NEW YORK – Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was forced to drop a key reform proposal that would have merged the important U.N. departments dealing with political affairs and disarmament because of opposition from a powerful bloc of developing countries, U.N. diplomats said.
Ban, who took over the reins of the United Nations on Jan. 1, proposed the merger as part of a restructuring of the U.N. Secretariat.
But the powerful Nonaligned Movement, representing 118 mainly developing countries who account for over 60 percent of the U.N.'s membership, objected to merging political affairs and disarmament and sent its troika — current president Cuba, past president Malaysia and next president Egypt — to tell the secretary-general, Egypt's U.N. Ambassador Maged Abedelaziz said.
On Thursday, Ban sent his chief of staff Vijay Nambiar to a closed-door meeting with the group, known as the NAM, with a new proposal that would keep the two departments separate.
Under the new proposal, Abdelaziz said, the Department of Political Affairs would remain as it is now, a separate department headed by an undersecretary-general. The Department for Disarmament Affairs would keep its structure but become part of the Office of the Secretary-General and be headed by a lower-ranking assistant secretary-general who would be the special representative of the secretary-general for disarmament, he said in an interview.
Disarmament is an especially sensitive issue for the NAM, the vast majority of whose members do not possess nuclear weapons.
Some nuclear "have-nots" complain that the nuclear-weapons states are moving much too slowly toward disarmament, which is called for in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. They point to U.S. President George W. Bush's rejection of the nuclear test-ban treaty and his administration's pursuit of new nuclear weapons.
The United States insists that its disarmament record is good and has called for stepped-up international efforts on nonproliferation to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. As a result of these differences, global disarmament negotiations are virtually deadlocked.
Complicating Ban's proposal was the widespread speculation that a merged department of political affairs and disarmament would be headed by an American.
The United States is pushing for its ambassador to Indonesia, B. Lynn Pascoe, to be the next political affairs chief and Washington has been lobbying for disarmament to be added to the job, U.N. diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.
A merger "is going to overpoliticization," Egypt's Abdelaziz said, "and particularly if somebody from a nuclear weapon state will occupy the Department of Political Affairs."
"This will ... further politicize the issue of nuclear disarmament, and affect the balance between nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation," he said, adding that it would also affect the balance of weapons.
"So we were against the idea of merger ... and we informed the secretary-general in our capacity as the troika of NAM of that," Abdelaziz said.
Asked about the NAM's reaction to the new disarmament proposal put forward by Nambiar, diplomats said there was general agreement that it was better than a merger, but some countries were apprehensive about Ban's motive and timing. Several said Ban should have presented the proposal himself — and not sent his chief of staff.
Abdelaziz said NAM was still considering the new proposal.
He said it "could fly" if disarmament keeps its budget and if the change does not affect the department's work. The new assistant secretary-general must also have the same power as the current undersecretary-general and ensure "that disarmament will remain ... at the forefront of the agenda of the international community."
Ban told reporters last week that he would seek to strengthen the U.N. Secretariat's operations so it can respond to the demands of the 21st century. He said Wednesday after meeting U.S. congressional leaders that the United Nations will see a series of reforms and be "reborn" under new leadership.
Ban said he began consultations with member states on Jan. 11 "about a possible restructuring of departments and offices related to peace and security."
The secretary-general has also proposed splitting the growing and overburdened U.N. peacekeeping department, which is running 18 missions around the world with nearly 100,000 peacekeepers.
Under his proposal, one peacekeeping department would focus on operations and the other on management, procurement and logistics. Both would be headed by undersecretaries-general.
But Abdelaziz said the operations chief would report to the Department of Political Affairs and the Security Council. He said the lines of command would be clarified in a report.
Diplomats say the current Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guehenno of France is expected to get the operations job while Japan appears to be the frontrunner for the second peacekeeping job.
The 192-member General Assembly must approve any changes in the U.N.'s structure — and until it takes action Ban won't be able to make new appointments.
Abdelaziz said Nambiar stressed that Ban did not want to go to the U.N. budget committee and ask for extra money for a new undersecretary-general post. The Egyptian envoy said he believes that is why Ban wants the disarmament position downgraded to assistant secretary-general.