What should be the role for the United Nations in dealing with the changing scene of world politics? What qualities should the Secretary-General and the leadership team around him possess? The Secretary-General, by the UN Charter but especially by history, is accorded a central role. We need a realistic vision of the responsibilities, the potential and the limitations of the UN Secretariat, and the broader leadership of world-level institutions − the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the major Specialized Agencies such as the ILO, FAO, WHO, and UNESCO as well as programs within the UN such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Development Program, and the World Food Program.
The UN, the financial institutions, and the Specialized Agencies leadership must work together as a team. However, this broad leadership team must also symbolize the diversity of cultures and geographic areas of the world. Increasingly, there is also a need for gender balance, and some women must be visible at the highest level. The team must also symbolize independence, integrity and impartiality.
The United Nations was created, as the League of Nations before it, in the shadow of the destruction of world-wide wars. It was the start of the Second World War that was on the mind of those planning the UN Charter in 1944-1945: a conflict which began with a German aggression across the recognized state frontiers of Czechoslovakia and Poland with a formal declaration of war by most of the states involved.
Today, the majority of wars are fought within states, not between them. The United Nations faces the fundamental problem that the UN has no explicit mandate for internal armed conflicts beyond a vague “threat to peace” justification for action within a member state. The UN is a state-based organization with an emphasis on disputes among states and “nonintervention in domestic affairs” because those drafting the UN Charter were not thinking of the promotion of human rights at the national level, nor even of socio-cultural development which, of course, are interventions into domestic affairs.
Preventing intra-state conflicts cannot be done by the UN alone. Prevention and conflict resolution once violence breaks out requires a multi-track approach, harnessing the abilities of a wide range of actors: the UN, regional state organizations, individual states and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Today, many armed conflicts are not fought between competing state formations with clear command structures. State frontiers recognized by the UN are being challenged in pursuit of ethnic aspirations, local and provincial autonomy. Armed conflicts as we see in the Syria-Iraq-ISIS-Kurds conflicts are complex affairs between disparate militia groups with no over-all leadership. In addition, foreign states are involved, sometimes directly or involved through less visible security forces.
The old channels of state-controlled diplomacy with recognized officials are no longer operative in these new settings as we see in the difficulties of knowing who represents what in possible negotiations in the Syria-Iraq conflicts now under way in Geneva. Peace in such a conflict which is both trans-frontier and internal requires the participation of the internal combatants, external exile political groups, and the representatives of governments with an interest in the outcome.
The UN Secretary-General should be a person who can deal creatively with this changing nature of conflict. She or he must have the political skills to urge governments to give the UN the personnel and financial backing it so badly needs. In addition, the Secretary-General needs the active support of NGOs who have the skills and contacts to develop new approaches to tackling conflicts. Non-governmental organizations are increasingly the real agents of progress in such areas as ecologically-sound development, human rights, relief and health. Harnessing all stakeholders to solve problems is the way forward to mobilize talent and resources.
The UN system is operating in a world of much greater complexity today than when the UN was founded. In order to tackle the range of urgent problems now demanding concentrated attention, the leadership team needs to inspire broad confidence and a willingness to serve the world interest on the part of many. There is a need to improve the level of Secretariat personnel nominated by national governments and to improve the level of UN staff on-the-job trainings. This is particularly true of the UN humanitarian emergency operations. There is also a need to improve co-operation with NGOs and academic institutions.
Top quality UN personnel leadership is essential to address the quality of the UN civil service. Restoring the quality and morale of the UN civil service must start with a change in the attitude of member state governments. Thus to be effective, the UN, its program and Specialized Agencies need leadership which can promote world interests without undue influence of individual states. The challenges ahead for the emerging world society require strong and devoted leadership.
Rene Wadlow is the Representative to the United Nations, Geneva of the Association of World Citizens.