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4 UN reform – some progress

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As we highlighted in our briefing earlier this year, the Secretary-General’s reform agenda has three primary parts:

  • streamlining the UN’s management functions to reduce costs and duplication;
  • reforming the UN’s development work to align it with the Sustainable Development Goals and better integrate it with its work on peace and security;
  • reorganising the UN’s peace and security work, emphasising mediation and better integration of the peacekeeping and political parts of the UN’s work.

The latest is that:

  • the peace and security reforms are largely completed (there is further information about peacekeeping here);
  • some of the more contentious management reforms, involving jobs potentially moving from one country to another, have been deferred until later this autumn. Others have been tweaked, so for example, rather than merging the Department of Management and Department of Field Support they will now be reorganised into a Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance, and a Department of Operational Support;
  • states agreed to many of the development reforms, but watered down others with the result that the new system will be a hybrid of the Secretary-General’s ideas and the old system.

One of UNA-UK’s primary concerns relates to the place of human rights in this reform agenda, particularly when it comes to development reform. As the situation in Rakhine state so sharply articulated UN agencies – despite scathing internal reports on their conduct in Sri Lanka and on previous occasions – continue to prioritise the delivery of development assistance over human rights and political concerns, with the consequence that they frequently find themselves complicit in the commission of atrocities.

The Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative of previous Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was supposed to ensure that this never happened again. Yet, in Myanmar it did. We argued at the time that this was because the structural changes necessary to make HRuF a reality had not been implemented. Key among them was the reorganisation of the system of UN Resident Coordinators (UNRCs) who act as the most senior officials of the UN in most countries.

UNRCs previously answered to the development agency, UNDP, and were thus symptomatic of the development-first approach the UN system had a tendency to take. Secretary-General Antonío Guterres rightly pushed for UNRCs to be delinked from UNDP, both financially and managerially. States resisted this and a compromise was agreed involving a complicated three-part funding system, managerial control by the Deputy Secretary-General but via her role as chair of the development-heavy UN Sustainable Development Group, and special arrangements to ensure that UNDP retain an important role in the UN Country Teams that the UNRC will manage.

The Secretary-General has stated that further details and a plan for a 24-month transition process will be announced in mid-September. We will be watching closely to ensure that change is meaningful.

The UK, meanwhile, has come in for criticism for its human rights work at the UN from the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and House of Lords International Relations Committee. The former committee accused the UK of shielding human rights abusing allies such as Saudi Arabia, sacrificing human rights in the name of trade, and stated that "The FCO should publish clear and measurable objectives for its work at the UN".

Citing our evidence, it also had this to say on the impact of global power shifts on human rights:

The human rights backlash is accompanied by a broader shift in power towards the Global South. The P5 have lost credibility, and the General Assembly has become more assertive. A wider range of countries are growing adept at using the human rights system, albeit often for political ends. This broader engagement is welcome, but there is a risk that it could strengthen the sceptics. In our inquiry into the UK’s failed re-election campaign to the ICJ, witnesses pointed—among other factors—to a decline in respect for the Security Council among the UN membership, a wish by some to attack the privileges of the P5, and a lack of UK influence in the General Assembly. When we asked whether the FCO should shift resources away from the Security Council to build relationships with smaller states in the General Assembly, former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen said: “We have to do both and we have to staff up the UN”.