PEACE in Action

Strengthening the United Nations System

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Policies for International Peace
Strengthening the United Nations System

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, the main purpose its founders had in mind was to avoid another catastrophic world war caused by inter-state aggression, like Hitler's march into Poland in 1939. It has served that function remarkably well. There have been only a few cases of aggression across borders since Word War II. At the time of its founding, the UN was explicitly prevented from "interfering into the internal affairs of sovereign nation states." Therefore, we still have numerous civil wars, many of them wars of secession against governments that neglect or oppress minorities on their territory. It is time to strengthen the United Nations family of organizations so that it can help more effectively in preventing civil wars, and in eliminating the misery and injustice that give rise to them.

I submit herewith four proposals to strengthen the United Nations:

  1. A United Nations People's Assembly
  2. A United Nations Institute for Mediation
  3. A World Treasury
  4. A Global Peace Service

A United Nations People's Assembly

During the discussions about a United States Constitution in the late 18th century, the big states like New York wanted a representation in parliament proportional to their population. The small states, like Delaware, wanted each state to have equal representation. The deadlock was broken by Benjamin Franklin's proposal to have two legislatures, a Senate with two representatives from each state and a House where each state would have a number of Representatives proportional to its population.

In the UN General Assembly, China with 1.3 billion people and Monaco with a population of 32,000 now have the same voting right. Many have long proposed the creation of a second chamber, a "UN People's Assembly," with one directly elected representative for every ten million inhabitants or a fraction thereof. That would give China 130 representatives and Monaco 1, among about 700 for the world.

The direct election of representatives would also open a vast new reservoir of ideas for the solution of global problems, and this world body could hear what people need. I once observed negotiations about a new global wheat agreement that should have provided food aid for hunger regions. After two months of leisurely talks, the negotiations broke down in failure. But the delegates were not hungry, they rather suffered from over-eating. Representatives elected directly by those suffering from hunger should have been at those negotiations to plead their cases.

A United Nations Institute for Mediation

In 1995, Johan Galtung met with Ecuador's chief negotiator in the border talks with Peru. In the peace agreement of Rio de Janeiro in 1941, Peru and Ecuador agreed that their border in the Andes Mountains should lie along a river. But, depending on rainfall, the river shifted its course, and each country insisted that the true border lie closer to its neighbor. They had fought three wars over this small, uninhabited territory and were about to begin a fourth war. So Galtung proposed to make this contested territory into a "bi-national zone," jointly administered by both countries, with a natural park to attract tourists and bring added income to both countries. This proposal formed the basis for the peace agreement signed in 1998 in Brasilia.

This mediation cost about $250 for a hotel and a meal with the negotiator. This is nothing compared to the costs of a military intervention to end a war after it has begun. For example, the Gulf war of 1991 to repel Iraq from Kuwait cost $100 billion, not counting the destruction it caused. Most importantly, preventing wars before they occur can save many lives.

For this reason, it is proposed to create a "UN Institute for Mediation," with several thousand trained mediators, comparable in size to the World Bank or IMF. The UN Secretary-General has occasionally been able to mediate international disputes to help avoid a war, but he is overburdened. There are about 100 internal conflicts that can erupt into civil war at any time. These mediators can hold dialogues with all the parties in a conflict, and help work out a fair solution that meets the legitimate needs of all parties. Such an agency that can help prevent wars before violence breaks out would be an excellent investment for a more peaceful world.

A World Treasury

Jan Tinbergen, the first Nobel Laureate in Economics, observed that to almost every ministry at the national level, there is a corresponding international organization, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization corresponding to a Ministry of Agriculture, the World Health Organization corresponding to a Ministry of Health, or the UN Environment Program corresponding to a Ministry of the Environment. Most countries also have three major financial institutions: a reserve bank, an investment bank, and a treasury. Corresponding to some degree to a reserve bank, we have the International Monetary Fund, which lends money to countries with payment difficulties. Corresponding to an investment bank, we have the World Bank. But corresponding to a treasury, there is nothing at the global level. Yet the treasury, which collects taxes to finance all the other ministries, is the most important part of any government. Tinbergen, therefore, called for the creation of a World Treasury.

If decisions are measured by the amount of spending involved, about 70% of all decisions today are made by individuals or households, 15% by local governments, and 15% by national governments. Tinbergen estimated that about 3% of world spending would be needed at the global level for peacekeeping, development aid, and protection of the global environment. However, the budget of the United Nations today, $1.3 billion per year, is only about 0.003% of world spending. The UN has less than 10% of New York City's budget for education ($15 billion/year), and is insignificant compared to the U.S. budgets for spying ($46 billion) and for the military ($440 billion in 2006). With this modest funding, the UN is expected to solve all of the world's problems. It needs substantially greater funding to perform its mission adequately.

It may be difficult to reach agreement on a world income tax added to national and local taxes. But there are other ways to raise revenue at the global level. The easiest to agree on is to provide some essential services, which at the same time help raise revenue as a side benefit, such as a carbon tax to help reduce global warming. Contrary to a popular belief, pollution taxes do not increase the overall level of taxation, but help reduce it, as the following thought experiment shows. Imagine that we did not pay for gasoline at the pump. People would use a lot more gasoline, and someone has to pay the national annual gasoline bill anyway. Everybody's taxes would have to be increased, by much more than we now pay for gasoline, because more would be consumed. The same happens if we do not pay for the damage caused by pollution.

A "Tobin tax" of maybe 0.1% on each currency exchange would help stabilize currency exchange rates and reduce the risk to international trade and investment. Auctioning access rights to the mineral reserves on the deep ocean floor, outside of any country's jurisdiction, would help avoid future wars over those resources. At the same time, such auctions can raise revenue. Of course, an international board of respected personalities, or ultimately an elected UN People's Assembly, should oversee the proper use of those funds to ensure accountability at all levels.

A Global Peace Service

All young people should be able to spend at least a year in a different country, working with local people and learning their language. Friendships concluded during youth can last a lifetime and help overcome enemy images. It is hardly a coincidence that Alexander Yakovlev, a key architect of perestroika, was among the first group of Soviet exchange students in the United States in 1958. Robert Muller proposed the expansion of the UN Volunteer Service into a Global Peace Service. Because of budget restrictions, the UN Volunteer Service can now accept only 2,000 out of over 60,000 applicants per year, and many young people never even heard about that program.

Thousands of idealistic young people would enthusiastically volunteer to help solve global problems if given an opportunity. This would increase the human resources available to UN agencies such as UNICEF, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and UNESCO. Countries should offer young people the option of working with these UN agencies instead of doing military service and cover their living expenses from their military budgets. Alleviating people's suffering, correcting global inequalities, and creating good will through such volunteer work can be an effective way to reduce potential sources of conflict and help avoid future wars.

The growing global interdependence has given rise to a series of problems that individual states can no longer solve alone. Only through worldwide cooperation can we prevent climate shifts, stem the international drug trade, or prevent nuclear terrorism. Many governments are still reluctant to participate in global institutions to deal with global problems because they fear that they might lose part of their national sovereignty. But that fear is mistaken. No country today, for example, has sovereign control over the earth's climate. By joining a global authority that can allocate and enforce emission quotas, we do not give up any control over our destiny, but gain added control that we do not now possess and could never achieve at the national level.

Dietrich Fischer is Academic Director of the European University Center for Peace Studies, Burg Schlaining, Austria ( and Co-Director of TRANSCEND, a global peace and development network ( He is author of Preventing War in the Nuclear Age (1984) and Non-Military Aspects of Security (1993).

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