Back to top anchor

United Nations Association of New Zealand

Issue date: 
Friday, 25 May 2001
The Hon Dame Silvia Cartwright, PCNZM, DBE, QSO

After years of build-up we have finally tiptoed tentatively into the 21st Century. The sheer novelty of this artificial event spawned intensive navel-gazing internationally, albeit at different times as the world swung through the heavens.

That no joyous or cataclysmic events occurred is really no surprise. Most of humanity left such superstition behind hundreds of years ago. Old habits die hard, however, and we have been inundated with retrospective analyses of the past millennium and prognostications for the future.

Into this void I hesitate to enter to discuss the United Nations for the 21st Century. Nonetheless I have never lacked for courage or, at least, more likely, I have rarely seen where chasms lie ahead. So let me start first with a quick review of what I see as the highlights of the United Nations since the Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights were developed.

To me it remains extraordinary that the world's nations with all their variety, with their enmities and alliances, with their differing languages and cultures, and their suspicions of each other, actually want to continue to gather to discuss the setting of standards and the solving of regional and international problems.

While not wishing to trivialise the rich and colourful, but sometimes eternal and apparently fruitless discussions that occur at United Nations Headquarters and elsewhere, I have paraphrased Samuel Johnson's aphorism:

"A [United Nations] is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all".

Born out of idealism and a fervent desire to avoid repeating the horrors of the Second World War, the United Nations as an organisation has struggled against enormous obstacles, adapted to new political conditions and has retained a degree of respect which is surprising, to say the least.

So like a Court system, the question is not whether we would, today, establish a United Nations, it is more whether we would establish one with the present structure. There can be no doubt that without the institution there would be more conflict in the world. Nations would misinterpret the actions and words of other States and there would be no negotiator, no means by which to apply peer pressure, and no venue within which to resolve disputes with dignity and the retention of State pride.

While we might more frequently see scenes of a United States President standing between the Heads of two States at war, and by sheer force of will or the subtle suggestion of loss of foreign aid, ensuring that a fragile agreement is achieved, the President of the United States of America does have a day job and no real infrastructure or political need to police all of the world's conflicts.

And at the level of the individual, and due to the constraints of the English alphabet, it can do no harm to see diplomats from Iran and Iraq seated together, or Nicaragua and New Zealand, Egypt and Ethiopia elbow-to-elbow sipping coffee.

There are, of course, huge anomalies and problems for the future that support my suggestion that, had the world's nations decided to establish the United Nations at the beginning of this millennium, it is very unlikely that the structure would have been as it is now. Excluding nations such as the Federal Republic of Germany and Japan from the Security Council as permanent members was perhaps understandable over fifty years ago, and possibly nobody dreamt that they would each become the great powers that they have.

So I suggest that there are a number of issues which are currently clearly identifiable, and which will become of pressing concern in the next decades.

Perhaps the best known is the move to 'restructure' the United Nations. I do not fully understand all the issues but like most in this room, I am well aware that proposals to reform the Security Council, to downsize the administration and reduce the political nepotism that occurs in the making of appointments, and Treaty Body reform, are likely candidates for some fascinating battles.

There is neither the time, and nor do I have the detailed inside knowledge to discuss the politics surrounding the composition of the Security Council. As an observer however, I have superficial knowledge of the UN bureaucracy at work, and somewhat more detailed information about proposals for reform of the Treaty Body system.

The UN Bureaucracy

To a New Zealander, now long accustomed to institutions that operate on a bare-bones budget and in which officials must be multi-skilled, the bureaucracy of the United Nations seems vastly overblown.

To the most casual observer, the system which has an army of people who sit in cubby holes handing out documents, guard conference room doors, and put up name plates on the podium when a new speaker arrives, seems geared towards employing huge numbers to do the most trivial jobs.

Then there are the highly skilled interpreters who sit silent in booths because nobody requires Russian translation that day. There are the inevitable mind-numbing delays as documents are translated before any discussion of their contents can start, and the myriad of mysterious experts who sit on the podium in case their advice is required.

One cannot help but reluctantly agree with the United States of America that the UN bureaucracy is bloated. It is probably also self-perpetuating and, like a giant machine out of control, unable to be turned around readily.

To me one key is the failure to adapt to new technology. The whole process is heavily dependent on paper, usually despatched from New York by surface mail, to land on my desk in Auckland in a sack, having come via London, and taking six to eight weeks to descend. I haul this paper back across the world only to find it duplicated by a mountain of identical documents on my desk in the Conference room.

Recently installed e-mail access to officials could make a huge difference but that depends on whether they answer your messages. The real problem is, I think, associated with the archaic and ponderous structures of the United Nations.

Care is taken to ensure that officials are hired from across the member States of the United Nations, to ensure good representation. This is a laudable object but does not always mean that the best candidate is selected. And once hired, there appear to be real difficulties in disposing of those who turn out to be incompetent or lazy.

In my limited experience I have found that within a group, one or two will be able and willing to offer efficient and intelligent service, while the others, who no doubt are equally capable, either choose not to assist through arrogance or ennui or are away on missions or holidays so often that access to them is difficult.

The fundamental difficulty, however, is that the United Nations is just that. It is an organisation developed by the nations of the world whose structures are controlled by the nations of the world. This precludes the simple solution of putting in a new CEO with a mandate to bring the organisation into the 20th Century before the 21st Century expires. Efforts to improve processes and create efficiencies, themselves take time to discuss and to implement. Staff morale suffers and while attempts to modernise the systems are made, existing work is endangered in part because of the reluctance of the United States of America and other states to pay their full dues.

But the need for reform is urgent. Unless there is reform more fundamental issues will arise. It appears to me, first, that too much of the money given to the United Nations for it to pay for its extensive responsibilities is spent on the bureaucracy. It is not surprising that States are reluctant to pay if a significant portion of every dollar goes to the process rather than the substance of the work.

More disquieting, however, are the stories of the way in which some UN workers arriving in troubled areas live in what, to the locals, are luxurious conditions, while they continue to scrape by at subsistence level, and cope with the horrors of the conflict or other civil disturbances that brought the UN workers there in the first place.

In East Timor, for example, I continue to hear stories of excellent progress in the "bricks and mortar" infrastructure, but a farmer cannot get her coffee crop to the market for the second year in a row because she doesn't have a truck and cannot afford to pay [to her] huge hiring fees that the Australia vehicle rental company demands.

Having said all that, it must be acknowledged that the skill level of the average UN worker is high. It is, however, an enormously cumbersome organisation which would be transformed if modern business practices were implemented, improving morale, improving working conditions, and down-sizing to rid the organisation of time servers and incompetents.

This will be one of the greatest challenges facing the member states.

The Human Rights Treaty Bodies

Over the last five years there have been several reviews of the manner in which Human Rights Treaty Bodies operate. Speaking as one who has served for eight years on the Committee to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women, I see a serious need for reform. As Professor Ann Bayefski reported in April of this year -

"The Human Rights Treaties are at the core of the international system for the promotion and protection of human rights. Every UN Member State is a party to one or more of the six major human rights treaties. 80% of States have ratified four or more. It is a universal human rights legal system, which applies to virtually every child, woman or man in the world - over six billion people. Yet human rights violations are rampant. The need is to make the human rights treaties effective in the life of every day people. The problem is that the implementation scheme accompanying the core human rights standards was drafted during the period of history when effective international monitoring was neither intended nor achieveable."

Professor Bayefski speaks of "the gap between universal right and remedy[having] become inescapable and inexcusable, threatening the integrity of the international human rights legal regime"

She notes, as other commentators have done, the overwhelming numbers of overdue reports, untenable backlogs, minimal individual complaints from vast numbers of potential victims and widespread refusal of States to provide remedies when violations of individual rights are found.

In her report, produced in collaboration with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, she recommends that States parties submit one consolidated report applicable to all treaties which they have ratified and various common sense management techniques including a far greater role for the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Co-ordination, for example, in the management of the various complaints mechanisms is recommended. And this seems to me to be a basic improvement when several Treaty Bodies have their own mechanisms and each is administered independently even in the face of the marked overlap in the complaints being lodges. So it is possible that two Treaty Bodies might be seized of a complaint that has both race and gender at its core.

Without exploring in any great detail the types of recommendations that have been made, I can say in summary, that they reflect a straightforward approach to a burgeoning problem. If the treaty bodies are to have a useful role in the monitoring of compliance with the six treaties, consolidation, reform and above all, measures to follow up compliance are essential.

A glimpse into the future

Setting aside the question of reform of the lumbering body that is the United Nations, let me look briefly into the future. If even moderate reforms are carried out, the United Nations will become a more dynamic body, able to target its work to the areas where there is greatest need or where there is the greatest likelihood of positive results.

The Specialized Agencies of the United Nations already do some remarkable work. We need reflect only on the role played by the ILO, UNESCO, and the World Health Organisation to appreciate that without these organs millions would be much worse off. And when one considers United Nations' programmes and organs such as that administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the UNDP, or UNICEF, one rapidly reaches the same conclusion.

These are the bodies that need ongoing support and the funding to ensure that the work continues as efficiently as possible. In the coming decades we can only hope that the problems of great movements of refugees across borders or internal migration will diminish. But the likelihood is faint as new types of refugee groups emerge, such as those women and children who have been trafficked for the sex industry or for slave labour.

And as the calendar pages turn to the new millennium, increasingly nations are focussing attention on peace negotiations and peacekeeping. Without the United Nation's ability to draw together disparate States to assist in these roles, peacekeeping forces would be difficult to muster.

There are two groups, often allied, which I consider will have a greater impact politically through the United Nations in the next decades. The first, predictably enough, is women. The United Nations bureaucracy is already under serious pressure to hire more women, given its abysmal record in this regard.

Currently, women hold some High Commissioner posts and other influential roles, but the search is always on to find well qualified women to take senior positions in the organisation.

As independent members of treaty bodies, however, with the exception of the Committee of CEDAW, women are very much in the minority. States Parties, therefore have an obligation to put forward qualified women to stand for election to the Human Rights Treaty Bodies and, of course, to other positions within the UN organisation.

The other groups to which I refer are of course, the indefatigable non-governmental organisations. Without NGOs, chivvying, assisting, influencing, and lobbying, I believe that the United Nations would be a far less effective body.

I do not profess to have extensive experience, but my impression of the NGOs working at the UN Headquarters in New York is of mainly highly qualified people, who are committed to change, and to supporting the UN system.

Without the NGOs, however, the dislocation between the UN and the millions of people it is supposed to be serving would be far greater. The NGOs bring the voices of the people to the bureaucrats and to the world leaders.

There is a vibrancy and raw energy about many of these groups. In my view, had it not been for women's NGO groups, there would, for example never have been an Optional Protocol which provides a complaints mechanism to CEDAW.

Of course it is arguable whether this was the most efficient and effective move to take, but without an enforcement mechanism, CEDAW will remain one of the weaker treaties in the UN system, a fact of which women NGO's throughout the world were keenly aware.

As civil society becomes more and more powerful within the UN system, I predict that many of the problems to which I have referred will begin to be solved. NGOs will not put up with money being wasted on bureaucracy. They are frequently grass roots workers who know how to manage money to best effect. They will not stay silent while nepotism occurs. They will lobby to ensure that the people who they think will best serve the millions without a voice are elected or appointed to pivotal positions, and when the first wave of NGOs have gone over the top and have been defeated by workload, there is always another and bigger wave coming up behind.

Civil society is the real strength behind the United Nations, and given that it is the International Year of the Volunteer, it is even more important that their work is acknowledged.


Like a bee, I have flitted from subject to subject, pausing briefly to extract a little nectar, but more frequently lightly stinging an obstacle in my path. The topic of a United Nations for the 21st Century is a vast and deeply absorbing one. I regret that my discourse has been, of necessity, superficial but hope that I have touched on, albeit fleetingly, a number of topics which might bear more thought.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

Help us improve the Governor-General website

Your feedback is very important in helping us improve the Governor-General website.

12 + 8 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.