New Opportunities for the UN, September 2003

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For InterPress Service
© Hazel Henderson, September 2003
(word count 1,152)



The Iraq debacle is providing a historic opportunity to implement long sought, widely supported reforms needed for the UN – to assure its independence and its vital role in this new century.

The breakdown in the Security Council over the US war on Iraq illustrated its obsolete aspects. An anachronism of the post-World War II era, its permanent five members: the USA, Britain, France, China and Russia with their veto power, finally demonstrated all its dysfunctional aspects.

Most reformers agree on the indispensability of the Security Council – and the shape and direction of needed reforms. The Council needs to dispense finally with the veto – a relic nod to the winners of World War II. Then the permanent seats can be rearranged to accommodate important new world players, including India, Brasil, Japan, South Africa and newly democratic Indonesia with the world’s largest Muslim population. To keep the Council’s size manageable, the seats of Britain and France could be combined into one rotating seat representing the European Union.

Another long sought security reform – more necessary than ever in a world of terrorism and asymmetrical threats – is a standing UN peace-keeping and humanitarian force – properly trained and ready to meet security threats and natural disasters. Together with INTERPOL, this professional unit could proactively monitor terrorist groups.

Funding of these functions and all UN humanitarian and development operations need no longer rely only on dues from its member countries. The recalcitrance of the USA, which still owes the UN over $500 million in back dues, has shown that new, more reliable sources of funds are needed. A smaller contribution from the USA is also desirable to reduce its influence.

The UN, with its miniscule $1.25 billion annual budget (one quarter of New York City’s) can tap a wide variety of new financing sources. Many of these are promoted by the increasingly powerful global NGO community and public policy networks. Many were submitted and documented in the PrepCom reports of the UN Summit on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, March 2002. These included very small fees (1% or less) on the $1.5 trillion of daily currency transactions, which could yield several hundred billion dollars annually. This feasible system would serve the additional purposes of reducing speculation (90% of these transactions) while reducing these destructive flows of “hot money” destabilizing member countries’ domestic economies.

Other equally viable, well-researched proposals include taxing global transportation and airline tickets (which do not currently include their full social and environmental costs) and authorizing the UN to sell bonds in the same way as the World Bank is funded. Many a grandparent would thus be able to help assure a more peaceful future for their grandchildren. The well-assessed proposal to recast security from exclusively military means to insurance and risk-assessment modalities – more suitable for today’s Information Age world – is a United Nations Security Insurance Agency (UNSIA) as an arm of the Security Council.

The UNSIA would provide a new line of business to the insurance industry: assessing risks and writing policies for those countries applying to UNSIA for guaranteed and timely peace-keeping and humanitarian assistance when under domestic and foreign threats. Many countries have seen the benefits to Costa Rica in abolishing its military in 1947. Diverting such expenditures to investments in human and social capital has catapulted Costa Rica to “first world” status on the UN’s Human Development Index. The premiums from these insurance policies would fund the Security Council’s need for rapid deployment, standing peace keeping and humanitarian contingents. These contingents would continue to be trained and provided by willing member countries, such as Canada and others.

All such viable proposals for diversifying the UN’s funding base have been thoroughly researched and many, such as UNSIA, are supported by several Nobel Peace Laureates. Why have they been waiting for implementation for so many years – even decades? First, Cold War politics and later, they incurred the strenuous disapproval of now retired US Senator Jesse Helms and other right-wing politicians in the USA. Powerful financial interests opposed greater power-sharing between the UN and its two breakaway financial agencies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund charged with enforcing “Washington Consensus” economic policies on developing countries. Such opposition is now discredited.

Even as many of these same funding proposals were re-asserted in the UN Financing for Development PrepComs by global NGOs and developing countries of the G-77, they were quietly vetoed by US Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte, on orders from the Bush Administration. Today, Bush’s popularity is waning rapidly, 54% rating his job as fair to poor (Reuters-Zogby, Sept. 2003).

Near majorities now repudiate the unilateralist, preemptive strike policies of Bush and his neo-con cabinet: Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and their entrepreneurial “eminence grise” Richard Perle (still a member for the Defense Policy Board, despite numerous revelations of financial conflicts of interest). The deficit-ridden US economy with its high unemployment level is now the key concern of voters. Bush’s disastrous policies have led to the return of the Taliban and warlordism in Afghanistan and the deepening quagmire in Iraq.

The world sees again the indispensable role of the UN – the only forum that can convene all the world’s nations. Even the Bush Administration, now deeply divided, is seeking UN help. The US now seeks “burden sharing” in paying for its ill-considered adventure in Iraq. Only the UN can legitimize reluctant member nations’ involvement in re-building Iraq.

The US President ‘s father, George H.W. Bush may help his son realize that the UN is never likely to be “irrelevant.” Secretary-General Kofi Annan has deftly guided the UN through these latest storms – in spite of charges of bending too much to US pressure. Annan has introduced many innovations, including his UN Global Compact’s nine principles of good corporate citizenship on human rights, labor standards and the environment, now signed by over 1000 corporations globally.

Today, even as it mourns, there is a new era of opportunities opening to revitalize the UN. All these new funding sources and renewed global goodwill can expand confidence in the world body. Even 63% of the US public is still solidly behind the UN taking the lead in global security and peacekeeping. Enacting these reforms would be a fitting epitaph to the thousands of Afghans, Iraqis, Liberians and other innocents, as well as a tribute to all the world’s displaced refugees, abused women and hungry children.

There is no shortage of funds in the world – only misplaced priorities, defunct economic ideologies and bloated weapons budgets. One quarter of global weapons spending – together with some of the international taxes on speculators and other abusers of our global commons – could provide the world with needed public goods: peace-keeping, health and education for all, cleaner air and water, environmental restoration, and millions of new jobs and livelihoods. Globalization can be humanized. The World Social Forum has shown that another world is possible – and achievable!


Hazel Henderson, author of Beyond Globalization and other books.  She co-edited The UN: Policy and Financing Alternatives, Elsevier, UK (1995) with Harlan Cleveland and Inge Kaul, in which these proposals are detailed.