A New Secretary-General, January 1, 2017: Let the Honeymoon for UN Reform Begin



19 Sepember 2016:  In an essay in the International Peace Institute's Global ObservatoryFUNDS Co-Director Thomas G. Weiss and Tatiana Carayannis recommend that the next UN Secretary-General  -- whoever is ultimately selected -- uses the honeymoon period of their first months in office to enact catalytic changes in favour of institutional reform.

Last year was a banner one for progress on multilateral norms, with adoptions of the Paris climate change agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It was also a notable year for a different multilateral genre: UN reform proposals. Three blockbuster reviews of UN peace operations and architecture were completed—the High-Level Independent Panel on UN Peace Operations (HIPPO), the Advisory Group of Experts on Peacebuilding, and the UN Global Study on Women, Peace and Security.

The bottom line was clear: dramatic changes are imperative in UN headquarters and the field if the world organization is to respond to the 21st century’s complex threats.

The stage was set for 2016, only the second time—the first was in 1996—that the campaigns for the United States president and the UN secretary-general would run in parallel. Both have been protracted. As the race to become the ninth secretary-general heats up, it is important to remember an essential consideration: on January 1, 2017, a “honeymoon” begins.

After the drawn-out campaign, the incoming leader is likely to benefit from a residue of member states’ good will.  But how the secretary-general opts to use the window of opportunity is as important as having an open window. As history shows, not all honeymoon reforms are the right ones at the right time.

The new occupant of the UN’s top floor requires more than anything else to have an overarching vision about institutional reform, rather than to waste the opportunity by choosing low-hanging fruit or merely reacting to member state initiatives. It would be preferable to identify one or two manageable and catalytic changes for the first six months rather than dozens that wreak havoc.

The election of a new UN secretary-general provides the occasion to rekindle optimism about the potential for multilateral cooperation. Ban Ki-moon’s replacement must appreciate the flaws in the structure and staffing of the dysfunctional UN family but have the knowledge, determination, and—dare we say—charisma and guts to undertake the Sisyphean task of reforming them.

The essay is available in full on The Global Observatory website.

Thomas G. Weiss is co-Director of the FUNDS Project, and Presidential Professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Tatiana Carayannis is Deputy Director of the Conflict Prevention and Peace Forum at the Social Science Research Council.

This essay is based on a forthcoming article, “Windows of Opportunity for UN Reform: Historical Insights for the Next Secretary-General."


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