Air Date: January 14, 1997 Program 9702


Gillian Martin Sorensen, Under-Secretary-General, United Nations

(This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely
distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON, Senior Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. With the battles of 1996 behind us and a new Secretary General, the United Nations hopes for a fresh start this year.

GILLIAN MARTIN SORENSEN: We are committed to the efforts for reform and renewal. We know that we must succeed.

DAVIDSON: But with the United States still a billion and a half dollars behind in its dues, the UN's troubles won't be over any time soon.

SORENSEN: This is a treaty obligation, a legal obligation and for the United States to renege on this matter is a very serious thing.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

It hasn't been an easy period for employees at UN headquarters in New York City. Besides its host country owing dues stretching back ten years, the UN was regularly vilified during the American presidential campaign. And then of course, came the ugly battle over selection of the Secretary General. The U.S. stood alone in its opposition to Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali, but prevailed in ousting the Egyptian diplomat. Senate Foreign Relation Committee chairman Jesse Helms, a regular opponent of the United Nations, last month extended a warm greeting to new Secretary General Kofi Annan but that doesn't guarantee his or other Congressional support for the UN or payment of the U.S. debt. Gillian Martin Sorensen, an American, is an Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations, where employees are perplexed by American attitudes.

GILLIAN MARTIN SORENSEN: Some in the United Nations are dismayed at the kind of UN bashing that they hear sometimes from Americans, particularly from some members of Congress. They find that hard to understand from a country, from the United States, which has historically held a prominent and leading position. In fact, the U.S. was the prime mover in the creation of the UN. We were the prime drafter of the UN charter. We helped and led in setting up the structure and the financial arrangements for the United Nations. And we have a great interest in its success. We enjoy the benefits, and by working with and through the UN, we have a way of sharing the risk, the cost, the burden of moving this world forward. And even our best friends and allies hope that things will take a better turn, that when the new Congress comes in in January that members of Congress will take a fresh look at the United Nations. And on the matter of dues, the unpaid United States dues that go back over a decade, that they will understand that this is a treaty obligation, a legal obligation. And for the United States to renege on this matter is a very serious thing and this refusal to pay our dues over ten years time has set a precedent, a negative precedent, for other countries. And for a country like the United States that normally has been the role model for the world, most people think is out of character and not right. Now if critics want to renegotiate the terms or to open the discussion on what the dues should be, that can be done, but that's a separate question.

DAVIDSON: You were the head of the UN 50th anniversary celebration last year and a lot of the commentators in this country were questioning the credibility of the institution. Do you feel that the anniversary throughout that year was able to help restore some of the United Nations credibility?

SORENSEN: I really do. And it was an important opportunity, a historic opportunity, not just as critics said to have a birthday party; it was much more than that. Around the world and throughout the year, individuals, governments, our political leaders, educators, religious leaders and citizens took part in efforts to deepen this discussion, to reaffirm their commitment, to analyze among themselves how we could do more and do better, to recognize that we are connected as human beings on this earth and that the United Nations exists as an instrument for us to reach toward a world where peace and justice and democracy thrive.

We did take a moment to point out some of the successes and to remember that over these five decades, that the UN has indeed changed lives and saved lives, has assisted millions upon millions of refugees—indeed, this year only, 22 million refugees, has inoculated children against all the childhood diseases, has fed the hungry, has helped to preserve the environment, has set the norms and standards around the world for human rights and served as monitor on human rights, has worked in the area of family planning for countries that need and request that support and has worked in the area of development and housing. But development particularly, meaning clean water and access to the basic needs of life that every human being deserves. And then finally of course in the area of peace keeping, which is 20% of the United Nations effort. There have been a number of successes: conflicts contained, wars averted, and situations given the kind of time and space needed to find resolution. That's difficult and challenging work because no crisis comes to the United Nations at an easy stage. They arrive at the point where the parties involved, or the neighbors involved cannot resolve it. So that means that UN is always given the most difficult problems.

And finally, I might point to one little noticed, but very interesting success, and that is the area that we refer to as democratization. The efforts to support free and fair elections around the world, to move countries toward democracy, and there are many countries asking now for that support and reaching, moving toward their own first free elections and that's great.

So in the course of the anniversary year, the 50th last year, the participation took many forms. And then there was, of course, the historic summit gathering in New York City in October of 1995 where the leaders of the world gathered and virtually every country was represented at the highest level. And they traveled thousands of miles to speak on behalf of themselves and their countries and say, we care, we want this institution not only to survive but to thrive. We are committed to the efforts for reform and renewal, but we know that we must succeed. And President Clinton said as much and was there of course as the host country President, recommitting to the United Nations. All countries have options. They can go it alone, they can work in regional groups, but they also have the option of working together in the one universal organization.

DAVIDSON: President Clinton didn't say too much at this year's start of the General Assembly. Do you feel that was mainly for political reasons?

SORENSEN: Well, his special emphasis at this point was with reference to the comprehensive test ban treaty.

DAVIDSON: Which he signed at that point.

SORENSEN: Indeed, yes, and that was very important. It had been long awaited, it's a big step forward and that was a very dramatic moment. I regret that the United Nations has become a sort of political football because I think most thoughtful leaders at every level of our society understand that America has a historic leadership role. We have self-interest in seeing that the United Nations succeeds, and even this great and powerful country couldn't possibly imagine that we could go it alone in every instance because we have to understand that everything crosses borders without passports. Disease, pollution, nuclear fallout, traffic in arms and drugs and terrorism. And there's no way to address those issues but jointly as a common effort with other countries. And the UN has done much to address those kinds of issues as well as the universal concerns for such things as human rights and population growth, and environmental degradation and such. And our President and our leaders in Congress do by and large recognize that. There are discussions and some criticisms on how those are done, on whether the dollars are well spent and those criticisms are welcome and heard, but we think that constructive critics have much to contribute to that and the UN is listening and moving forward.

DAVIDSON: I'm sure you're familiar with an article that U.S. Senator Jesse Helms recently wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that the UN is being transformed from an institution of sovereign nations into a quasi-sovereign entity in itself. And he said that the national elites running the UN look at the idea of the nation-state with disdain.

SORENSEN: I respectfully and absolutely disagree with Senator Helm's comments in that regard. The United Nations is not, and never could be, a world government. It is an organization of governments. An organization of sovereign states. And the UN respects that. The UN itself has no powers, no independent powers, no independent means or income. It does its work with the means and resources given to it by the members. It reflects the will of the member states, and of course the United States is a leading member. We're a powerful member with a strong voice and a large mission to the UN with diplomats on every committee. And we are certainly a member of Security Council with the power of veto. So I think Senator Helms misunderstands the way UN works. He may not recognize that in the UN Secretariat there are many Americans among the other international civil servants, and he may misstate the purpose and the form and function of the UN. We wish he would come more often. We'd like to talk with him directly and to help him better understand the circumstances at the UN.

DAVIDSON: So you believe if he came to visit, he might change his view that the United Nations now would like to believe it has superseded the nation state?

SORENSEN: Well, the interesting thing is that Senator Helms actually did come to visit a few months back. He brought his grandchildren to take the UN tour. And we were very surprised to see him. He arrived without notice and we hurried to make sure that he had an excellent tour and briefing which I found a welcome opportunity. But, there is no need to fear for our sovereignty. There is no way that the United Nations could impinge or trample upon our own sovereignty. It does not work that way and people who say such things do not understand how the United Nations works.

DAVIDSON: Well I'm real intrigued by the fact that Senator Helms brought his grandchildren to the United Nations. Did anyone learn why he wanted to bring grandchildren to the United Nations?

SORENSEN: I have to assume he did as many parents and grandparents do, he wanted his grandchildren to see where the world headquarters was, to learn a bit about why the organization existed, how it came out of the tragedies of World War II, how the U.S. took the lead in the creation of it and how we are making efforts in common cause with all the nations on earth to make a better world. That's a motive that many people have and the UN receives close to a million visitors a year from all parts of the world.

DAVIDSON: You're listening to Common Ground, a program on world affairs sponsored by the Stanley Foundation. My guest is Gillian Martin Sorensen, an Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations. Printed transcripts and audiocassettes of this program are available. At the end of the broadcast I'll give you details on how to order. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

At the start of the 51st session of the General Assembly this past September, the president of the General Assembly, Razali Ismail from Malaysia said the session begins amidst criticism of the UN's inability to respond adequately to international crises. In situations where the UN has not been able to respond adequately, what has held the organization up in your opinion?

SORENSEN: Well, let me say again, the United Nations is a reflection of the will of its member states. And when that will is clear and focused and coherent and consistent, the UN can do anything. But when the member states themselves are undecided, when they delay, when they dither, when they debate among themselves, when they are unable to come to grips with certain crises and decide what steps, what action they wish to take, the UN cannot, on its own, just dive into these things. It responds to the mandates of the Security Council and of the United Nations. So it is for those reasons that the UN has sometimes been hampered or delayed or inhibited from doing what officials in the UN Secretariat believe would be the right steps to take. Further, the UN, as I said earlier, has no independent resources. It must do its work with the resources, both human and financial, given to it by the member states. And when the UN issues a mandate and says we wish you to go into this crisis, it must follow up with the resources to succeed. And I think some of the situations that have not succeeded as well have been because the UN was understaffed, underfunded, underesourced. Any local police commissioner knows, for instance, that the worst thing he can do in a situation of crisis, is to send too few officers. That's a fundamental. And there have been some instances in world crises where the UN has had too few peace keeping soldiers. Those soldiers offered, that is volunteered, from member states, to do the job as well as it should be done.

DAVIDSON: There are periodic discussions about the United Nations having, and I don't know if I have the phrase exactly correct, a standing army of sorts. If the member states were to decide to have a standing army, who would then tell that standing army when to go off and respond to a crises? Could it be up to the Secretary General or would it have to be a vote of the Security Council?

SORENSEN: First let me speak clearly. There is no UN army, there is no standing army. The UN troops are made up of soldiers contributed from member states for temporary service as UN peacekeepers. Those soldiers, I should add, wear their own national uniforms with a small UN blue patch on their soldier and for purposes of safety and identification they wear the UN blue helmet or blue beret. But there has been a discussion lately led by the Canadians and the Dutch among others, to have at the ready what they call rapid response forces. Those would be forces who would remain with their national armies, but would be trained up to the highest standard and ready on very short notice to move into a crisis at the request of the UN Security Council where, once again, the US is a permanent member with veto. That would allow the United Nations to move quickly. We know that some of the worst situations have arisen because the UN, as I said before, has no standing army and must put together an army of troops to respond and those delays, which can stretch into some months, have allowed some tragic situations to ensue. The rapid response troops could move quickly for short term. They would bridge the month or two until national troops could move in for a longer term of service and those would be rapid response forces that would respond at the request of Security Council to emergency situations.

DAVIDSON: So even that would require a Security Council resolution?

SORENSEN: Absolutely, absolutely. The UN cannot and does not move on its own. There is of course a Department of Peacekeeping with a small in-house staff, with representatives from many nations including the United States, that watch and analyze and respond and consider the crises around the world and watch those with great care. They give advice, but they can't simply act on their own without support of Security Council.

DAVIDSON: One of the charges regularly brought up during this political season in the United States is that U.S. troops are not under U.S. command. How are peace keeping operations put together and exactly what is the command structure?

SORENSEN: Let me state first that U.S. troops have never exceeded more than 5% of UN peace keeping operations at any given time. Our country, that is the United States, has usually chosen to help in other ways, very important ways I should say, with logistical support, technical support, communications equipment and transport and that is very much needed. That's a very positive way for the U.S. to help in peacekeeping efforts. But in very recent years, the U.S. has decided in certain operations where our own services and our own commander-in-chief consider that it's in our interest to have some U.S. soldiers there, those could be under temporary operational leadership of a foreign commander, but a commander who is part of the UN peacekeeping effort with communications to Americans in headquarters and trained to our standard. That, I might add, is nothing new. Americans have occasionally served under foreign commanders since the American Revolution when American troops served under General Lafayette. And in practically every war since, including World War II, when American troops served under operational command of Field Marshall Montgomery and other foreign commanders. Our commander-in-chief is always the President of the United States and they would never be serving in an operation that was not deemed to be in the U.S. interest.

Most countries of the world consider a term of UN service to be a matter of honor and prestige and they welcome the opportunity to join UN peacekeepers and indeed most career officers around the world know that it is essential to have a term of UN service on their own career ladder. We hope that American soldiers will understand that this is part of our global and historic leadership role, that they are doing a duty that is honorable and important. And I've talked to a few American soldiers who have come back from service in Haiti and service in Macedonia and they have found it to be a fascinating experience, an important and positive experience. Not easy, but very challenging and very good and they have come back with a much deeper appreciation for the role of UN peace keepers and the joint efforts that peace keeping soldiers made, U.S. soldiers among many others. And again let me state that the U.S. soldiers are in numbers few. The Canadians, the British, the Irish, the Ghanians, the Indians, the Pakistanis, even the Figians from the Island of Figi contribute more soldiers than the United States does. But still, symbolically it has been very important and very much appreciated that there have been some U.S. soldiers among them.

DAVIDSON: And they are still under the command of the U.S. commander-in-chief ultimately?

SORENSEN: Ultimately, yes.

DAVIDSON: On a completely different note, the United Nations has many agencies and programs working to advance the status of women. Yet in terms of advancing women within the organization, it doesn't quite meet standards set by many other institutions. I believe it was last year the UN set a goal to fill 25% of its top executive positions with women, but I don't believe that goal has yet been reached, has it?

SORENSEN: That is a goal and a target. We're moving in the right direction. It has been stated in many ways over the years that the UN is committed to the advancement of women, to the equal opportunity for women, and of course for girls I might add, for young girls around the world. The UN has now an excellent plan in place with goals and time tables for the advancement of women, and you might note that I'm here. I'm a woman, I work in the UN and for the Secretary General and have had the welcome opportunity to see some other very fine women colleagues moving up and doing good work both in the UN Secretariat and around the world. We value that. We respect that. We take note of that. And we are hoping to see more UN women in the senior ranks in the next years to come.

DAVIDSON: Does the great mix of cultures at the United Nations and from some societies where women have not achieved the advances of women in the United States and other countries, does that make it more difficult to achieve those goals?

SORENSEN: Yes it does. And that reflects the reality that diplomacy was traditionally a man's world. That's the historic reality, but it reflects another daily reality and that is one factor in diplomacy requires that people be able to move, to travel on short notice, to do tours of duty overseas, and frankly that falls a bit harder on women than it does on men. There are many countries too where the foreign service has not welcomed women and I know that approximately 60% of the missions to the UN in New York have no women diplomats. It's a reflection of their own culture and history and background. And so when countries are asked to put forward candidates for jobs in the UN Secretariat, there are fewer women. Now when those jobs open up, the UN Secretariat is specifically asking for women candidates and reaching further to find good and qualified and experienced women as nominees for those posts. And reaching deeper and farther to find those women.

DAVIDSON: Do you know offhand what percentage of the top diplomatic positions at the UN are held by women?

SORENSEN: Yes I do. Of the 185 ambassadors to the United Nations representing every country on earth, there are today just seven women. And that number is the maximum that we have ever reached.

DAVIDSON: Seven out of 185?

SORENSEN: Yes. For some reason it has gone up to that number and then dropped and it has reached that number again.

DAVIDSON: And whether it will break that glass ceiling is...

SORENSEN: Yes, it is a glass ceiling. And I did take note last year when the presidents and prime ministers gathered, again of all the world, we had just six women prime ministers and presidents out of the total.

DAVIDSON: My guest has been Gillian Martin Sorensen, an American and Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations. For Common Ground, I'm Mary Gray Davidson.

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