Recent columns by Barbara Crossette:
Arab Women Leaders Exerting Growing Influence at UN
(March 1, 2004)
"If leading Arab women at the United Nations seem to be in the background, that is no reflection of a meekness or deference to male-dominated cultures."
Saving the U.N. From Utah
(February 23, 2004)
"What is it with Utah?... Some local politicians have become convinced that the United Nations has caused the United States to 'lose' every war since World War II."
As Chile Reaches High Development Level, UN Shifts Strategy
(February 17, 2004)
"While the world may hear more from Brazil, a much larger nation in both land and population, Chile ... cannot be underestimated as a potential hemispheric leader or an important voice for the wider global South."
The Cost of U.N. Whistleblowing
(February 9, 2004)
"Three whistleblowers whose warnings helped draw attention to incompetence and abuses.... all lost their jobs, unfairly, because they complained."
Those U.N. Inspectors Were Not Wrong About Iraq
(February 2, 2004)
"The crucial question not being asked is why the public or the media should be surprised and outraged by Kay's empty-handed return from Iraq. The answer is that nobody bothered to ask the real experts—those maligned U.N. arms inspectors, who could have predicted all this more than a year ago."
Much of World's Conflict Fueled by Small Arms
(January 28, 2004)
"In the heightened climate of fear over more spectacular strikes by international terrorists, it is difficult to convince nations that the threat of ordinary guns should not be overlooked."
Breathing New Life Into an Old Federation
(January 13, 2004)
"A little more than three years ago, a few prominent Americans thought it was time to reinvigorate the World Federation of United Nations Associations, a body created in 1946."
More from U.N. Notebook.
U.N. Notebook | March 8, 2004
Putting ECOSOC Back in the Loop
by Barbara Crossette
UNITED NATIONS—In 1945, two important councils of nations were created at the heart of the United Nations. The Security Council, charged with keeping the peace, has rarely been out of the limelight since—certainly not in the last 10 or 15 years. However, its twin, the Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC, sank into obscurity over the decades, upstaged not only by the Security Council but also the General Assembly and a host of agencies and programs working on what should have been primarily ECOSOC's issues: development, health and human rights.
Those Americans who are perennially outraged by events around the United Nations are more often than not shocked by decisions made by ECOSOC's commissions or committees—on human rights, women's rights, sustainable development and such—or annoyed with the council's control over nongovernmental organizations' access to U.N. conferences. For many outsiders, the conduct of ECOSOC, where blocs of nations can gang up to prevent effective action on a range of subjects, is the epitome of international politicking gone wildly awry.
Presidents of ECOSOC, chosen annually by its 54 member nations, come and go, often arriving with high hopes and leaving with frustrations.
This year, a president with exceptional qualifications holds the chair, and she—the first woman elected to the post—has some innovative ideas about revitalizing the council. The new president, Ambassador Marjatta Rasi of Finland, was her country's director general for international development cooperation and humanitarian assistance before being assigned to New York as ambassador four years ago. A career diplomat, she had also been ambassador to India, where she picked up valuable development experience in the field. As head of Finland's mission in New York, she became known for her businesslike manner and boundless curiosity about all phases of U.N. life.
In an interview in her mission office, a showcase of Finnish contemporary design, she said that like other European diplomats (and others) she believes that reforming the United Nations means much more than just reconfiguring the Security Council, the focus of most current attention because of its central role in the battle over how to proceed in Iraq. All the component parts need attention, she says.
What went wrong with ECOSOC? Is it numbers? The council grew from 18 members in 1945 to 27 in 1965 and 54 in 1973.
"Some of our colleagues argue that it's too big, because if you are 15 or maybe even 20-plus, you could have serious discussions and negotiations," Rasi said. "On the other hand, there are many member states who consider ECOSOC too small because they believe that all these matters, the economic issues, should be discussed in the General Assembly, and all member states should be part of these very, very important discussions."
Unlike many of her predecessors as ECOSOC president, however, she doesn't narrow her efforts on her office alone. Sharing Secretary General Kofi Annan's perception that what is needed are fewer fiefdoms and more interaction in the organization, she wants to bring ECOSOC back into the loop by forging links with her counterparts in the General Assembly, whose president is also elected annually, and the Security Council, where the presidency rotates month by month.
"I would like to have very serious discussions with the president of the General Assembly and the Security Council," Rasi said. "Why is it that we can't have more cooperation? We all emphasize that we all must work in coherence. But when it comes to the issues, then it's difficult. Like today, Haiti is very much on the agenda. ECOSOC has been dealing with Haiti, as has the General Assembly and the Security Council, and now it seems to be on everybody's agenda. We should very carefully coordinate when, or if, the time comes [that] the U.N. is required to do something in Haiti."
Rasi also wants to plug ECOSOC into the work of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and other U.N. bodies working in economic development.
"ECOSOC, unfortunately, has always been looked down on a little bit," she said. "If you read the U.N. Charter, it's a very important U.N. body but somehow its relevance doesn't match."
Critics would say that is because the council marginalized itself under the influence, on one hand, of a group of developing nations opposed to the leading industrial countries and the policies they promoted. On the other hand, the United States has occasionally aligned itself with conservative Islamic governments and the Vatican to slow movement on issues such as women's rights or AIDS education. Few nations are blameless here.
Arid stalemate and growing irrelevance are the result. ECOSOC's issues get taken over by others at a time when the overworked Security Council should be sending some problems to ECOSOC instead.
"One role we are at least starting to do well is our cooperation with the Bretton Woods institutions," Rasi said, referring to the World Bank and IMF. That new cooperation includes consultations on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, set at a U.N. summit in 2000, and how to get action on a plan for financing development proposed at another summit in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002. An annual spring ECOSOC meeting now takes place with the Bretton Woods institutions and WTO.
"It has become quite an important event," she said.
Rasi hopes to bring the same coherence to what some would call the runaway ECOSOC commissions by instituting regular meetings between her office and the various commission heads and getting them all to think together about concrete ways to deal with the social and economic problems that can lead to civil wars and terrorism. In July, the ministerial-level meeting of ECOSOC will be built around the needs of the least developed countries.
"We all know that more than 70 percent of the U.N.'s work is social or economic," she said. "But media, for some reason, is only interested in Iraq, and the Middle East. So this kind of work is mainly invisible work. When you talk about Millennium Development Goals or the Monterrey consensus it's not very dramatic or media attractive. But when you see what the U.N. is doing in the economic and social field, it really helps the lives of thousands and thousands of people."
ECOSOC needs to return to the fore.
"I think that with very intensive work, we can make a difference," Rasi said. "But it won't happen overnight."
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More on foreign affairs in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic
Barbara Crossette, a writer on foreign affairs and columnist for U.N. Wire, was The New York Times bureau chief at the United Nations from 1994 to 2001. U.N. Wire is a free daily online news service covering news about and
related to the United Nations. It is sponsored by the U.N. Foundation and
appears on the foundation site, but is produced independently by The National
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