UNITED NATIONS – In 2005, the United Nations delivered 1,200 reports on issues from Guinea-Bissau to the rights of women in the developing world. Its human rights office alone produced 44,000 pages of documents — which in turn had to be translated into six official languages.
Such a huge volume of information, and the bureaucracy needed to produce it, threatens to overwhelm the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a study released Thursday. The 191 member states must fund the things they ask for, and stop demanding so much if the world body is to live up to the ideals and promises of its founders, he said.
The analysis, detailed in a dense 44-page report of its own, urges a sweeping overhaul of the giant U.N. bureaucracy that has become a favorite target of U.N. critics who question the necessity for all those reports, statements, conferences and expert panels.
"There is only so much that Secretary-General and senior managers can effectively deliver and manage, especially when they are asked to do so within limited resources," Annan told member states as he unveiled the study. He cited the famous French saying, "Gouverner, c'est choisir" — to govern is to choose.
The candid study shines a spotlight on the size and intricacy of the U.N. bureaucracy, which has come over the last 60 years to include dozens of committees that often do the same thing or are tasked with studying issues no longer relevant.
The document is the latest element of a reform agenda that Annan unveiled in March, 2005 to make the United Nations more effective. World leaders approved many of his suggestions at a summit in September — and nations have gone on to create a Human Rights Council and a Peacebuilding Commission.
At the heart of the study was a request from the September summit to review any U.N. mandate that is more than five years old to see whether it could be eliminated or streamlined. The study defines a mandate as anything that the General Assembly, the Security Council, or any other relevant U.N. body has asked the Secretariat to do — whether to create a peacekeeping mission, report on the state of Iraq or hold a conference, among many other things.
In all, there are currently 9,000 active mandates, U.N. officials said, and many of them are redundant. The report said many U.N. bodies essentially are asked to do the same work and too little money is spent to monitor whether they're effective. Requests are unclear and don't say who ought to fulfill them.
Annan recalled that his predecessor, Dag Hammarskjold, had conducted a mandate review in 1954, just nine years after the U.N. was founded, and warned that the body could only do so much.
"'Today, even more than in 1954, member states find it hard to cope with the mass of documentation that they themselves request — and this in turn makes it harder for them to oversee the organization effectively," Annan said.
The study asks the General Assembly to reconsider a practice by which it renews mandates each year often simply because they've done it that way for decades, regardless of whether the things they're requesting have any use.
One example the report cites is the General Assembly yearly request for notification of nuclear tests, even though the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty outlawed them.
The report warns that by asking for so many things, the General Assembly risks diminishing the importance of each one. It mentions the U.N. General Assembly's penchant for designating days or years to highlight a special occasion or issue.
For example, the General Assembly has declared 2008 both the Year of Planet Earth, to promote the Earth sciences, and the Year of the Potato, to focus attention on the potato's importance as a food source.
"The large number of observances dilutes their significance, forces the United Nations to choose which to celebrate, and makes the Organization vulnerable to the criticism that it wastes resources on programs that have no real impact on people's lives," the study said.
Annan left it up to members to take the next step and start trimming away mandates that are no longer needed. But he acknowledged it won't be easy, particularly because the General Assembly often has no machinery in place to evaluate whether a mandate it has created has been fulfilled.
"This is an exercise that will prove complex, intensive, and, at times, daunting," the study said.