17 June 1988 - 19 June 1988

Existing International Organisations: Present Realities and Future Needs

Chair: Sir Brian Urquhart KCMG MBE

I feared that the matter of this conference might prove too broad and the breakdown into four groups (as compared with our usual three) unmanageable. Thanks, however, to the chairman and the group chairmen, the discussion proved structured and constructive.

The debate as a whole produced some frustration with the political performance of the United Nations (meaning the system in New York) contrasted with relatively greater satisfaction with the record of the functional agencies and organs. An increasingly inter-dependent world required multi-lateral handling of problems; and yet nations did not bring political issues to the UN; and many members, notably the US, were in default on their contributions - all this despite signs of a new Soviet attitude. (Western disillusion however, it was noted, might not be mirrored in the developing world.) Even in the "programme agencies", work was impeded by political issues: it might help if distinction could be made between issues directly relevant to their tasks, where consensus was necessary, and other matters where consensus was unnecessary.

Other themes that emerged were the tendency for all institutions to become set in their ways and to require shaking up; the need for better management and leadership, and for lower expectations; the growing effectiveness of such regional bodies as the European Community, ASEAN and the Gulf Cooperation Council; and the need to allow other bodies to act when the UN itself could not (e.g. peace-keeping in Sinai). We had to take account of other bodies outside the UN family.

Human rights, it was argued, must be universal, neither political nor economic rights having priority - some disagreed arguing that circumstances had to be taken into account. We must concentrate on practical matters without rhetoric. The role of non-governmental bodies (NGOs), e.g. Amnesty International, had to be recognised.

The four groups considered respectively: international peace and security; economic and trade matters; environmental and humanitarian issues; and law and human rights. On the first, there was some pessimism. While the Security Council could lay down the framework for settlement of a dispute, it could not compel two combatants to desist who wished to go on fighting. While the use of force by the international community was ruled out (Indian military action in Sri Lanka or Turkish in Cyprus represented action by regional powers in their own interests, not international peace-keeping), much more could be done through other measures in Chapters VI and VII of the Charter, though the political difficulty of bringing member nations to act against their friends was recognised. To be successful, a peace-keeping operation needed local cooperation, a good logistic system and the support of some major powers. The costs of current UN peace-keeping operations fell unfairly on the contributors. Interest was expressed in the Soviet Union's proposed "Comprehensive System of International Peace and Security". The West, after defining its own aims, should give a reasoned response to such ideas: it would be a great mistake not to exploit changed Soviet thinking. Improvements to present practice might include better early-warning (though the problem was rather persuading nations or the Council to act), an enhanced role for the Secretary-General (though too often he was given tasks which nations could not face themselves) and efforts to quicken the Security Council's own procedures. A major success would boost morale and encourage greater use of UN machinery.

On economic and technical matters (as reflected in the work of such bodies as the World Bank, GATT, the specialised agencies, the European Council and the OECD) the principal problem was coordination, though some believed things were in practice better than they were painted. Other problems included declining standards of staff, (not in the "Bretton Woods family"), poor achievement discouraging recruitment, thus further damaging performance, and excessive politicisation. Management by in-house boards (cf. the IMF or World Bank) rather than by national delegates outside the structure, seemed to afford greater efficiency. Competition and the use of private contractors, might be worth considering. Following the example of the World Bank in some areas, a particular agency might be given the lead coordinating role. The UN itself might have little part in all this (the Economic and Social Council attracting particular criticism) but should be preserved. Some suggested that, with security arguably embracing the environment and standard of life, the Security Council might cover economic and social matters; others, that the establishment of an Economic Security Council (perhaps with different membership) might be desirable. These ideas were not pursued. The growth and effectiveness of various regional bodies was noted, especially the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council which included officials, academics and business-men. Soviet involvement in the Bretton Woods institutions was judged premature.

The debate on humanitarian and environmental issues was lively, sparked Off by a specific recommendation that, to give the issues political prominence, an International Commission on Atmospheric Pollution should be established, probably by the UN Secretary-General, to analyse the situation and make recommendations. It should consist of some 20 persons of international standing, appointed as individuals, and drawn from officials, scientists and business-men. (The need for a new constituency involving business-men was a theme in several contexts.) It should have a narrower and sharper focus than the Brundtland Commission and should report, after 3 or 4 years, to the General Assembly which, in cooperation with other bodies as appropriate, including NGOs, would initiate appropriate measures. Some doubted the impact of such a body: why could not UNEP fulfil its original role? All agreed, however, that the subject was urgent, serious and pre-eminently one for multi-lateral action, even if remedial measures might often be for nations.

Other matters covered were de-forestation, (a tax on timber exports, to subsidise re-planting?) sustainable development (but some countries had gone beyond the point where that was realisable), food security, where success in some areas should not mask the poverty of others, and the encouragement of nutritional self-sufficiency through aid, especially technical assistance and training. In general, it seemed that many institutions were operating effectively in these areas. Increasing emphasis on the environmental aspects (e.g. through debt-equity swaps and conditional grants of aid) was welcomed. Many defects stemmed from inadequate supervision by governments.

Turning to legal issues, the conference concluded that much of the vast growth of “legislation” either by universal bodies such as the General Assembly or by regional organisations, was effective and mainly self-policing. However problems remained, especially where short-term views of self-interest prevailed. There was a disappointing attitude to third-party dispute procedures. Enforcement generally was weak, especially when unilateral state action was threatened. While the idea of some automatic mechanism in such cases was attractive, e.g. a built-in cooling off period or the imposition of economic penalties, there were obvious difficulties. In subsequent stages of a dispute the UN's peace-keeping mechanism seemed to work reasonably well, though more to the benefit of the aggressor than his victim. The long-term solution of such problems would remain political, not legal.

In the field of human rights, success depended on the willingness of states to cooperate. Some argued that there were already enough conventions (though adhered to by some states with little intention of observing them, they at least provided a peg for discussion): what was needed was practical work to give them effect. The NGOs were important, though there was debate whether they should be encouraged to work themselves out of a job, or to assume an increasingly responsible role as international agents in their own right. Publicity for rights already agreed was needed, especially the right of individual petition which existed but was scarcely known. The appointment of a Commissioner for Human Rights (dealing also with the growing problem of refugees, a subject which there was not time to explore) might help, it was suggested, though others doubted this.

In the concluding discussion, several professed themselves heartened. The need for some international organisation was acknowledged: if the UN did not exist it would have to be invented. Perhaps hopes had been too high in 1945, but there was no need for excessive pessimism. Nations had yet to come to terms with their growing inter-dependency, and to recognise that their loss of real power entailed the transfer to the international system of responsibilities which they could no longer carry alone. While reform of the UN Charter might be desirable, it must be ruled out, for all the well-known reasons, though at least one participant argued that unless the present system performed better, the demand for reform (particularly of the permanent British and French seats in the Security Council) would become irresistible.

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

Conference Chairman: Sir Brian Urquhart KCMG MBE
Scholar in Residence, The Ford Foundation, New York; Chairman, Program Committee and Member, the Advisory Council, the American Ditchley Foundation

List of Participants

The Rt Hon The Lord Ennals PC

Life Peer (Labour); Chairman, UN Association, Council, Ockenden Venture, National Association for Mental Health; a Governor, the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Paul R N Fifoot CMG
Recently retired as Deputy Legal Adviser, Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) (1984-88)
The Hon David Gore-Booth
Head of Planning Staff, Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Member of the Programmes Committee of the Ditchley Foundation
Mrs Sally Morphet
Head, International and Commonwealth Section, Research Department, Foreign and Common­wealth Office
Mr Ivor Richard QC
Barrister at Law; Chairman, World Trade Centre Wales Ltd (Cardiff); Director, Job Creation Ltd
Mrs Rosemary Righter
Journalist and writer on international affairs and international organisations
Mr. Philippe J Sands
Research Fellow and Lecturer in International Organisation Law, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; Barrister; Visiting Professor of European Law, Boston College Law School, Boston, Massachu­setts
Sir Crispin Tickell KCVO
British Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations
Dr R J Vincent
Professor of International Relations-designate, London School of Economics; Lecturer in International Relations and Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford; Editor, Review of International Studies.
Mr Ben Whitaker
Executive Director, The MinorityRights Group Ltd; UK Member, UN Human Rights Sub ­Commission
The Rt Hon the Baroness Young PC
Life Peer (Conservative); a Governor, the Ditchley Foundation

Mr Bernard Wood

Founding Director and Chief Executive Officer, North-South Institute, Ottawa

Mr Moni Malhoutra

Assistant Commonwealth, Secretary-General, Commonwealth Secretariat, London

Ambassador Max Jakobson

Retired as Managing Director, Council of Economic Organisations in Finland (1975-84)

Dr Hans Arnold

Retired as Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations in Geneva (1987)
HE Baron Rüdiger von Wechmar GCVO
Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to London; a Governor of the Ditchley Foundation

Mr Benedict Kingsbury

Snell Junior Research Fellow in Law, Balliol College, Oxford

General Fredrik Bull-Hansen

Chief of Defence Staff, Norwegian Armed Forces (1984-87); Member, International Affairs Committee on Security Policy Studies

HE Mr Kishore Mahbubani

Singapore Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations

Professor Pierre de Senarclens

Professor, Faculty of Social and Political Science, University of Lausanne

Mr Carl-August Fleischhauer

Under Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel, United Nations; Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for International Public Law, Heidelberg
Mr Marrack I Goulding CMG
Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs, the United Nations
Mr James Jonah
Assistant Secretary-General, Office for Research and the Collection of Information, United Nations; Department of Political and Security Council Affairs, UN (1963-70); Office of the Secretary General

Mr Geza Feketekuty

Counselor to the US Trade Representative
Mr Robert Havener
President and Chief Executive Officer, International Institute for Agricultural Development; Member, Board of Trustees, International Development Conference, New York
The Hon Donald F McHenry
Research Professor, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; a Director, The American Ditchley Foundation
The Hon Bradford Morse
President, The Salzburg Seminar, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Member, Council on Foreign Relations
Mr James Piscatori
Associate Professor, Middle Eastern Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University
Mr. Peter Thacher
Senior Counselor, World Resources Institute

Mr Ibrahim F I Shihata

Vice President and General Counsel, The World Bank, Washington

Mr Dragoljub Najman

Secretary, The Inter-Action Council