Strong UN. Better World.

©Dmitry Titov

The United Nations, founded in 1945 with high hopes for international peace and security after the horrors of two world wars, has reached the venerable age of three score years and ten and it is time to take stock.

During those seven decades the United Nations has grown exponentially, spawning many organizations and agencies designed to improve most aspects of human existence. Its normative activities are extensive, ranging from human rights to drug control and nuclear arms. Poverty was seen as a major scourge and led to a wide network of operational programmes of technical and financial assistance in developing countries.

Political activities at United Nations Headquarters to solve or reduce threats to international peace and security, the main aim of the Charter of the United Nations, have had to contend with a turbulent and ever more complex world, and have not always been successful. Mediation and conflict resolution have been supported by operational peacekeeping missions that have multiplied since the end of the cold war and now embrace peacebuilding elements as realization has grown that security and development are intertwined.

It is fashionable to criticize the United Nations for its shortcomings and overlook achievements obtained against great odds. There have been many regional and local wars, but global conflict has been avoided, although humanity has teetered on the brink of catastrophe several times. Poverty and inequality still persist, but there have been major advances in critical areas such as maternal/child health care and infant mortality, and the killer disease of smallpox has been eradicated. The Organization has become proficient in handling natural and man-made disasters and has also taken the lead in addressing emerging issues of international importance, such as climate change.

I have been involved with various aspects of the Organization for 63 years, 41 of them—from 1952 to 1993—as an official and, since my retirement, in advisory and voluntary capacities. It was by coincidence that I became a local staff member of one of the first technical assistance offices in the Philippines in 1952. That opened the door to a long career that has brought me many satisfactions as well as some disappointments. I was fortunate to work mostly in operational field programmes and to spend 22 years living in poor developing countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa. These were concrete activities with specific goals and measurable results.

The promotion of economic and social development was a new concept then, as was the provision of aid to poorer countries. It was exciting to be part of that new adventure when both we and the United Nations were young and hopes were high. It was especially challenging for me because I entered an exclusively male domain. I was the first woman international field officer of the Expanded Programme of Technical Assistance (EPTA), which later became the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In 1956, I was Acting Resident Representative of the programme in Colombia, and in 1957 was made titular Resident Representative in Uruguay. I was warned that I was a “pilot project”; after seven years, when I was still the only woman, I enquired, “Am I the light that failed?” A second woman was appointed, but for years we were the only ones. Half a century later, out of 131 UNDP country heads of mission (now usually called Resident Coordinators) only 48 are female, a poor showing for an organization that should be setting an example.

I held further Resident Representative posts in Argentina, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Morocco and Chile. In 1974, after General Augusto Pinochet’s sanguinary coup in Chile, when his secret police searched my house, I was transferred to New York. There, in 1977, I became the first female Assistant Administrator of UNDP, heading the Bureau for Programme Policy and Evaluation.

Upon moving to the United Nations Secretariat at the behest of the then Secretary-General, I became the first woman Assistant Secretary–General in a line post, serving in the Department of Technical Cooperation for Development (DTCD), which managed operational programmes all over the world (1978-1987). In 1987, I was promoted to Under-Secretary-General, again the first female to attain that rank, and became Director-General of the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV) which, in addition to representing the Secretary-General in Eastern Europe, was made responsible for operating worldwide programmes in narcotic drugs control, crime prevention and criminal justice, and social development. It is gratifying to note that women Under- Secretaries-General and heads of specialized agencies are no longer a rarity.

In 1992, the Secretary-General asked me to be his Special Representative (SRSG) in Angola and Head of the United Nations Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEMII). I hesitated, knowing that the United Nations had been given an inadequate mandate and even more inadequate resources to deal with a deeply entrenched conflict. Not long before, the previous Secretary-General had wanted to make me head of peacekeeping at United Nations Headquarters but had to desist because of the opposition of ambassadors and others to the idea of a woman commanding military troops. If the mission in Angola failed, as well it might have, the blame would be attributed to the gender of the SRSG. In the end I accepted the challenge, swayed by two arguments: it was the final male bastion to be conquered in the United Nations; and I had long encouraged women to have the courage to take risks, both physical and professional.

I have chosen to highlight the United Nations role in women’s issues because it is an area in which progress has been made, and I was privileged to play some part. The role of a female pioneer is not easy: your performance has to be much greater than that of your male counterparts, and you are painfully aware that it is not just your personal career that is at stake, but also the prospects of other women who would like to follow in your footsteps.

Important international milestones were the United Nations global conferences on women, held in Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985 and Beijing in 1995, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women adopted in 1979. In its efforts to give women greater prominence in its own bureaucracy, the United Nations made the mistake of creating posts with the limited mandate of dealing with women’s affairs. I am proud of the fact that the posts I occupied had previously been male preserves until 1987, when the Division for the Advancement of Women became part of my portfolio in Vienna. It is gratifying that many women now fill a wider variety of senior United Nations posts.

Progress was slow initially in the appointment of women SRSGs. Five years passed before a second one was named to follow me. Another key milestone was the adoption of Security Council resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace and security, which urged the Secretary-General to increase the number of women SRSGs and addressed all aspects of women caught up in war. The seeds for this were sown at a meeting in Windhoek on gender issues in peacekeeping that I chaired in May 2000 and which Namibia presented to the Council in October of that year. Nevertheless, as with so many United Nations resolutions, implementation was very slow. Now there is an improvement, with 5 out of 21 country-specific SRSGs and 2 country-specific Deputy SRSGs being female, but the presence of women at negotiating tables continues to be very sparse.

The effectiveness of the United Nations system has been impaired by the multiplicity of its semi-autonomous agencies and other entities. The lack of cohesion has been especially severe in the field of development cooperation. I was involved in various attempts to rectify this situation, beginning with A Study of the Capacity of the United Nations Development System (1969), prepared by Sir Robert Jackson, with myself as his Chief of Staff. It proposed root-and-branch reform, designed to strengthen the authority of UNDP through the “power of the purse”, ensuring that assistance reflected each country’s priorities rather than projects imposed by the agencies, and making the system “speak with one voice”. Intended as an integrated proposal, it was only adopted piecemeal. A unique opportunity was missed, and the number of international, regional and national bodies offering development cooperation has increased, as has the pull of centrifugal forces and the blurring of the role of UNDP. Subsequent reform efforts have reiterated the same precepts but still met the same opposition of vested interests both on the part of Member States and of entrenched bureaucracies. We are still a long way from gearing development cooperation to the priorities of recipient countries.

The United Nations has become increasingly politicized. The concept of United Nations officials answering only to the Secretary-General and the Charter of the United Nations, as defined by Dag Hammarskjöld in his Oxford lecture in 1961, has become seriously eroded:

  • There is too much interference by Member States with the administration of the United Nations and the appointment and promotion of their nationals.
  • Many staff regard themselves as servants of their own nations and turn to their embassies and capitals for support.
  • Political appointees to Assistant and Under-Secretary-General posts often lack the qualifications and experience required.
  • No punishment is meted out or sanctions are applied when basic United Nations principles are transgressed.
  • Offending a prominent Member State may prejudice a Secretary-General’s prospects for a further term of office.

This situation will only be resolved if there is a sea change in government attitudes and an example must be set at the top by the Secretary-General. At present many limitations are imposed on his authority. Member States do not want a strong Secretary-General and the tortuous “horse trading” process of electing the Secretary-General can lead to the “least common denominator” being chosen.

Obvious reforms are not acted upon because of the paradox that, in an age of rapid globalization and diminishing national power, the pursuit of narrow national interests, often mistaken, and the tendency to “go it alone” are on the increase. Ironical as this is, these counter productive factors represent the political reality of today’s world. “Realpolitik” will not allow some of the most obvious changes to take place, but it is imperative that we find some way of strengthening the United Nations, which is more needed than ever in our conflict-ridden world.

Some ideas have been circulating that would have a multiplier effect:

  • Changing the procedure for electing the Secretary-General by introducing a pre-selection process. The final decision will be political, but this approach would ensure that the choice would be made from well-qualified and experienced candidates.
  • Limiting the Secretary-General’s term of office to a single period longer than the present five years. This would increase the incumbent’s authority and protect him or her from undue pressure from Member States.