Wednesday, March 13, 2013

United Nations Reform: Issues for Congress

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Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

Since its establishment in 1945, the United Nations (U.N.) has undergone numerous reforms as international stakeholders seek ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the U.N. system. During the past two decades, controversies such as corruption in the Iraq Oil-For-Food Program, allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers, and instances of waste, fraud, and abuse by U.N. staff have focused attention on the need for change and improvement of the United Nations. Many in the international community, including the United States, continue to promote substantive reforms. The 113th Congress may focus on U.N. reform as it considers appropriate levels of U.S. funding to the United Nations and monitors the progress and implementation of ongoing and previously approved reform measures.

Generally, Congress has maintained a significant interest in the overall effectiveness of the United Nations. Some Members are particularly interested in U.N. Secretariat and management reform, with a focus on improving transparency and strengthening accountability and internal oversight. In the past, Congress has enacted legislation that links U.S. funding of the United Nations to specific U.N. reform benchmarks. Supporters of this strategy contend that the United Nations has been slow to implement reforms and that linking payment of U.S. assessments to progress on U.N. reform is the most effective way to motivate member states to efficiently pursue comprehensive reform. Opponents argue that tying U.S. funding to U.N. reform may negatively impact diplomatic relations and could hinder the United States’ ability to conduct foreign policy.

In September 2005, heads of U.N. member states met for the World Summit at U.N. Headquarters in New York to discuss strengthening the United Nations through institutional reform. The resulting Summit Outcome Document laid the groundwork for a series of reforms that included enhancing U.N. management structures; strengthening the U.N. Security Council; improving U.N. system coordination and coherence; and creating a new Human Rights Council. Since the Summit, U.N. member states have worked toward implementing these reforms with varied results. Some reforms, such as the creation of the Human Rights Council and improving systemwide coherence, are completed or ongoing. Others reforms, such as Security Council enlargement and changes to management structures and processes, have stalled or not been addressed.

One of the key challenges facing reform advocates is finding common ground among the disparate definitions of reform held by various stakeholders. There is no single definition of U.N. reform, and consequently there is often debate over the scope, appropriateness, and effectiveness of past and current reform initiatives. U.N. member states disagree as to whether some proposed reforms are necessary, as well as how to most effectively implement reforms. Developed countries, for example, support delegating more power to the U.N. Secretary-General to implement management reforms, whereas developing countries fear that giving the Secretary- General more authority may undermine the power of the U.N. General Assembly and therefore the influence of individual countries.

Generally, U.N. reform is achieved by amending the U.N. Charter or through various non-Charter reforms. Charter amendment, which requires approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly and ratification “according to the constitutional processes” of two-thirds of U.N. member states (including the five permanent Security Council members), is rarely used and has been practiced on only a few occasions. Non-Charter reforms—which include General Assembly action or initiatives by the U.N. Secretary-General—are more common and comparatively easier to achieve. This report will be updated as policy changes or congressional actions warrant.

Date of Report: February 20, 2013
Number of Pages: 24
Order Number: RL33848
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