26 January 2001 - 28 January 2001

The role of the United Nations in the 21st century

Chair: Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO

Over the weekend of 26-28 January we set ourselves the ambitious goal of looking at the role of the United Nations in the coming century.  We agreed at the outset that this was too big a canvas to be covered in a single sitting.  A second Ditchley conference would look at the UN’s contribution to peacekeeping and reform of the Security Council, both central to the organisations core functions.  By and large we maintained our self-discipline and excursions into the composition of the Security Council and its related security activities were relatively brief.

This note concentrates on the three main issues we looked at over the weekend – widening the scope of the UN;  globalisation/polarisation and institutional issues.  Even so it can scarcely reflect the richness and diversity of the points of view expressed which ranged from the existential to the institutional.

At the outset we looked at the UN’s remit and while accepting that there remained a wide gap between the hope and promise enshrined in the UN Charter and in the practical reality of what had been delivered over the past half century, most of us were nevertheless of the view that the UN’s influence on global affairs had been broadly positive and that it had made an outstanding contribution in the area of international norm setting:  the “rules of the international road” as one participant put it. Its great declarations on human rights, the rule of international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes may have been breached many times, but their cumulative effect had been remarkable.  Recent criticism of the UN, not least in the press, tended to overshadow its real achievements in this field and at the other end of the scale many of the technical agencies, like the ITU, WIPO, WMO and ICAO had also made major contributions to international cooperation in the specific areas for which they were responsible.

Turning to the UN’s future role our attention was drawn to the Secretary General’s report “We the Peoples” to the Millennium Summit and to the Declaration adopted by the General Assembly in September which contained an ambitious agenda for the UN in the years ahead.  One participant urged that this agenda should be given priority over further rounds of discussion and analysis.

Against this background we considered the pressures for widening the scope of the UN. In recent years a bewildering variety of Non-Governmental Organisations had emerged and were demanding an increasing voice on the UN stage.  While we agreed that the label “NGO” covered a wide range of institutions, we concentrated primarily on those NGOs which specialised in advocacy of particular causes such as Land Mines or more generally on the human rights records of particular regimes and those NGOs which had built up the capacity to deliver humanitarian and other services either on their own account or, at times, on behalf of Governments.

The advocacy NGOs had found many points of entry into the UN system.  Some were now to be found in official Government delegations, to which they brought their own specific and independent local knowledge.  Others exerted influence through coordinated lobbying and sophisticated use of the new information technology.  The delivery NGOs had also shown their worth in the speed and flexibility with which they could act and their ability to harness local knowledge and expertise.  We heard that they were used frequently as a cheaper alternative to traditional governmental aid channels.

We were, however, conscious, that closer involvement of the NGOs could also give rise to problems.  Kosovo had been a crisis in which hundreds of NGOs had appeared, frequently uncoordinated and sometimes engaged in turf disputes with each other and where the twin questions of responsibility (to whom did they consider themselves responsible) and representation (whom did they really represent) had been posed in a particularly acute form.  One participant called for some way of distinguishing between responsible and irresponsible NGOs.  Could agencies which had dealings with NGOs, both on the advocacy/policy formation and delivery fronts, not make a register of those with whom they had been able to work productively?

We heard that the Secretary General had sought to engage the private sector directly in poverty alleviation programmes through the Global Compact.  This made sound common sense given that   multinational corporations were now among the most powerful economic actors on the world stage.  Many had market capitalisation greater than the GNP of medium sized countries. The appointment of the former CEO of Asa Brown Boveri to a leading position to take forward the Global Compact was indicative of the skills and economic muscle of MNCs which might be harnessed to developmental aims.

Throughout our discussion of the role and influence of NGOs in the activities of the UN, we were urged by some to draw a red line between those who influenced decisions and those who took them.  The UN was an assembly of Governments.  It was the Governments who should take the decisions and take the responsibility for them.  NGOs could inform the debates and advocate policies.  They could deliver services on behalf of UN agencies or Governments.  But they should not seek to usurp the decision-making role of Governments.  (We were of course aware that in the ILO decisions were taken jointly by Governments and other representatives.) 

In looking at what we regarded as the key institutional issues we covered a good deal of familiar territory starting with the role of Secretary General himself.  There was universal assent to the view that we were extraordinarily fortunate in the present incumbent of the post.  He commanded great respect both among the member states and also in the UN Secretariat from which he had emerged.  How should he act?  Should he capitalise on his profile and moral authority by seeking to become less of a Secretary and more of a General?  Should he seek to exercise a greater coordinating role over the specialised agencies as well as the Secretariat?  Was it inevitable that a strong Secretary General would meet resistance from Member States if he sought to make policy instead of implementing it?  A variety of answers were given to these questions, with a number of voices in favour of the present Secretary General at least using his authority not only to set the agenda, as he had done in his Millennium Report, but also to take initiatives to try to implement it.  Should he not, some of us suggested, be freed from the restrictions of micro-management by the General Assembly and in particular by the 5th Committee?

A chart was circulated which set out graphically how complex the UN system had become.  Indeed some participants at Ditchley were inclined to argue that the word “system” gave a misleading impression of order and coordination.  It was easy to see the case for better organisation and management;  for a more flexible, open and transparent system;  and for reduction in overlap to make more effective use of the limited resources available.  The difficulty lay in knowing how to effect improvements.  Past experience suggested that incremental change rather than grand schemes for reform offered the best chance of progress.  And many voices cautioned against allocating blame for the present muddle to the UN system itself:  responsibility lay just as heavily on the shoulders of the Governments of Member States.  Among the many problems identified in our discussion were a lack of consistency in approach of national delegations in the different bodies of the system, and even between representatives at meetings in New York of the UNGA and the important 5th Committee, whose consensus based approach to budget decisions was a further complicating factor.  Reform of the UN, argued some participants, should start at home.

On the staffing side too, most of us agreed that Member States had to accept their share of the blame for what one participant referred to as the UN’s flawed personnel management system.  The practice of patronage – with Governments often jealously guarding what they were inclined to regard as “their” representatives in the specialised agencies and in the UNHQ Secretariat – was at odds with the principles of staff recruitment enshrined in the charter.  And some felt that the right of the P5 to five USG posts apiece introduced distortions in the system from the top down.  We rehearsed the arguments in favour of fixed term as opposed to permanent contract;  whilst at the same time acknowledging the importance of institutional memory.  One of the UN’s greatest strengths was its experience and expertise in managing a variety of programmes often under extreme conditions.  And we heard examples of how, with determination, it was possible to insist on sensible criteria for the appointment of Heads of Agencies and other senior UN officials which would ensure that competence and integrity were given greater weight than nationality or length of service.

The fact that the USA and EU member states contribute such a large percentage both of the regular budget and voluntary contributions was seen by many as lying at the heart of the difficulties facing the UN system.  Money talks, in the UN as elsewhere.  And, although one country one vote was the rule, it was impossible to overlook the influence major donors were bound to exercise within the system.

In considering the problem of globalisation and polarisation we realised that in a way we were holding up a mirror to our contemporary world.  Successful and less successful states had always been a feature of world history for as long as records have been kept.  The new factor was the increased interdependence of the world’s economies which had enabled those countries who were able to take advantage of the new opportunities to grow much more prosperous more rapidly than those who were at, or below, the lowest rung of development.  Many countries in Africa considered that the system was tilted against them, that the developed countries had already overexploited the world’s resources and that the richer countries were neither prepared to allow the system to be changed nor to allocate anything other than a derisory share of the wealth they were accumulating to enable those countries who were lower on the development curve to catch up and benefit too.  This provoked a discussion on the meaning of development.  Was it possible for the world’s resources and environment to cope with the current rate of exploitation on a long-term sustainable basis, let alone to expand to include a wide range of other countries seeking to follow the same path.  Reference was made to the importance of the World Trade Organisation.  It would have an enormous effect on the possibilities open to the developing countries to profit from an open trading system.  But, we noted, the WTO was not an integral part of UN.

We asked ourselves what the UN could do about those problems given that its core budget was modest (roughly equivalent, we heard, to that of a medium sized US city) and that it relied heavily on intergovernmental cooperation, which it could advise and lead, but which it could not compel.  The general conclusion was that the UN was not itself the institution which could establish what the solutions to the world’s economic problems should be.  Nor was it the mechanism for the delivery of those solutions even though, in its International Financial Institutions and its development programmes, it could indicate priorities, as the Secretary General had done in referring to the millions of people who now lived in absolute poverty.  The UN could, however, exercise great influence as a catalyst for development and poverty alleviation..

Within the UN itself we heard about the difficulties of arriving at a consensus when the member states were affected by some of the basic issues, like development and security, in such different ways.  A minority of developed states were engaged in elaborating development and other policies based on democracy, good governance and transparency.  And a number of the poorest states had a vital interest in the scope and delivery of these policies.  The problem, it was suggested, lay with a large group of states who were neither donors nor recipients, whose energies were sometimes harnessed to negative ends as, for example, the talking down of the Branimi report or in defending their parochial interests against sensible proposals like sunset clauses to bring to an end programmes whose purposes had been achieved or were no longer a real priority.

In all this we were conscious of the critical relationship between the UN and its most powerful member, the USA.  The good news, we were informed, was that relations were better now than they had been for some time.  The Secretary General’s reputation was currently high in Washington, and his policies of trying to bring assistance more directly to the people in need were popular.  The recent settlement of the USA’s outstanding dues had also been a positive step.  We were, however, explicitly warned that if the UN attempted to arrogate to itself powers which, in the view of many US legislators and in the Executive, properly belonged to the sovereign states, there would be great friction with, and firm resistance from, the USA.  We had a brief digression into the questions of US isolationism or exceptionalism and ended with the unsurprising conclusion that the involvement of the USA in the UN was a critical factor for its success.  We hoped that both parties would recognise the valuable and mutually reinforcing role that they could, and should, play.

As an important factor in the modern world, and as a crucial factor in the UN’s work, we looked at the effect of the Information Technology revolution.  At grass roots level it had transformed the relationship between the citizen and their states.  It was now almost impossible to control communications across state frontiers.  Information, advice, support – all elements of power – now travelled instantly and unhindered around the world – but not we were reminded, necessarily to the poorest who had neither the infrastructure nor the skills to participate.  Nonetheless we were given a range of encouraging examples from Kosovo and elsewhere to show the remarkable effect of IT in linking and empowering local communities under extreme conditions.

IT, it was claimed, was also critical to the UN’s future effectiveness.  Most people were unaware that what the UN was doing touched their lives directly on a daily basis.  The Secretary General’s initiative with Eriksson was an example of the empowering and connecting role of IT.  The UN should think more about harnessing the new technology to explain what it was doing in language which was understandable to ordinary people.  Their consent and support could transform the UN’s standing and enhance its effectiveness.  IT could also enable the UN to engage more effectively with “the outside world”.  The Ditchley Foundation was urged to hold a conference on the role and potential of IT for the UN.

At the end of the conference we came back to perhaps the most fundamental question thrown  up by our discussions – how to reconcile the forces of globalisation and polarisation.  One participant commented that while markets could create great wealth they would not of themselves achieve the aims we had been discussing.  If markets were allowed to rule unrestricted, things would only get worse.  It was the responsibility of governments to continue to ensure that market forces were contained within a framework of social tolerability.  As another participant had commented earlier in our discussions, the UN was no panacea, and should certainly not be seen as a welfare state for the globe.  But only in such a global institution could the ideas and policies evolve for tackling such problems as failed, and failing, states, care for the environment, and other key challenges facing the international community in the 21st Century.

It remains to be seen what ideas our conference on the Security Council and the UN’s role in peacekeeping will throw up and how they might interlock or, as one participant put it, interblock, with the views expressed at this conference.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.


Chairman:  Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO
Chancellor, University of Kent

The Hon J Hugh Faulkner PC

Former Cabinet Minister and Managing Director, ALCAN, India
Ambassador Jeremy K B Kinsman
High Commissioner in the United Kingdom
Dr David M Malone
President, International Peace Academy
Dr Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon
Department of Political Science, University of Western Ontario

M Nicolas Chibaeff

Deputy Director, Political Affairs, United Nations and International Organisations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Dr Günther Altenburg

Director General, Department for the United Nations, Human Rights, Humanitarian Aid and Global Issues, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Mr Don Skerrett

Director of Program and Budget, Office of the International Labour Organisation

Ambassador Peter van Walsum

Lately Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York

Ambassador Bjørn Skogmo

Director-General, Department for Development Policies, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, lately Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva

Professor Pierre de Senarclens

Professor of International Relations, University of Lausanne

Sir Franklin Berman KCMG QC

Lately Legal Adviser, Foreign & Commonwealth Office
Mr Jeremy P Carver CBE
Partner and Head of International Law Group, Clifford Chance
Sir Jeremy Greenstock KCMG
Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York
Professor Christopher Greenwood QC
Professor of Law, London School of Economics and Political Science
Professor John Groom
Professor of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent
Mr Malcolm Harper CMG
Director, United Nations Association of Great Britain & Northern Ireland
Professor Sir Richard Jolly KCMG
Honorary Professorial Fellow and Research Associate, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex
Lady Jolly
Anthropologist;  Research Association, School of Biological Science, University of Sussex
Lord Marlesford DL
Life Peer (Conservative)
Professor James B L Mayall
Director, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge
Professor Sally Morphet
Global Issues Research Group, Research Analysts, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Professor Norman Myers CMG
Consultant in Environment and Development
Mrs Rosemary Righter
Chief Leader Writer and Assistant Editor, The Times
Professor Adam Roberts
Montague Burton Professor of International Relations and Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford
Dr Julia Saunders
Policy Adviser on Conflict and Arms, OXFAM

Mr Roger Eggleston

Secretary of the High Level Committee on Management, Palais des Nations, Geneva
Mr Qazi Shaukat Fareed
Director, Secretariat for Administrative Committee on Co-ordination, United Nations HQ, New York
Mr Ahmad Fawzi
Director, United Nations Information Centre (CNIC) London
Mr Edward Mortimer
Chief Speechwriter to the Secretary-General, UNHQ, New York
Sir Kieran Predergast KCVO CMG
Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, UNHQ, New York

Dr Nafis Sadik

Lately Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund

The Hon John Brademas

President, Emeritus, New York University
Dr Noel Brown
Former Director, United Nations Environment Programme, North American Regional Office
Professor Alan K Henrikson
Director, The Fletcher Foundation on a New World Order, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, Medford, USA
Mr A Michael Hoffman
Co-founder and Managing Partner, Palamon Capital Partners LLP, London
Mr Robert G Kaiser
Associate Editor and Senior Correspondent, The Washington Post
Mrs Wendy W Luers
President, The Foundation for a Civil Society, New York
The Hon William H Luers
Chairman and President, United Nations Association of the USA
The Hon Donald F McHenry
Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
The Hon Abraham D Sofaer
George P Schultz Distinguished Scholar and Senior Fellow, The Hooper Institutions, Stanford University
Mr Marc A Thiessen
Spokesman, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate