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Remarks on U.N. Reform by U.S. Envoy Torsella
U.S. Mission to the United Nations Ambassador Joseph M Torsella
January 24, 2012

U.S. Representative for UN Management and Reform
Delivered at the Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, D.C.


Thank you, Celina, for that introduction and for moderating today. And a warm thanks to all of you for being here, and to the Council for hosting. Ladies and gentlemen, as the United Nations enters the 21st century, the United States is leading the charge to make it more efficient, more accountable, more respected, and more effective.

This Administration believes in UN reform just as it believes in multilateral diplomacy and paying our UN bills on time and in full. And for the same reason. Because a strong, effective UN is critical to American national security. Because – at its best — the UN can help prevent conflict, keep the peace, isolate terrorists and criminals, go where nobody else will to care for the neediest of the world, smooth the channels of global commerce, and promote universal values that Americans hold dear. That’s why the United States led in creating the UN in 1945, and why we continue to lead in renewing the UN today.

With our engagement comes the obligation – and the opportunity – to raise our voice for reform. Because the UN is not always at its best. As President Obama has said, the UN is both “indispensable” and “imperfect.”

My job, by definition, is to address those imperfections. And to do that – to give the UN a better future – we need to first understand its past.

What began as a diplomatic meeting-place for 53 countries, with a small budget for typists and interpreters, is now a vast and diverse public organization, with 193 members most of whom were not even states in 1945. The UN system is involved in everything from feeding malnourished children to ensuring sustainable political transitions to preserving world heritage sites. According to UN figures, the entire UN system is now a $36 billion enterprise, larger than the individual GDPs of half its member states.

Now any large organization has built-in frustrations. On days at the UN when I forget that, I remind myself of the one-page memo it took me seven weeks – and counting – to get approved in the US government. But something bigger than just bigness is at work at the UN.

As the size and scope of what the UN does has grown dramatically, the way the UN does it – the nuts and bolts of running the place – is still, in too many ways, stuck around 1950.

When I say “UN,” of course, we should remember that there are really at least two UNs. One is the UN as a global institution, delivering much-needed services from peacekeeping to humanitarian assistance. The other is the UN as a stage where diplomats represent 193 sovereign nations – and sometimes 193 different viewpoints. One thing that hasn’t changed since 1945 is that when it comes to almost any problem “at the UN,” the member states often blame the institution…and the institution often blames the member states.

Truth is, there’s enough blame to go around. So the responsibility for solutions has to be shared between the two UNs as well.

Neither UN has changed as fast as the world around us has. As the ink was drying on the UN Charter, President Harry Truman said in his closing address at the founding conference in San Francisco, “changing world conditions will require adjustments.” But the chill of the Cold War meant that “world conditions,” in Truman’s phrase, soon became rigid.

And so did much at the UN. When I first arrived in April of last year, I thought the 1950s feeling of the place was merely architectural. But after nine months on the job, I’ve found that, for diplomats and UN officials alike, the retro look too often fits.

At the most visible political level, the way member states too often align themselves in the General Assembly—with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or the “Group of 77” on one side, and the Western countries on the other—reflects an era that no longer exists. In today’s real world, countries from North and South, East and West, bridge regional and traditional divides, build strong bilateral ties, and forge flexible coalitions to promote common interests, particularly in the economic realm. Inter-regional and issues-based groups are the wave of the future, yet the political divides among member states inside the UN is a reflection of the past.

In the UN political bodies, regional rotation schemes, designed initially to give smaller countries an opportunity for leadership in the postwar system, are now one of the biggest blocks to dynamic change. Moreover, when a rotation results – as it did a few months ago – in North Korea assuming the chairmanship of the Disarmament Conference, bringing the inevitable and appropriate public reaction of “you’ve got to be kidding,” we know we have work to do.

At the management level, as one NAM ambassador privately observed to me a few weeks ago, the UN does not yet have a culture of management. It has, as he said, a culture of administration, a relic of an age when the work of the international civil servant was mostly behind a desk in New York or Geneva. A few months ago, I asked: How much does the UN spend annually on health care benefits for its employees? It took far too long to get an answer to a straightforward question that a well-run business or NGO would be able to supply in a day.

Finally, the institution needs greater, transparency. The UN Secretariat’s lead auditing body, OIOS, recently announced — to the UN’s great credit — that, come 2012, it would post all their office’s audits and reports on the internet for universal public access. The US government has itself been posting all OIOS audits on our own websites for four years, and the sky has not fallen.

But as recently as last month, a small group of member states in New York was still trying to prevent OIOS from carrying out this promise. Their view is that the right to see audits belongs only to member states, not to the public. Foreign ministers, ambassadors, heads of state: yes. Journalists, students, NGO’s: no. For those members states, it’s a concept of institutional accountability that dates from…again…the mid-20th century.

Meanwhile, back outside the UN, world conditions resumed their predictable path of unpredictable change, as Harry Truman knew they would.

In 1947, most threats to peace had capitals and armies; but many of the greatest dangers of our own time – proliferation, terrorism, degradation and disease – cross borders as easily as the wind.

These trends have made the UN an institution that would hardly be recognizable to its founders. Instead of fielding a few dozen military observers to monitor a cease-fire between states, the UN has 122,000 UN peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions. Instead of hosting debates on poverty, UN agencies — like UNDP and FAO — now work in the field to combat it. Instead of sending delegates to Paris to sign a declaration on human rights, some member states are now visited by UN human rights investigators.

So we have a mismatch: between all the essential, complex work that we increasingly expect the UN to do, and how it sometimes goes about doing it; between the demands of the 21st century and the tools and member state positions of the 20th; between what is now a global public institution…and those who would have it still behave as an isolated preserve for diplomats in New York.

Past secretaries-general – from Dag Hammarskjold to Kofi Annan and even Boutros Boutros-Ghali — recognized the need for reform and tried to act.

Unfortunately, the way the UN system has grown meant that many posts, programs, and mandates have their own advocates among member states, making it easier for them to add without subtraing and very, very difficult to actually rationalize.

So our task is to build on the work done by President Obama and Ambassador Rice since their first days in office and to push forward reform and renewal across the UN system.

Here, today, we’re outlining a broad-based reform agenda for the UN with four pillars: economy, accountability, integrity, and excellence. (You’ll find the link to our detailed plan on my Twitter account, USJoe_UN.) In the months ahead, we’ll continue to push hard for a United Nations that is leaner, cleaner, respected, and effective.

Our first priority is thrift: getting the UN to adjust to tough times exactly as families and governments in American and around the world have had to – by learning to do more with less.

Until very recently, the UN budget has been disconnected from global financial realities. The UN’s regular budget, though a small piece of the whole puzzle, is the system’s epicenter and illustrates some big trends. In 2000-2001 the regular, two-year budget – not counting special political missions, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan – was $2.4 billion. In 2010-2011, it was $4.2 billion. That is a 75 percent increase, over a period that included a major post-9/11 economic contraction and a global recession.

Some of that increase comes from UN initiatives the U.S. strongly supported, like new counter-terrorism efforts. And as the GAO and others have shown, smart investments in the UN can actually save us money. But the good spending doesn’t excuse the bad. Too much of the growth in spending has happened on a kind of autopilot.

Controlling that spending, especially in this time of fiscal challenges, is our obligation. Every dollar sent to the UN represents the hard work of a taxpayer somewhere, and any dollar wasted at the UN is a wasted opportunity to build a better, freer, and more prosperous world.

So we’re going to focus on the larger dynamics that determine whether the UN can live within its means – and ours.

The first is personnel costs, where there’s been too little attempt to comprehensively manage – instead of administer– those costs. The results have been predictable: in the past decade, for example, the number of regular budget positions has increased modestly while the average total compensation per employee has increased dramatically

Let me be clear: UN employees deserve to be properly compensated for their work. We need to be able to hire and retain competent qualified people for its critical work that benefits all nations. Many of them do heroic work, especially those living in places few of us would even dare to visit. But with average UN professional pay now at nearly 130% of average US federal civil-service pay in Washington – the system is becoming seriously distorted.

So we’re calling for a comprehensive study comparing UN salaries and benefits to US civil-service scales. We’re pressing for a pay freeze for UN employees to fix the anachronisms in the International Civil Service System. And we’re calling for the UN to take a new look at how it provides everything from employee health care to annual leave to pensions, to give UN employees the benefits they deserve at a price we can afford.

Another issue here is to open wider the UN’s doors to outside expertise. I recently visited a UN warehouse in Africa, and met a young UN warehouse manager who showed me both the best in UN employees and the worst of the UN culture. He’d been thrust into his job, despite having no experience in inventory management. When I questioned him about the truly retro control system – handwritten tags to record when new supplies moved in and out of the warehouse, with several different and disconnected software systems – he excitedly showed me the Excel program he was writing himself to tie it all together.

There was something incredibly inspiring about that young man rising to the occasion, trying – on his own time – to build the tools he needed. But there was also something worrisome about a system that consigned him to that fate, in a world with abundant expertise and technology to solve his problems. When the US Department of Defense has an integrated supply chain that runs “From Factory to Foxhole,” and when I can order a package online that has the same laser-readable barcode from the time it is manufactured to the time it shows up in my mailbox, the UN cannot continue to operate in this outmoded way.

It doesn’t have to. There are literally thousands of executives in the world, north and south, who have already solved the management problems burdening the UN: the UN should invite them in. We’re calling on the UN to make an intense, systematic effort to adopt the best practices of the best-run firms, NGOs and entrepreneurial governments.

We’re also promoting comprehensive reform of the UN’s broken budget process, a process that emphasizes micromanagement over accountability, and gives us mountains of information but very little useful data.

That is partly a function of the Secretariat’s current procedures. But UN members make it worse by regularly missing the forest for the trees. If you wandered into a meeting of the UN’s budget committee last month, you would have heard a strange but typical discussion of whether one specific position should be classified as a “P5” or a “D1.” That’s one slot in a system of 43,747 employees. Now, somebody should be discussing individual job classifications, but it is not a committee of the whole composed of 193 ambassador-level representatives – some of whom, candidly, have learned to work the system to serve their own interests rather than the interests of their citizens and the UN. Instead, let’s have this budget committee, for the first time, hold a serious oversight hearing on the trends in hundreds of millions in employee benefit costs, and leave the middle management to real managers.

Finally, we’re urging rationalization of redundancies that have resulted from the topsy-turvy growth of a fragmented system in the last sixty years. One telling example: I’ve seen one internal study that says the UN could save $40 million annually just by consolidating its auto purchasing power, now spread among 40 different purchasing entities. Eliminating that kind of redundancy could add up to big savings and better service.

The second task in our reform agenda is to promote greater public accountability at the UN, as befits what is now a global public institution.

First, the UN needs more external watchdogs. There are many NGOs and journalists who monitor the policy side of the UN’s work. There are too few who monitor the mechanics. We need reinforcements, from all political perspectives and from many capitals. We need to create a kind of global accountability community that would be the equivalent of a national civil society, monitoring the UN and its delegations.

Within the UN, we have made important progress on accountability. But we still need to nail down those gains by getting OIOS, the UN’s internal oversight office, fully staffed, fully resourced, and fully protected from interference. We also need to fend off efforts to prevent OIOS from exercising its authority to audit and evaluate most UN bodies outside the Secretariat unless “invited” and funded to do so by the entity to be investigated.

Beyond OIOS, we’re opening doors and windows across the UN system. I have already pitched my tent on this issue in New York. After my strong urging, budget committee meetings are now beginning to be televised. I’ve begun Tweeting from meetings, and not always diplomatically.

We need to get some air in those meeting rooms. And when Cuba fulminates about your Twitter account, you know you must be doing something right.

In the months ahead, we’re going further. We’re going to urge UN funds and programs to post audits on the web, as UNICEF and UNDP recently pledged to do. Websites like the US Government’s recovery.gov, the UK’s dfid.gov, and Kentucky’s opendoor.gov make unprecedented amounts of information – about salaries, contracts, and budgets – easily available to the public. We’re going to ask the UN system to do the same. And we will lead by example, making it much simpler for Americans who visit the USUN website to see what their money is being spent on at the UN.

Our third reform priority is the UN’s reputation and integrity: preventing, where we can, misguided efforts by member-states and the self-inflicted wounds that too often make headlines and damage public support for the UN.

When I tell people my job is UN reform, they almost never ask what we’re doing about, say, logistics management. But they do ask about the relentless and unfair targeting of Israel by many member states in UN bodies. Or, the number one question, how on Earth can the General Assembly elect a country like Cuba to the UN’s Human Rights Council?

For three years now, the Obama administration has been working overtime to keep the worst offenders off UN bodies. We led the successful efforts to keep Iran off the board of UN Women, and Syria off the Human Rights Council.

We’ll continue these efforts. But the time has come to go further and to chip away at the outmoded idea that uncontested slates and strict regional rotations are more important than the UN’s credibility and effectiveness. Full disclosure: the U.S. hasn’t always practiced what we’re preaching. But our reform leadership at the UN, like our international leadership throughout our history, is stronger when we hold ourselves to the same standards we urge on others.

In the case of membership on the Human Rights Council, the U.S. will work to forge a new coalition at the UN in New York, a kind of “credibility caucus” to promote truly competitive elections, rigorous application of membership criteria, and other reforms aimed at keeping the worst offenders on the sidelines. It is time for all UN member states committed to human rights to come together to do themselves what the General Assembly as a whole failed to do in its review: hold Human Rights Council members to the same standard of truly “free and fair” elections that the UN promotes around the world, and insist on the highest standards of integrity for the Council and all its members.

More broadly, we’re going to assert a common-sense principle across the UN: if a member state is under Security Council sanction for weapons proliferation or massive human-rights abuses, it should be barred, plain and simple, from leadership roles like chairmanships in UN bodies. Abusers of international law or norms should not be the public face of the UN.

With these and other reforms, we are fighting, quite simply, to ensure that member states’ actions at the UN match up to the UN’s founding principles and values.

Finally, it’s not enough to ask the UN to spend wisely, disclose publicly, and lead with integrity. The UN should be a pacesetter. So the fourth and final pillar of our reform plan is an agenda for excellence.

That means, above all, shifting the UN’s focus from outputs to outcomes. That means moving to much more aggressively unify service delivery at the country level. It means an overhaul of the human resource system to give the UN the flexibility to get rid of underperformers while better rewarding high achievers. It means deploying the right staff sooner to humanitarian or security crises and reforming and diversifying the Resident Coordinator system. And it means more rigorous evaluation of program effectiveness and a focus on real world outcomes.

Now this is an ambitious agenda. Given that the first recorded call for UN reform was by a US Senate finance committee in October (of 1947!), it’s fair to ask whether we can achieve it all. And I will give you the shortest answer you’ll ever get from a diplomat: No. But there’s one way to be certain that we’ll accomplish none of it, and that’s not to try.

The right question is: Can we make real headway? Let me answer that by telling you what happened in New York last month. Over the last twenty years, the UN’s two-year regular budget has increased, on average, by about 5% each biennium. But last month, the United States led efforts at the UN that resulted in the first UN regular budget since 1998 – and only the second in the last 50 years — that has gone down in comparison to the previous budget’s actual expense. In 2010/11, the UN’s regular budget ended at $5.41 billion. We passed a budget of $5.15 billion – a 5% decrease. That’s a $260 million savings even in nominal dollars; it is several hundred million more in real dollars, when inflation and exchange rate changes are factored in.

When you consider the likely increase we avoided based on historical patterns, we estimate that we saved as much as $100 million – not for UN contributors as a whole, but for American taxpayers alone. In those budget negotiations, I said that while some of my UN colleagues might consider $100,000 to be a rounding error in a $5 billion budget, I saw it as the average federal taxes paid by 16 hard-working American families in one year. By that metric, $100 million represents the average federal taxes paid by sixteen thousand American families.

So can we make change at the UN? You bet. And as ambitious as our agenda is, it’s also timely: the reform stars are aligned at the UN now in a way they have not been for some time.

The financial crisis means that what has often in the past been an American solo is now becoming an international chorus. Times are tight everywhere. Norms that were once the exception are now becoming the rule around the globe. Countries like Brazil, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Africa have led in establishing the Open Government Partnership. And I doubt the people whose lives are being transformed by the Arab Spring will have much patience for their representatives resisting in New York the same transparency and openness their peoples are demanding at home.

We’ll need those diverse voices in New York. I want to say to my colleagues representing other countries at the UN: the U.S. has lots of ideas, but we don’t have all the answers. We can’t do it without you, nor do we want to. And the United States has surely played its part in creating the problems that we all need to fix. We’re calling on you to join us in a true partnership, and we’re offering our hand in that same spirit.

We are optimistic that many will join us.

In New York, it’s striking to me just how many ambassadors and senior UN officials tell me what I’ve just told you. Over a meal or in the corner of a negotiating room, G77 ambassadors acknowledge the absurdity of letting spoiler member states bully regional groups into positions that do not reflect the views of their broader membership.

UN reform has a strong ally in UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In directing the first UN budget cuts in more than a decade, he acted with courage and real leadership. As he begins his second term, he is uniquely positioned to bring lasting, transformational reform to the UN.

Finally, we have evidence and experience on our side: we know reform can succeed at the UN because we can see where it already has. We see the unsung heroes in the UN’s Department of General Assembly and Conference Services Management who’ve been pushing toward a paper-smart UN. So far, they have reduced UN printing by 65% in just two years, saving each year a pile of a paper 49 times as tall as the Secretariat building, and a pile of money too.

We see dynamic approaches like the UN Department of Field Support’s global strategy; by managing peacekeeping operations in a more businesslike way, the department has already saved over $62 million.

We see countless UN men and women who manage to write a continuing story of energy and ingenuity in the face of enormous challenges. My colleagues and I meet them every day. The World Food Program official who found a way to help impoverished farmers insure against severe drought. The New Zealand civil-affairs officer in Bosnia who dreamed up the idea of ethnically neutral license plates to enable Bosnia’s fractured communities to move safely throughout the country without fear of being attacked. The UNICEF team in New York devising new ways to measure which of their programs really work, and at what cost.

We need to take what are scattered flowers and plant a whole garden of them across the UN landscape, to make these examples the rule, to make the UN work as its founders imagined it would.

Because when it does, we all know the headline accomplishments that can result: the toughest sanctions ever against North Korea and Iran; a tyrannical Libyan government prevented from massacring its citizens; pressure brought to bear on repressive governments from Syria to Sudan.

And some of us even know the stories that rarely make the papers. The UN peacekeepers who help stabilize conflicts at a fraction of the cost and risk of sending American troops, or the WHO doctors whose work to stop a deadly epidemic halfway around the world helps keep us healthy here at home.

By pursuing our broad-based reform agenda, we can multiply those stories dramatically. We can equip the UN to work for our century, as our predecessors did for theirs.

We owe that kind of leadership to the Americans, of both parties, who helped found the UN in 1945.

We owe it to the billions of people who depend, many for their lives, on crucial UN services.

And most of all, we owe it to the American people of today, who deserve a UN that is – as another group of founders close to my Philadelphia heart might have said – “more perfect.”

Thank you.