1989 was a momentous year. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 signified the end of the Cold War and the beginning of a new world order. The implications of these unfolding events for the UN were hard to predict at that point, but it was clear that they were inaugurating a new era. I had just started working for the UN in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in August and we focused on the socio-economic ramifications, including by identifying “peace dividends,” which we thought would be the result of the end of the East-West rivalry.
There was a general sense that communism had failed and that there was now no alternative anymore to capitalism, giving a further boost to the neo-liberal economic policies that were introduced in several western economies in the 1980s, including in the Netherlands under PM Lubbers, the UK under PM Thatcher and the US under President Reagan.
1989 was significant for another reason. A British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal in March 1989 for what would eventually become the World Wide Web. These two factors – neo-liberal economic policies and the internet – drove globalization to unparalleled levels of global integration. This happened on various levels: trade (of goods and services), capital, people, technology, ideas, culture, images, news, etc. This has enabled many countries to escape poverty and grow very rapidly, especially in East and South-East Asia.
But what seemed like real progress at first also had its downsides, which became increasingly clear. And it seems the world is still dealing with the consequences.
Optimism followed by realism in the 1990s
The euphoria at the UN was palpable in the early 1990s. Suddenly, the Security Council was allowed to do its work without being blocked by vetoes either from the US or the Soviet Union – and the Council got very busy. The average annual number of resolutions increased from 15 to 60. The Council had approved 13 peacekeeping operations in the preceding 45 years, but would mount 26 in the first 15 years after 1989. The UN would help bring an end to several protracted wars in Central America and Southern Africa that were fueled by the Cold War and in supporting the implementation of these peace agreements through peacekeeping operations. Moreover, before 1989, the Council imposed sanctions twice; between 1990 and 2004 it did so 14 times for an increasingly diverse set of objectives, including to reverse aggression, restore democracy, protect human rights, end wars, combat terrorism and support peace agreements. The Security Council showed its value when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990. It was united in authorizing the use of force against Iraq to liberate Kuwait and a broad coalition of countries supported the US in the fight. (This was in stark contrast to the second Iraqi war, which was not authorized by the Security Council.)
The optimism was also evident in other ways. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and visited the UN, and the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end in 1994. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published seminal pieces of work: An Agenda for Peace (1992), which introduced peacebuilding to the UN, An Agenda for Development (1994) and An Agenda for Democratization (1996). The UN also organized an array of summits – on children (1990), environment (1992), human rights (1993), population (1994), women (1995) and social development (1995), which culminated in the Millennium Declaration of 2000 on which the Millennium Development Goals for the period 2000-2015 were based. A highlight was the General Assembly’s World Hearings on Development in 1994, which featured stars and icons, such as Julius Nyerere whose sharp remarks on democracy in Hong Kong I can still remember.
In the 1990s, the Washington Consensus dominated the economic policy realm. Named after the location of the IMF and the World Bank, it advocated for a set of market-liberalizing measures, affecting the markets for foreign exchange, food, fuel, commodities, labor and capital. It also demanded reductions of fiscal deficits, which often negatively affected social expenditures on education, health and social safety nets, as was documented by UNICEF in its publications on Adjustment with a Human Face. Nonetheless, globalization was the buzz word and the driving force of major changes in many societies.
There was a similar shift towards democracy. Because of the perceived “victory” of capitalism and democracy as the outcome of the Cold War, some authors announced the arrival of the “End of History” (Francis Fukuyama). There were no real alternatives anymore for capitalism and democracy and many countries transitioned to such systems, including in Eastern Europe, Russia, Africa and Latin America. Many countries organized multi-party elections, sometimes under pressure from donors, for example in Africa.
Yet, the institutions that are necessary to support democracy – free and independent media, independent judiciary (to decide election disputes), independent election commissions, political parties that campaign on policies rather than ethnicity and a well-functioning parliament – were often weak, absent or insufficiently supported through programs that focus on strengthening them. Just as the shift from state-directed economies to market economies can be perilous when underlying institutions are weak, democratization can be difficult and volatile.
The euphoria of the early 1990s was short-lived. The wars in the former Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda (1994) and the genocide in Srebrenica (1995) were rude reality checks. There were also downsides to globalization. Markets can fail, especially financial markets, which are prone to crises. Globalization facilitated the transmission of economic and financial crises, contagion, illicit financial flows and transnational organized criminal and terrorism networks – as well as communicable diseases like AIDS, SARS, H1N1 and swine flu, with the COVID-19 pandemic just being the most recent and severe example. The mid to late 1990s saw several economic and financial crises, including in Mexico (1994), south-east Asia (1997-98) and Russia (1998) and the collapse of a major hedge fund (Long-Term Capital Management) in the US (1998). The optimism was further undermined by the failure of governments to deliver tangible improvements to the well-being of large segments of the population and many people losing their jobs to rising imports that accompanied globalization. Globalization was benefiting some but many were left behind and inequalities were increasing in many countries across the world.
So, the world ended up being more fragile, interconnected, crisis-prone, and multipolar, and having multidimensional problems and problems without borders. The seeds for economic and social grievances that have been so obvious recently, including during record levels of protests in 2019, were sown in the 1990s.
9/11 and the war in Iraq (again)
For a very short time many thought that the terrorist attacks on the US on 11 September 2001 would also be a moment that would unify the world – perhaps somewhat similar to 1989, but there was a level of solidarity that was absent in 1989. Le Monde in France ran the headline, “We are all Americans now.” It also felt closer to home as the attacks took place in the city that hosts the UN headquarters. Exactly six months earlier, I had joined the office of the Secretary-General Kofi Annan who was great at calming staff by going to each department (and giving hugs). The Security Council adopted unanimously a number of resolutions immediately after 9/11 condemning the attacks and on combatting terrorism. Because the UN Charter (art. 51) allows for a country to defend itself against an attack, the invasion by the US of Afghanistan in October 2001 was therefore seen as legitimate as Osama bin Laden was thought to be hiding there and Al Qaeda had bases there, protected by the Taliban Government.
This period immediately following 9/11 was crowned by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the United Nations. He was treated as a rock star in that period, beloved by staff as he was “one of us,” rising through the ranks from the lowest to the highest position, and celebrated outside of the UN as the “secular pope” who spoke softly with great authority and dignity.
The war in Iraq changed everything: for Iraq, the Middle East, the broader world and the UN. The UN had been at the center of the discussions on Iraq leading up to the war, culminating in the presentation of US Secretary of State Colin Powell on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But the US did not propose a second Security Council resolution seeking explicit approval of the use of “all necessary means,” as was the case in 1990, and invaded Iraq anyway in March 2003. It was clear, even before the invasion, that it was “easy” to win the war but very difficult to win the peace. The Security Council established a UN Assistance Mission in Iraq in August 2003 to help with that, but the same month a suicide attack on the UN offices in Baghdad killed the Special Representative of the Secretary-General Sergio Vieira de Mello and 21 other colleagues. I knew four of them. It was a watershed moment for the UN. Up to that point there was a sense that the blue flag would protect us, but after Baghdad it became clear that the blue flag is also sometimes a target.
The Oil-for-Food programme for Iraq, which was created to ameliorate the impact of the sanctions imposed in 1990 and was critical in feeding the Iraqi people, became a lightning rod for conservatives in the US, accusing the UN, and the Secretary-General, of corruption. In fact, nearly all of the corruption took place within Member States through kickbacks that companies were paying Saddam Hussein. These accusations affected the UN and the Secretary-General very much. Some called for his resignation, which must have affected his health because he was at home sick for a while.
The difficulties in Afghanistan and Iraq to create the conditions for sustainable peace and development illustrates a larger trend of the changing nature of violent conflict. Violent conflicts over the last few decades occurred mostly within countries rather than between countries as was common at the time the United Nations was founded. In fact, the decline in inter-state conflicts could be in part attributed to the United Nations. And the conclusion of many civil wars that were proxy wars between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War in the 1990s was also largely thanks to the UN, which negotiated peace agreements and put peacekeepers on the ground to facilitate the implementation of these peace agreements.
That was relatively easy with usually two opposing parties: governments vs. rebels. But current violent conflicts have many more non-state armed actors, which makes negotiating and enforcing peace agreements very difficult. Hence, the traditional instruments of the UN (good offices and mediation and peacekeeping) have become less effective in these new environments where armed groups have amorphous objectives that change over time; where terrorist groups have links with organized crime, and use each other’s tactics. Peacekeeping in such settings has become very difficult, especially where peacekeepers are also a target as is the case in Mali.
Since about 2010, the number and intensity of violent conflicts have increased, reaching the highest levels in 30 years. This has also led to high numbers of displaced people, within countries and across borders, reaching the highest level since 1945. Some of these conflicts were a direct or indirect result of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the Arab Spring, which showed again how difficult transitions from authoritarian regimes to more democratic regimes are. As the UN-World Bank study Pathways for Peace (2018) showed, horizontal inequalities among groups and exclusion from political power or economic opportunities are often the drivers behind recent violent conflicts.
To address some of these challenges, peacebuilding has become increasingly central to the UN’s efforts to create the conditions for sustainable peace and development by focusing on coherent and comprehensive approaches that cover the entire spectrum of the UN from political and peace and security to development, human rights and humanitarian issues, deployed throughout the conflict cycle that focus on addressing drivers of conflicts that enhance the trust among population groups and between the state and the population including by creating more inclusive and responsive institutions.
The UN in a changed world
The UN has been adapting continuously to the changing international, geopolitical, economic, social and environmental context we are operating in. The geopolitical situation moved from a bipolar state during the Cold War, which was relatively stable, to unipolar where the US was the main superpower in the 1990s to a multipolar world, which the Secretary-General recently described as chaotic. When I started working at the UN, the US and western European countries were the most powerful. That has changed a lot, with Russia asserting its power in the UN very actively, and China more recently as well, besides increasingly vocal emerging powers such as Brazil, Egypt and India.
The UN has expanded peacekeeping operations rapidly in the 1990s, reaching an annual budget of US $8 billion and deploying 120,000 uniformed personnel in the mid-2010s, which was the largest military force deployed abroad after the United States. Peacekeeping also changed a lot over the years, featuring multidimensional operations where the deputy head also serves as coordinator for the development and humanitarian actors in the country; robust mandates, allowing peacekeepers to actively engage armed groups; and protection of civilians, sometimes against the army of the host country, as a core activity. Peacekeeping remains a risky and difficult operation in settings where there is no peace to keep, operating in a gray area between no peace and no war. But the empirical evidence is strong that peacekeeping works; it saves lives, reduces the length and intensity of violent conflicts and increases the longevity of peace.
On the development side, the UN has been the platform used to formulate development goals; first the conferences of the 1990s, then the Millennium Development Goals for the period 2000-2015 and now the Sustainable Development Goals for 2015-2030; and in financing for development, drawing in the IMF and the World Bank as well. I was involved in these processes and it continues to amaze me how ideas that started in the basement of the UN building, find concurrence in the world and are the topic of government plans, civil society advocacy and private sector contributions across the world. The development goals have been very successful in contributing to higher vaccination rates, the spread of the use of oral rehydration therapy and the fight against diseases such as AIDS, malaria, measles, polio and TB. Humanitarians also contributed to the virtual disappearance of large-scale famines since the 1980s thanks to active interventions, e.g. with products such as “plumpy nut,” which allows for a severely malnourished child to recover in a very short period of time. In fact, the number of children dying every year before their fifth birthday declined from 12 million to 6 million a year.
There are so many areas where the UN’s work led to major changes across the world, it is hard to name them all. Let me add a few on international law, norms and standards. The UN established international courts to pursue war criminals in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, which, for example, recognized rape as a war crime for the first time. The UN was also the place where countries negotiated the establishment of the International Criminal Court and adopted the principle of Responsibility to Protect. The UN also created divisions to support elections across the world and offer mediators to facilitate peace processes and an office for a High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Moreover, in most settings the UN is not the only player, and in many places not the largest either. Hence, the UN needs to work with many others, ranging from civil society to the private sector. In 2000 the UN created the Global Compact to encourage businesses to adopt ten principles on human rights, labor the environment and anti-corruption, and report on their implementation.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been part of the UN since its creation as they were present at the signing of the Charter in 1945 in San Francisco and they have a place in the Charter where it states that the Economic and Social Council may make arrangements to consult with NGOs. But, of course, the role of civil society has increased vastly since 1945, including at the UN, and they have been instrumental in the ban on landmines, debt relief, fair trade and climate change, to name just a few.
The UN at 75 has clearly shown that it can remain relevant in a changing world. It has benefited from great leaders, including the current Secretary-General António Guterres. The importance that old and new powers, and many others, continue to attach to the UN as a place for dialogue, negotiations and addressing emerging challenges is proof that the UN will survive. But we should never take that for granted.
A personal birthday wish and favorite SDG
In the context of this anniversary publication 75 years UN, Stories and Perspectives, the UN asks: What is the favorite Sustainable Development Goal, as prospect for the future for the United Nations? And what is the birthday wish for the UN?
Q1: What is your favorite Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)?
I do not have to think very long about the question about what my favorite SDG is, as I have worked very hard to have the SDG 16 included in the post-2015 development agenda (the name used for the agenda during consultations and negotiations). It was a slow and steady process. This started toward the end of 2011 with an internal UN mechanism – of which I was a member – to write a report on the development agenda after the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015). My contribution was the goal to include the topic of violent deaths, and I invited likeminded people from all corners of the UN system.
I also made contact with a number of member states, NGOs and thinktanks, to broaden the support base for this goal. That first report set the breadth of years of extensive and wide-ranging discussion which followed, in which peace and justice were regularly discussed. The report suggested to include a fourth dimension of sustainable development, namely about peace and safety. And despite the fact that the terminology changed, the agenda was broadened and the institutions were linked to it, over the years the chances increased that at least some of my personal contribution would stick.
Q2: What is your birthday wish for the UN?
My birthday wish for the UN is that I would love to see the number of violent deaths (SDG target 16.1) halved in 2030 – which is the goal of the campaign Halving Global Violence.
Chief of Peacebuilding Strategy and Partnerships Branch Peacebuilding Support Office, UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, since 2010
World Food Programme, 2006-2010
Executive Office of the UN Secretary-General, 2001-2006
UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 1989-2001
M.A. in economics, University of Groningen, 1987
Ph.D. in economics, the New School for Social Research, New York City, 1998
 The views and interpretations in this paper do not necessarily represent the views of the United Nations, its Departments or Offices or its Member States.