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Guterres’s UN Reform Agenda? It Couldn’t Be Vaguer


Secretary-General António Guterres and Ri Yong Ho, minister for foreign affairs of North Korea, Sept. 23, 2017, at the United Nations General Assembly. Guterres, the author writes, is not offering enough substantive prescriptive for UN reform. ESKINDER DEBEBE/UN PHOTO

Secretary-General António Guterres, encouraged by the United States, has embarked on new reforms, so it is appropriate to scrutinize their policy content. Are they meaningful or are they hollow? With all due respect to the secretary-general of the United Nations, these are for the most part hollow reforms. They have the scent of snake oil.

It is certainly right for Guterres to try to streamline the Secretariat and to reduce administrative costs. Besides, he is under pressure from the US — through Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the UN — to do so. And Guterres is quite correct that the bulk of UN expenditures should go toward relieving the plight of needy people rather than staffing costs.

Yet, the secretary-general was insulting to UN staff members when he said in his remarks at the UN reform event on Sept. 18 that “bureaucracy” kept him up at night: “fragmented structure, byzantine procedures, endless red tape,” he called it. What about the thousands of UN staff members who believe deeply in their international service and are giving their utmost to help implement the ideals of the UN? Some respect on the part of the secretary-general is the least that staff members would have expected from him. The secretary-general was making cheap shots, beneath himself.

In assessing the reforms that Guterres has announced so far, it needs to be stressed that restructuring the Secretariat does not amount to substantive policy. Administrative reforms should serve policy goals. They cannot be the sum total of those goals.

In his speech on Sept. 18, Guterres said he was pursuing “deep management reform.” He was also seeking to achieve gender parity, he said. He had launched a “game-changing strategy to end sexual exploitation and abuse,” a bold claim. These are all deserving goals that deserve support.

But, again, they do not amount to substantive policy, designed to shape the UN of the future. On this, Guterres declared, “Our shared objective is a 21st century UN focused more on people and less on process.” What can this mean? Again, it has the smell of snake oil about it.

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So what are the substantive policy goals of the secretary-general for the organization? The UN is usually taken to rest on three pillars: peace and security, development and human rights. I shall refer to each of these in turn.

• On development, the UN has the Sustainable Development Goals, with targets to be achieved by 2030. This is solid policy that has the support of the UN membership and the wider international community. What are Guterres’s aims in this sector? He told the UN reform gathering, “We are reforming our development system to become much more field-focused, well coordinated and accountable to better assist countries through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — our contribution to a fair globalization.” Guterres’s recent report on reforms in the development sector does not provide much serious content. He could have said, for example, “I am determined to contribute to alleviating the plight of the poorest.” But the matter was left vague. Secretariat reform was the magic wand.

• On peace and security issues, he said, “We are reforming our peace and security architecture — to ensure that we are stronger in prevention, more agile in mediation and more effective and cost-effective in peacekeeping.” Fine words but empty nevertheless. Guterres’s note to member states on restructuring the peace and security pillar does not say how these goals will be pursued. Prevention, mediation and peacekeeping are noble endeavors. But how will prevention be pursued? Former Secretary-General Javiér Perez de Cuéllar had established a dedicated office to prevention. This has disappeared. One could argue that Guterres’s restructuring of the peace and security sector depletes the ability of the Department of Political Affairs to lead efforts for preventive diplomacy.

• Guterres, like some others, is an advocate of “sustainable peace.” This is sophistry. The only way to pursue sustainable peace is by working rigorously to promote and protect human rights worldwide. But human rights were not mentioned in Guterres’s remarks on Sept. 18.

Why have I written this essay? Because Guterres is a good, well-meaning man who deserves positive scrutiny from “We the peoples” of the UN. Nice words do not amount to policy. And this is what we have been getting from the secretary-general so far. He needs to ask his major departments to help him write three important speeches and deliver them in the near future. In them he would say, “As we go forward, let us strive to achieve the following policy goals for . . . “:

  • International peace and security
  • Development
  • Human rights

I challenge the secretary-general because he needs to be challenged. He should articulate solid policies, not sell empty potions.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Bertrand G. Ramcharan is a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His three decades of UN service included five years as deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and acting High Commissioner. He was a professor of human rights at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a chancellor of the University of Guyana. He is the author, among other books, of “Contemporary Human Rights Ideas”; “The UN Human Rights Council”; “Preventive Human Rights Strategies”; and “Preventive Diplomacy at the UN.” His latest book, “The Law, Policy and Politics of the UN Human Rights Council,” was published in 2017.

Ramcharan, who is Guyanan, is a lawyer with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and the Diploma of the Hague Academy of International Law. He lives in Geneva and in Scotland.

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Guterres’s UN Reform Agenda? It Couldn’t Be Vaguer
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