IA-Forum discusses issues about the United Nations with Gillian Martin Sorensen, Senior Advisor at the United Nations Foundation and national advocate. From l997 to 2003, she served as Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations on appointment by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Prior to that, Mrs. Sorensen served from 1993 to 1996 as Special Adviser for Public Policy on appointment by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. She was a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government (Institute of Politics) at Harvard University. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. Previously, she served as a Board Member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on appointment by the President of the United States. By S.R. Brophy, 7/27/2007.
International Affairs Forum: The United Nations is an evolving and dynamic organization due to the ever changing global environment and increasing interconnectedness of the world's populations. How would you describe the UN's role in today's world?
Mrs. Gillian Sorensen: The UN continues to serve as the only universal forum where nations can address global crises that require global responses. Among those are terrorism, environmental degradation, public health, the traffic in arms and drugs and the consequences of war and natural disasters. The United Nations offers the opportunity to share the burden, the cost, the risk, the responsibility and, we trust, the benefits of joined action. The challenges in peace and security, disarmament, development, democratization, humanitarian relief, human rights and environmental action are very great. The UN cannot do everything but it can make a difference when member states are fully committed, with the political will and resources to achieve success. It is imperfect but indispensable, evolving as the world changes.
IA-Forum: What is the most fundamental change in UN practice that needs to occur to increase its effectiveness as a global arbiter?
Mrs. Sorensen: Internal reforms are taking place. These are works-in-progress and are moving ahead slowly. These will make the UN leaner and more effective.
But much has to come from the member states - the political will and resources that give the UN what it needs to succeed. When the UN has failed, or when it’s said that the UN has failed, often it’s a lack of political will from the member states that don’t give it the sufficient means and authority to do what they ask it to do.
IA-Forum: What needs to be done to strengthen the UN's role in humanitarian affairs?
Mrs. Sorensen: The United Nations has sixty years of experience in responding to both natural disasters such as earthquakes, and floods; and man-made disasters – where the UN has helped refugees and victims from armed conflict. Planning, logistics, food and shelter assistance in response to such events are areas in which the UN has become expert.
There are many NGOs that work in these areas. They need an overall coordinator, and the UN fills that role. The UN has supplies for emergency responses in 16 locations. So when a catastrophe happens, the UN can move fast and provide rapid response within days, if not hours.
The United Nations is also doing excellent work in sheltering, feeding and providing assistance to twenty million refugees. This will continue to be a key part of the UN’s work.
IA-Forum: What about global health?
Mrs. Sorensen: The World Health Organization (WHO) deserves special praise for tracking diseases that cross borders and analyzing global public health. If you look at tuberculosis, malaria, AIDS, avian flu, SARS – the WHO has done critical work.
Also, UNICEF is doing great work with children vaccinations and preventive health measures. Overall, the UN’s global reach has been essential to address the problems of health.
IA-Forum: How does the UN partner with private, nongovernment entities to increase its capabilities and effectiveness in reaching the world's poor, sick and hungry?
Mrs. Sorensen: NGOs have been the United Nations’ partners for six decades. There were about fifty of them at the drafting of the charter. Today there are 4,200 hundred accredited NGOs that work with the UN. They cover the entire range of issues from peace to human rights, health, international law, to environmental concerns. These are grassroots, self-appointed, usually one issue organizations. They are the voice of the people. Many of them have huge memberships. They know how to dramatize, publicize, mobilize, raise funds, and raise awareness. In Kofi Annan’s words: “NGOs are our essential partners.” That’s absolutely true. The UN doesn’t have enough staff to do everything that needs to be done. But the NGOs and their memberships are a mighty peaceful force that help address many issues. . The NGO/UN partnership will continue forever.
Newer on the scene is the UN’s relationship with the private sector. That came into being under Kofi Annan’s leadership. He’d been approached by many business leaders saying ‘how can we help, what can we do?’. These private organizations have clout and stature; and they have capacities in logistics and communications that the UN doesn’t have. The UN created the Global Compact with the private sector.
The Global Compact is voluntary; businesses join and make a commitment to high standards in human rights, fair hiring practices, and the protection of the environment. It is a signal from them that they want to join forces with the United Nations. However, as it is a voluntary organization, here also lies the weakness because the ‘bad guys’, the offenders, don’t join. The good ones that are well-intended and hard-working, positive organizations do. And there is no built in monitoring capacity. That is being addressed now.
The UN’s partnership with NGOs and the private sector has extended its outreach, and created an important and happy relationship that will continue.
IA-Forum: Is the private sector involved in the UN emergency preparedness efforts you mentioned earlier?
Mrs. Sorensen: To some degree. There are some fine NGOs that have helped with things such as moving out the necessary equipment and things of that kind. The UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs is frequently connected to all those groups that are helping. When a disaster strikes, and chaos is the condition, everyone turns to the UN to be the overall leader. That’s essential and is a role that the UN does extremely well and deserves acknowledgement for.
IA-Forum: The run-up to the Iraq War caused considerable strain between the UN and United States. Moreover, some voice concerns that the U.S. wields disproportionate power within the UN. How do you view the UN/U.S. relationship and the prospects/steps needed for moving forward in a positive direction?
Mrs. Sorensen: There is somewhat of a love-hate relationship between the two. But the U.S. needs the U.N. and the U.N. needs the U.S. as well. In this relationship there have been some very strong and positive times and also moments of disagreement. That is normal. I hope that both sides realize that there is much to gain by working together.
The United States has learned a lot through the experiences of the last few years in particular with the war in Iraq. The UN has invaluable skills and abilities that the U.S. needs. The U.S. has turned back to the U.N. many times for help and support in regard to Iraq.
In other matters of this up and down relationship, many Americans recognize that the U.N. is doing incredible work in the humanitarian area and global public health. The areas of peace and conflict resolution are more controversial but even in that regard, there are seventeen peacekeeping operations underway right now. All of them have the support of the United States through Security Council mandates. Those efforts are not only in the global interest but in the US national interest. Although there will be disagreements at times, I hope that Americans and their political leaders recognize that the U.N. is a valuable instrument. Our challenge is to use it wisely and well.
IA-Forum: What do you see as the future role of the UN in international affairs?
Mrs. Sorensen: Looking into the 21st century, the new General Secretary, Ban Ki Moon, has identified priorities including seeking peace in the Middle East, working to eradicate poverty through the Millennium Development Goals, and addressing environment issues including climate change and environmental degradation. Those are three major priorities that every country has to be concerned with. I think the U.N. will continue to play a key role.
There are regional groups that can address certain issues and when they can, all the better. But often, these matters are truly global in scope and they come to the United Nations. This is because the U.N. goes where some countries will not or cannot: to the poorest areas of the world, to those who are neglected and ignored, to those who have no oil or riches that grab the attention of the developed world, to help those who are the poorest of the poor. That’s a very special purpose and goal of the United Nations and I hope that it will continue.
IA-Forum: Do you think it become more influential or less?
Mrs. Sorensen: I hope more so. It is a voluntary association of member states. It acquires its power, authority and ability to act through those member states. If those member states give it the means to succeed, the U.N. can do a great deal. It cannot do everything but when it can make a difference, it should certainly try.
IA-Forum: How does the U.N. look to address terrorism issues?
Mrs. Sorensen: Individual countries are doing all they can but an important aspect is the global pooling of information about terrorists, terrorist activities, tracking of monies that support terrorism, and of course, arms trafficking that fuel conflicts. The United Nations has a limited intelligence capacity but provides a global forum for discussion between nations for information sharing and decisive action on terrorism.
IA-Forum: There has been increasing discussion about the creation of a U.N. standing army. Do you think this is a viable concept?
Mrs. Sorensen: I do not. I think most member states reject the idea of the United Nations having its own army. It implies a level of independent power that they do not wish the U.N. to have. That’s why, historically, the U.N. has had to call on countries to offer or volunteer soldiers to act as peacekeeping troops for designated missions.
However, I strongly support that within national militaries, countries designate a brigade or battalion to be ready for rapid call up to serve as UN peacekeepers if a crisis occurs. That addresses a key problem—the lag time in securing and deploying a peacekeeping contingent. This is the next best thing to a standing army: for the U.N. Peacekeeping Office to know that countries A, B, C and D have offered their soldiers, ready to move on short notice in response to emergencies.
IA-Forum: Thank you, Mrs. Sorensen
Gillian Martin Sorensen is a senior advisor at the United Nations. From 1997 to 2003, she served as Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations on appointment by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Prior to that, Mrs. She was a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government (Institute of Politics) at Harvard University. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and a Fellow at the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy. Previously, she served as a Board Member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on appointment by the President of the United States.
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