and the currency speculators, all of whom could have devastating effects on the security and health of people everywhere. It is within the structures of a reformed and enlarged UN system that lies the only hope of working out common and united responses to these and future international problems and opportunities.

About the writer: Chakravarthi Raghavan is Chief Editor of SUNS (South-North Development Monitor), a daily bulletin, and the Geneva representative of the Third World Network.

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