I am an analytical philosopher by education, and a lawyer by profession. After several years working in London and Cairo in the practice of litigation, I first developed an embryonic sense of political consciousness when I served as legal counsel to the World Bank in Washington, DC. The mandate of the World Bank was originally to rebuild infrastructure and, indeed, lives, in the aftermath of the utter destruction pervading every corner of the globe after the Second World War.

A man, whose name I shall never forget, asked me as he was brushing his teeth at the end of a day of interviews, “so why do you want to work at the World Bank?” And the words fell out of my mouth: “to make the world a better place”. While I considered at the time my answer quite daft, it apparently had some effect upon this gentleman: I joined the Bank about three months later.

International institutions and their critics

The World Bank has an admirable mandate, and an ample budget to achieve it. Yet it has also had its critics. I recall vividly arriving at work in the mornings, and being approached by protestors handing out leaflets condemning the Bank for its work. I found this surprising, because I had joined the Bank through youthful enthusiasm, wanting to make the world a better place and believing that multilateral and international cooperation was the best way to achieve it. How could people be demonstrating against an institution with such palpably admirable stated intentions?

So one day I stopped, to discuss with a demonstrator, exactly what his complaints were. And he explained who he was (a member of a prominent NGO), and he explained them to me. And I listened. I did not agree with everything he said, but I did take note of it all. It was at this point that I realised civil society had a vital role to play in the operation and accountability of international organisations.

The reason he stood outside the World Bank’s shiny headquarters on a cold December morning in Washington DC was that in his view, the World Bank was a cause of poverty rather than the solution to it. I asked him why. I had joined a development institution, previously a lawyer in private practice, because I wanted to lift people out of poverty. Yet this articulate person told me that the institution of which I was an employee had the opposite effect. His reasoning was essentially that the money held by the Bank was misspent, and the result was that poor countries were left with massive loans they could not repay. The World Bank was a prison for the poor.

It turned out that to a large extent he was right, and I was wrong. That is why I subsequently supported the Jubilee 2000 Movement, calling for cancellation of third world debt. I also argued - informally at the time - for reform of the international financial system, so that organisations such as the World Bank could achieve more to alleviate poverty, civil crisis and global unrest with the massive resources at their disposal by focusing upon activities requiring expertise, such as capacity-building or judicial reform, rather than merely lending money inchoately.

The terms of operation of the World Bank were agreed before those of the United Nations, in 1944, and when I worked there I felt that the organisation had to an extent lost its way. I am therefore now pleased to see that although the institution (as with all organisations) remains imperfect, it has reformed itself dramatically since the time I was there and has a vastly more important role to play in the world than it might have done in the past. Essentially it is a force for good, even if, as for all of us, it exhibits the periodic blemish.

War, conflict and poverty

By unexpected confluence of circumstance, I found myself transferred in the course of a few astonishing weeks from the centre of world political power and dealmaking, and the haven of luxurious living in Washington, to a barren and ruined strategically important city in northern post-war Bosnia where I became the Chief Legal Advisor to an international civil servant in charge of post-war peace-building. My new surroundings were stark. On my very first night in the town that was to become my home for the next two and a half years I stayed in a hotel room, the corridor outside which had been the scene of a notorious massacre, as a group of unarmed Muslim men had been gunned down in cold blood by members of an irregular Serb militia.

Poverty, deprivation, physical destruction and emotional trauma were pervasive. My office was in a former primary school that had been the scene of a massacre. My Muslim friends refused to go to the same bars as my Serb friends. A lack of psychiatric care meant that the facilities were not available for the psychological rehabilitation of people scarred by war who had seen their families killed by their neighbours and, in some cases, had themselves killed their neighbours. Two things I learned from my experiences in Bosnia and Herzegovina were that civil wars are never civil; and in civil wars, everyone is a victim.

I was promptly immersed into indefeasible political controversies, as I found that UN agencies (of which I was part of one) fought with each other interminably for influence and control over budgets, policies, strategies and influence. The international community spent a vast amount of money seeking to reconstruct post-war Bosnia, but not all of it was wisely spent. In some cases, more money was spent establishing mechanisms to ensure money was wisely spent than the money whose wise expenditure was at issue. In the world of international relations, things sometimes become surreal.

Yet the people who worked in the United Nations, and in the international community in post-war Bosnia, were to an approximation ninety per-cent intelligent, decent, committed and well-intentioned. They made sacrifices: living in tough conditions, and tasked with near-impossible projects that they executed with the utmost nobility and integrity. I was in charge of a legal and judicial reform project at the age of 31. The Judges, Prosecutors and Police Officers over whom I had custody and supervision were almost all at least twenty years older than me. They understood a legal and political system about which, when I arrived, I knew barely the faintest thing.

I was palpably unequipped with the experience necessary to implement a Sisyphean task. Moreover the perennial turnover of international officials in a remote and insecure field operation, in which every car entering Mission premises had to be checked for bombs and grenades and different parts of the city were no-go areas for persons of different nationalities, meant that the domestic officials were far more capable at manipulating the international officials than the other way round. The United Nations brought its vehicles, its finances and its ideas. Local people mended the vehicles using the finances, but often let the UN take its ideas back home.

Using resources wisely

Another curious feature I observed in the operation of an intergovernmental agency in a post-war field operation was the perennial incapacity of the United Nations to match resources to requirements. I was running a complex judicial reform programme involving dozens of judges and prosecutors and hundreds of police officers; advising an international civil servant upon their obligations under international and domestic law; managing the conduct of elections; re-writing the constitution for a federal region of the country; re-writing communist-era laws to meet the problems of the modern age; and managing legal relations with other political entities and the politicians representing them. I had to operate with a local staff of eight, not including security and administration officials, and a budget so meagre and inaccessible in the bureaucratic perplexities access to it entailed, that I was overwhelmed. I worked eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, in the most inhospitable of conditions. I worked in these near-impossible circumstances notwithstanding holding what is now equivalent to a Director-level position.

All this stood in dramatic contrast to the World Bank, where I had virtually infinite resources at my disposal despite holding a mid-ranking professional position. The World Bank had all the money and staff one might dream of, yet its bureaucratic mindset enabled it to achieve relatively little with those tremendous materials. I found field work in the Balkans immensely more satisfying, because it was easier to get things done. I am a creature of the private sector, used to cutting ruthlessly through bureaucracy to achieve results; yet inclined to use my skills in the public sector, towards pursuing the public good, and in particular the international public good.

The core agenda of the United Nations

The horrors of war are the principal horrors for any people in any age, and the horrors the United Nations was created to avert. War engenders many of the globe’s other catastrophes for the people of the world: starvation; population movement; disease; political disorder; ethnic and religious rivalry and inequality (women and children invariably suffer disproportionately during conflict and its aftermath). Conquest, pestilence, famine and death are kinsmen in the misery of mankind. Yet even for the naive 31 year-old, there was so much that could be done.

I discovered even in my naivety, my imagined foreign expertise could achieve results, provided that the process of education was symbiotic with the local people with whom one worked. I listened as much as I ordered. I tried to show empathy with or understanding for every point of view, even those I privately found revolting. Nevertheless on occasion I recognised that my ruthless determination was essential to implement. There are some people who will simply not engage in a collaborative agenda to improve the lives of the miserable, or even discuss such matters in an honest way. Those people must be swiftly eliminated, yet in a manner that pays service to the principles of due process and rule of law that I believe are universal values even if they find equally valid but distinct modes expression in different cultures. The same knife cuts bread and fingers.

The United Nations has not alway been good at this. It must improve, and the scholarship and expertise in what is necessary for it to improve already exists. One might fear that change could be adverse. But if that were a universal philosophy, there would only be rot and never elevation. In the words of Sir Francis Walsingham, there is less danger in fearing too much than too little.

Institutional reform

That is why I have been a persistent advocate for UN reform. It is not just the institutional structure that must be reformed. Individual staff members must understand that they operate in a largely legal and not solely a political environment. It is often a unidirectional decision to work in the United Nations; one cannot go back. (I am one of the very few people I know who did, spending some nine years in private practice of law in Geneva after I ceased being a peacekeeper.) Therefore UN staff members must know they are going to be treated fairly in their employment relations, and they must have confidence that they have sufficient breadth in their employment mandate to operate effectively and thereby achieve the public interest goals to which the vast majority of UN staff are committed.

The UN staff membership is replete with some of the best-educated people in the world. Yet at the same time it must be understood universally, and without exception, that wrongdoing and abuse of the system cannot and will not be tolerated. UN staff members who act improperly must be given due process; they must be given an opportunity to defend themselves; and then, if they are found by an impartial and independent body to have done wrong, they must be dismissed. The same goes for those who would prefer to spend their employment fighting political turf wars rather than cooperating to achieve the goals of the organisation as a whole.

The United Nations is the principal organ of international law and indeed the custodian of so noble yet fragile an institution. The UN contains a legal framework, and it must operate within it. That legal framework is susceptible to reinterpretation or development from time to time, as are all systems of law. But it should be made clear that unilateral departures from the legal framework of the United Nations are unacceptable, for UN employees and sovereign states alike.

Finally, the United Nations is an instrument of dialogue and diplomacy. It is a place where sometime foes may come together, and find common points of engagement as well as departure. It is a cardinal principle of diplomacy that one remains diplomatic and courteous, while nevertheless always feeling free usefully to exchange one’s honest views, whether they be of national interest or of proper principle. Where military cooperation may not be possible in the short-term, financial or economic cooperation may be. Bismarck observed that the great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood. The mission of the United Nations is to prove him wrong. The way we do this is to continue courteous dialogue between all nations in the shadow of iron and blood kept well in the background of historical memory, so that new reincarnations of iron and blood need ever more rarely come to the fore. That is my aspiration for the United Nations in the twenty-first century.

Matthew Parish