Source: The Jakarta Post 1-6-2005
Restoring the moral authority of the UN
Omar Halim, Jakarta
With 191 members, the United Nations is considered the world's most universal organization.
With its wide-ranging activities and programs which touch on practically every aspect of human
life, the organization had been considered by people of the world, especially in developing
countries, as very relevant. In the developing countries, the United Nations had always been held
in very high esteem, and this is still true in respect to those bodies assisting them in the
humanitarian, economic and social fields.
In the political field, when the North was still bi-polar, the United Nations was used by the East,
West and South blocs, particularly in the General Assembly, as a forum for political infighting. In
general, the Eastern bloc collaborated with the South to face the Western bloc. The impact on the
real world, however, was limited because United Nations resolutions were in general not binding.
In the security field, the United Nations was used by the two super powers to play a very crucial,
albeit very limited, role. This was, for example, why traditional peacekeeping missions were
established, i.e. to prevent further escalation of the confrontations being waged by them. Under
such circumstances, the United Nations had to adhere to the strict principle of impartiality in order
to be effective.
To this day, traditional peacekeeping missions such as UNDOF (Golan), UNMOGIP (Kashmir),
and UNFICYP (Cyprus) could be considered effective because they are straight forward missions
separating the forces of the antagonists who, in turn, are in control of their respective forces on
the ground. Their success in these areas has been due to the respect and the required authority -
- moral authority -- based on the application of the principle of impartiality.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the leadership of the United Nations, and the Security
Council, began to lose this impartiality. On the ground, the United Nations has been losing its
moral authority, as shown in the failure of its mission in Somalia in 1993 and later evidenced by
the killing of the head of the United Nations mission in Iraq in 2003.
The United Nations does not have the political, military or economic power to assert its authority,
so when it loses its moral authority, its role becomes marginal. This is aggravated by serious
mistakes made due to incompetence or indifference, such as in Srebrenica and Rwanda.
The objectives of the United Nations, as enshrined in its Charter, are inter alia to establish peace
and security; uphold human rights, dignity and freedom; equality of human-beings and nations;
and to promote social progress and better standards of life. These are lofty ideals worthy of this
very important institution. When I entered the service of the United Nations nearly forty years ago,
staff members were inculcated with the ideals of working for a unique organization serving all
In the Charter of the United Nations, the "paramount consideration in the employment of the
staff...shall be the necessity of securing the highest standards of efficiency, competence, and
integrity" (Article 101). In short, efficient, competent staff members with the highest standard of
integrity are asked to serve, under the direction of the secretary-general, for the betterment of
human race and the world they live in. The staff and the secretary-general should be on the same
team and have a common goal in their work.
Unfortunately, often the United Nations management acts as if the staff works for the bosses, and
the bosses are the ones who work for humankind. Management-staff relations are put in the
same footing as that of any corporation -- staff is seen as potentially adversarial. The secretary-
general does not perhaps realize that, on the ground, the performance of the United Nations is
based solely on the attitude and performance of its staff.
Grave wrong-doings by senior staff in the last few years, such as sexual harassment by high-
ranking staff and peacekeepers, have apparently been ignored or covered up, to the extent that
the Staff Union passed a no-confidence resolution regarding the Secretary-General for the first
time in the history of the United Nations. Corruption and nepotism regarding the Iraq Oil-for-Food
program have recently been uncovered by a highly respected panel appointed by the secretary-
general himself. This is in contradiction to the ideal of good governance the United Nations itself
has often espoused.
It is not so much a legal issue of whether the Secretary-General was aware of the payment made
to his son by a firm that was awarded a contract by the United Nations. All this has now become a
very serious political liability for the United Nations and this, in turn, has eroded its moral authority
even further. The world expects that the respect and authority of the United Nations have to be
The next secretary-general should have very strong political backing from the European Union
and, of course, have the support from the United States, the Russian Federation and China. He
or she should assume office as soon as possible and promise to serve only one five-year term.
The tasks are to restore the principle of impartiality in the work of the United Nations; to radically
streamline and restructure the secretariat, and to appoint efficient and competent staff with the
highest standards of integrity. He or she should not seek reelection. The United Nations will thus
be in a much better position to serve humankind well into the 21st century.
The writer is a retired senior staff member of the United Nations who served the organization for
over 28 years, and now resides in Jakarta, Indonesia.