Redeeming the United Nations

For a United Nations official to discuss reform of the international system is rather like an Englishman talking about the weather: it is a staple of daily conversation, but it always seems that real change remains just over the horizon. On Wednesday, 166 heads of state and government will gather in New York for a summit that we hope will take the reform process a major step forward.

Ambassadors in New York are now working day and night to hammer out the details of the current reform proposals. But whatever they manage to agree upon, as a long-time UN official I am conscious of how much the UN has already changed since I joined 27 years ago. 

If I had suggested to my superiors at that time that the UN would one day observe and even run elections in sovereign states, conduct intrusive inspections for weapons of mass destruction, impose comprehensive sanctions on the entire import-export trade of a member state, or set up international criminal tribunals and coerce governments into handing over their citizens to be tried by foreigners under international law, they would have told me that I did not understand what the UN was all about.

Yet the UN has done all of these things, and more, during the last two decades. It has administered territory, conducted huge multi-dimensional peace-keeping operations with nearly 80,000 soldiers in the field, and deployed human rights monitors to report on the behavior of sovereign governments. In short, the UN has been a highly adaptable institution, one that has evolved in response to changing times.