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«U Thant Electing U Thant By Hammarskjöld’s last year, the Secretariat was in crisis. The Soviets and the French had both fallen out with the ...»

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Chapter Three

U Thant

Electing U Thant

By Hammarskjöld’s last year, the Secretariat was in crisis. The

Soviets and the French had both fallen out with the Secretary-

General and had refused to pay their part for the Congo operation.

In 1960, at a time when the Secretariat budget was under $70

million, the Congo operation cost an additional $66 million over

just a six-month period. In 1961 the cost was another $120

million.The organization was plunged into financial turmoil.

After Hammarskjöld died, the Soviets, determined to undercut the authority of any future Secretary-General, continued to propose the “troika” formula and variations of it. Burmese Permanent Representative U Thant attacked the idea, arguing it was devised to weaken the UN. The Soviets then began to look around for a suitable single candidate and first approached Frederick Boland of Ireland who said no:“I have had a full year as President of the Assembly and that is more than I can take.”42 But Boland thought of Thant and took the unsuspecting Burmese ambassador with him to see visiting Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko. Gromyko stated clearly the Soviets would not insist on the troika if the Secretary-General was from a non-Western country.

Thant had been identified by Hammarskjöld as one of two desired successors. He soon became the leading candidate for the post, supported by Gideon Rafael of Israel, Omar Loufti of Egypt 38 and Adnan Pachachi of Iraq. The latter two were key to securing Arab support, as some were suspicious of Burma’s close ties with Israel. His appointment reflected non-aligned Burma’s good standing with both the US and USSR (though Thant was willing to criticize both) and his own standing as one of the more competent Permanent Representatives at the UN. He had worked patiently and discreetly as the chairman of the Afro-Asian committee on Algerian independence, backed the UN resolution condemning the suppression of the Hungarian uprising and was expected to oppose Soviet attempts to dilute the office, but at the same time to be more cautious than Hammarskjöld.43 Thant had joined the Burmese civil service at Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 and had served for many years as permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, becoming increasingly drawn to foreign policy issues and traveling widely with then Prime Minister U Nu. In 1955 he helped organize and acted as secretary to the Asian-African conference at Bandung, Thant greeted by President John Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Ambassador Adlai Stevenson at the White House, 1962.

39 which would soon give rise to the Non-Aligned Movement. A journalist and school headmaster in his early years, he had been Burma’s ambassador to the UN since 1957. In November 1961, with the unanimous backing of the Security Council, he was elected unopposed by the General Assembly as Acting SecretaryGeneral. He was fifty-two years old.

The Acting Secretary-General and the Question of Senior Appointments Thant’s appointment was surrounded by many and varied demands by East and West for top jobs in the Secretariat, as member states woke up to its political importance. Having suspended their insistence on a troika, the Soviets were now demanding a college of senior officials, representing the different international “blocs” and their demands were met with counter-demands. Under a protracted “numbers game” various permutations for “advisor” level appointments were debated.The Soviets wanted the numbers and even the names to be agreed to in the Security Council.Thant was adamant he would not receive dictation from any government;

for example, when the French pushed de Seynes as Chef de Cabinet, he told them they were free to veto his own appointment. After long deliberations, the Soviets dropped their demands and it was agreed Thant could make his own senior appointments following “consultations” with all.

In his acceptance speech,Thant stated an intention to invite a limited number of persons to be his “principal advisers” at the level of Under-Secretary. He named only the American Ralph Bunche and Soviet Georgi Petrovitch Arkadev, but in late December announced the full list of eight, also representing Brazil, Czechoslovakia, France, India, Nigeria and the United Arab Republic. The “principal advisors” met every month or so, with minutes circulated only to the group. But this was a sop to political pressures and within a year, he quietly let the practice die a natural death.

In practice, Thant (as “acting SG”) made very few changes to the upper echelon of the Secretariat, preserving Hammarskjöld’s preference to retain authority in his own office. Just before he died, 40 Hammarskjöld had appointed as his new Chef de Cabinet Chakravarthi V. Narasimhan, a former Indian Civil Service officer and then head of ECAFE (the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East and forerunner to ESCAP).Thant came to rely heavily on Narasimhan on all non-political matters. Ramses Nassif of Egypt was brought on as his press officer.

On the political side, there were two Under-Secretaries for Special Political Affairs. One was Ralph Bunche, on whom Thant would depend greatly, and the other Jose Rolz-Bennet, a lawyer and formerly Guatemala’s Permanent Representative to the UN.

Throughout this time, the office itself remained incredibly small, with Brian Urquhart as Director.Yasushi Akashi, the future Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) in Cambodia and the former Yugoslavia was then a junior officer in the Secretary-General’s office. Thant also increased headquarters civilian capacity for the Congo mission and recruited the Congo military adviser (Major-General Indar Jit Rikhye) as “Military Adviser to the Secretary-General.” With Thant’s encouragement, Rikhye would go on to be the first President of the International Peace Academy.





The Financial Crisis Thant was immediately confronted by the financial crisis that threatened to undermine the UN and its peacekeeping efforts. He made the crisis his first order of business, initially suggesting the idea of a lottery, which met with little support and recruiting Eugene Black of the World Bank as a financial consultant. He then decided to seek the General Assembly’s approval for a special bond issue amounting to $200 million, holding a series of marathon meetings with each member state delegation over a few days, leading to Assembly approval in December 1961. It then fell to Thant to sell the bonds, which he succeeded in doing up to the level of $154.7 million. But some countries, reluctant to pay for the bond service, simply withheld pro-rated sums from their regular budget assessments.

The USSR and France remained intransigent and by 1964, voices within the US Congress were calling for the application of 41 article 19, under which a member state owing more than its previous two years contributions could be stripped of its General Assembly vote. A crisis was averted by an agreement to avoid voting at all during that session of the Assembly, and later by a further agreement that peacekeeping arrears would not count against overall arrears for the purpose of article 19.44 In a way it was the US which backed down, retaining for later the option that they too could withhold their dues.The article 19 issue highlighted the political nature of the problem; indeed a popular quip at the time said that “never in the course of human conflict have so many spoken so much about so little money.”45 Some felt that Thant had failed to address the politics, instead treating the problem in a technical fashion.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly established both a working group in 1961 and a committee of experts in 1965 to assess the systems of finance and budgeting in the UN.The first requested an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as to whether non-payment of peacekeeping dues was illegal and was told that peacekeeping expenses should be treated in the same way as other “expenses of the Organization.”46 The second concluded that the budget structure allowed too much latitude to the UN’s organs and launched an effort to develop a more integrated system for planning and budgeting, which was approved by the General Assembly in 1967.47 In 1965, limited financial security was created through the establishment of a Special Account to act as a reserve fund.

The committee of experts also suggested the creation of a Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), an external control body with system-wide oversight and a focus on value for money rather than classical auditing.48 First established in 1968, it became a permanent part of the UN system in 1976, as a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly and the legislative bodies of other organizations that adopted its statute.49 Composed of eleven regionally balanced inspectors, the JIU was made accountable to the membership and not the Secretary-General. It has generally been unpopular, criticized for the quality of its inspectors and relevance of its reports.50 42 In November 1962, Thant was unanimously elected as Secretary-General proper after the Soviets dropped their objections. He had personally met Khruschev and his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis had led the Soviet leader to reflect that he was probably the best Secretary-General Moscow was likely to get.51 The Americans were still enthusiastic. His office was given its first budgetary overhaul since 1946 and Thant himself received a $10,000 pay raise to $70,000 a year.52 But crises over the UN budget were a constant theme of Thant’s tenure; by the end he would lament that after more than ten years of deficit financing, the UN was essentially bankrupt.53 Thant and Development Challenges Thant was the very first non-Western head of an international organization and was eager to champion a new development agenda (there is some dispute over whether he or Hammarskjöld coined the terms “Third World” and “developing world” – it seems Hammarskjöld came up with the terms but Thant first used them publicly). It was during his tenure that a huge expansion of the UN’s bureaucracy on development and economic and social issues began. This was in an era before much criticism of wasteful or ineffective spending on aid, and there was little resistance to bureaucratic expansion per se. In fact, it was President Kennedy, speaking to the General Assembly in 1961, who drew attention to the income gap between rich and poor countries and called for a “development decade,” leading it to endorse a concerted program for economic and social development. At a time when the Secretariat was fairly constrained on traditional security issues, the development agenda gave the Secretary-General a continued high profile role and a constituency base from which to deal with both the Americans and the Soviets.

The economic and social parts of the UN system – including the Secretariat but also agencies such as ILO – were seen at the time as a strong intellectual center of the global development agenda, often demonstrating fresh thinking on development issues.

The UN was important in the emergence and standardization of certain concepts (such as the GNP) and in the use and promotion 43 of good statistical methods. However, with Cold War suspicions in full flight, the UN was constrained from addressing broad macroeconomic questions. In addition, the World Bank already had a certain comparative advantage, particularly for the provision of finance to developing countries, cemented by its creation of the International Development Association (IDA) in 1960.

The comparative advantage of the UN was therefore in technical assistance; the transfer of knowledge and technology to developing countries, fulfilling their need for neutral experts on very practical matters.The preoccupation of the General Assembly with development was reflected in the creation of the UN Special Fund in 1959, headed first by Paul Hoffman, and in 1965, the establishment of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which combined the functions of the Special Fund and EPTA, retaining the emphasis on technical and pre-investment assistance. Over time, its representatives would become coordinators for the UN in the field (later “Resident Coordinators”).54 A number of other agencies, funds, programs and conferences were also created in the 1960s and early 1970s, such as WFP (1963), UNCTAD (1964), UNITAR (1965), UNFPA (1969), UNEP (1972), and IFAD (1974). UNCTAD (the UN Conference on Trade and Development) marked a high-point of developing country influence and for a decade was a major “hub” for UN intellectual activity on economic and social issues. It had its own secretariat and Thant appointed Raúl Prebisch, a passionate believer in the “import-substitution” ideas fashionable at the time, as its first head. Over time, some would argue that UNCTAD – and by association its Secretariat, which was seen as an important driving force - was innovative, for example emphasizing poverty reduction well before it was embraced by the World Bank after the period of structural adjustment in the 1980s. But some developed countries found it confrontational and ideological and campaigned (unsuccessfully) to have it transformed into a specialized agency from which they could opt out.55 As the number of funds and programs mushroomed, the lack of cross-system coordination was increasingly obvious. In 1969, a UNDP report (the “Capacity Review”) written by Robert 44 Jackson with the assistance of Margaret Anstee made a scathing attack on the fractured and ill-disciplined nature of the UN system, describing it as a “prehistoric monster.” In particular, Jackson honed in on the absence of any central “brain” or “analysis capacity” at the center of the system which could direct and guide its multiple parts.56 He warned that if the UN’s record did not improve, its comparative advantage in development would soon be lost altogether, probably to the World Bank.Yet to his disappointment, there was resistance to change from both the bureaucracy and member state sources.

Thant as Peacekeeper and Mediator The United Nations cannot permanently protect the Congo or any other country from the internal tensions and disturbances created by its own organic growth toward unity and nationhood.57

–  –  –

Thant’s initial political challenge was in the Congo, where in December 1961 he authorized Operation Grand Slam, a large scale military operation which effectively ended the Katanga secession.



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