The second secretary general of the United Nations (UN), the Swedish, Dag Hammarskjöld, is credited with one of the best definitions of the organization that began 75 years ago in San Francisco: “It has been said that the United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” (Translated from Spanish by Alissa D’Vale). (See Part One 1-. Underestimated importance and 2-. Three founding principles. See Part Two 3-. Need to reform and 4-. Democratic deficit)
5-. The world’s scenario and the most difficult job
In geopolitical terms, the best show in the world is the start of the debates at the United Nations of the General Assembly (UNGA). A date that does not usually disappoint when it comes to providing great moments for history. From Khrushchev’s shoe to the 4-hour and 29-minute speech by Fidel Castro, passing through the Arafat dilemma (olive branch or rifle) or the diabolical sulfur of President Hugo Chávez. Not forgetting the delirious intervention of Gaddafi in September 2009, before the UN General Assembly when he presented himself as “Leader of the revolution of the People’s and Socialist Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, President of the African Union and King of the African Kings.” During his speech, a very harsh one, he mistreated a copy of the United Nations Charter.
The UNGA is the institution that represents the 193 member countries of the UN, all of them with the same weight. Its prerogatives include approving the organization’s budget and adopting global treaties. It can make recommendations, but its resolutions are not mandatory, unlike what is agreed by the Security Council. The ministerial appointment in September is known as the general debate. Days in which New York turns into a security nightmare and a monumental jam.
Due to the pandemic and the limitations of the so-called “new normal”, the 75th anniversary event in Manhattan – which could have included the participation of more than 150 world leaders and an endless number of parallel events – could not be held in its usual format. The Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, has recognized the logistical impossibility of organizing a massive summit of this type, in a city so affected by the coronavirus such as New York. According to Guterres, they were “studying the different alternatives offered by digital technology to hold this General Assembly.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt defined the figure of the United Nations Secretary General as the closest thing to a “world moderator.” The San Francisco Charter itself describes the position as its “highest administrative official.” And the Norwegian, Trygve Lie, the first to carry out those responsibilities starting in 1946, did not hesitate to speak of the most difficult job in the world. An idea of difficulty shared by each and every one of his eight successors.
Corresponding to the trend of an increasingly complex world, all UN Secretary Generals have carried out their responsibilities within an institutional spectrum that ranges from bureaucratic gray to more or less brilliant activism.
This visible position is also the most coveted among all vacancies generated by a variety of intergovernmental organizations operating around the world. Traditionally, the selection has been as opaque as it is close, despite a tacit and respected pattern of regional rotation. This process has not favored the arrival of a woman to this position either, despite the expectations of gender diversity generated in 2016, to succeed South Korean Ban Ki-moon.
The secretary general supervises the United Nations secretariat, which with a staff of 9,000 officials from 170 countries is responsible for carrying out UN operations. Each general secretary has a certain margin of maneuver to organize his administration.
The hiring of fifty high-ranking officials from the UN system is one of his prerogatives. Although there is the obligation to achieve broad regional representations, which requires constant negotiation with the Security Council and the General Assembly; the Secretary General’s responsibilities also include oversight of complex UN peacekeeping missions.
The general secretary has a recognized mediation role between the parties involved in conflicts. With the obligation to use his “good offices”, he must use his prestige, independence and impartiality to prevent, redirect and limit the use of force.
Since 1997, the salary of United Nations general secretaries has been set at $227,253 per year. Compensation completed with an additional budget for personal expenses, an official residence on the East Side of New York and permanent security service.
6-. Viral Paralysis
To the accumulated global disruption of recent years, we must add a health crisis with all kinds of disturbing economic, social and political repercussions. And the UN, as part of that high-risk group, formed by multilateralism and international cooperation, has not been able to avoid the profound impact of the pandemic and the multiplied conflict between the United States and China.
Instead of unity and cooperation, the pandemic is further fueling competition between Washington and Beijing. The People’s Republic of China tries to turn the crisis into an opportunity, while the coronavirus takes its toll on the weaknesses and contradictions of the United States.
And from all the open fronts (geopolitical, commercial, technological, and health), one of the most shameful battlefields would be the UN Security Council, chaired last March by China.
It took almost 90,000 deaths worldwide and infections in more than 180 countries of the 193 members of the UN, for the Security Council to finally meet virtually in May to deliberate on COVID-19. This viral paralysis reflects the extent to which the UN is in danger of falling into irrelevance, especially if it is unable to promote precisely the international cooperation required to face the current crisis that no country will be able to overcome alone.
Before the 75th birthday of the UN, the balance continues to offer more than enough positive elements to justify the repeated cliché that if it did not exist it should be invented.
As Barack Obama said in times more favorable to multilateralism, the United Nations, with all its urgent need for improvements, is still “flawed and indispensable” at the same time.
Perhaps it would only be necessary to learn from the past because the challenges on the table that require international cooperation, as what happened in June 1945, could be spared.
See the full text, Six key points about the UN before its 75th anniversary