The World

Mar 8, 2018

‘The UN has to be better, and I think it is struggling’: Helen Clark

Two years after losing the race for secretary-general, the former New Zealand prime minister says the UN needs an "injection of sheer political reality".

Meg Watson — Associate editor

Meg Watson

Associate editor

Between Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US election and Helen Clark’s failed bid for UN secretary-general, 2016 was a hell of a year for women in high office. Clinton didn’t manage to smash her literal glass ceiling, while Clark claims she hit hers.

Long thought to be the clear frontrunner, New Zealand’s former prime minister and the then-administrator of the UN Development Program was firmly denied the UN’s top job. It was a choice that disappointed many, not least of which those advocating a woman for the job. In the organisation’s 72-year history, the position has been exclusively held by men.

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16 thoughts on “‘The UN has to be better, and I think it is struggling’: Helen Clark

  1. Arky

    In my uni days I was a big supporter of the UN. Thought the post-Cold War UN had a real opportunity to make a difference in the world. This probably peaked when the UN seemed the best hope for avoiding the US’ march to the Iraq War, and the way the US defied the UN and suffered absolutely nothing for it has seen things be all downhill from there.

    It’s not just the Security Council vetoes that have limited the UN’s role, though. Structural problems plague every level of the organisation. One vote per country sounds great in principle, but it has tended to let the rich buy the votes of many small and often unaffected countries on issues which matter to them. Japan buying the votes of landlocked small nations on whaling is a classic example known to Australians, but it’s easy to detect the influence of US and Chinese aid, OPEC oil money, etc in resolutions in the General Assembly and various committees.

    It doesn’t feel like anyone really respects or believes in the UN anymore, or that there is any institutional will left in the UN to put the organisation back in the forefront of international affairs again. They still have a number of agencies doing valuable work in the field, which you wouldn’t want to lose, but the political organs at the top are moribund.

    The next step may be to write off the UN as a valuable experiment but to migrate to a new body without the baggage, just as the League of Nations was abandoned in favour of the UN decades ago, although how one will (without a war) encourage the powerful nations to move to a structure which no longer gives them lurks and perks, well, that’s the question isn’t it?

    1. Charlie Chaplin

      You’ve pretty well said it all, Arky. I’d only add that he who pays the piper calls the tune and the US hegemon contributes the most to the UN’s funding. Also, mid and small power countries knew perfectly well what permanent UN membership and veto power would do to the UN’s ability to fulfil its function and tried to prevent it happening right at the beginning. They knew what would happen because they’d seen it before with the League of Nations. They tried to form a truly democratic UN, but they failed. No points for guessing which nations refused to allow a democratic UN to form.

  2. Roger Clifton

    The United Nations is presently structured to deal with wars by mustering coalitions of nations amassing a greater force than the warring parties.

    On the same global scale, the damaged climate is emerging as a greater threat than any form of war. The UN will need to evolve into something with smiles to persuade and with teeth to coerce, whole nations into decarbonising.

  3. AR

    The failure of the UN is simply the failure of pseudo democracy (in its manifold forms) writ large.
    Put another way, it could be called the Tragedy of the Commons (the framing of which syllogism one might ponder…) when the participants are of unequal power, intelligence and involvement.

  4. zut alors

    A sorely missed opportunity for Clark to have had her hand on the UN tiller.

  5. Robert Garnett

    The reason the UN Security Council is irrelevant as a means to protect people from state aggression is that it’s most powerful member the US, is a rogue state. Aggression by one state against another is a war crime, however the US, the UK, Israel and Australia and other US vassles have invaded other countries and persecuted their populations in direct contravention of all that the UN stood for. If the member states, especially the powerful ones do not abide by the principles of the UN charter and there is no one to force them, don’t blame the UN.

    Sadly there is very little indication that the US will change it’s egregious foreign policies any time soon. Trump doesn’t have a foreign policy, but Paul Ryan and his henchman do, and it’s more of the same.

    In spite of it’s limitations the UN does some good in the world and it is better than nothing. It does curb the rogue states’ actions to a small extent as they have to justify themselves in the UN general assembly. Watching how they and their vassals vote is a useful way of assessing their real intentions. Nothing lasts forever and the US hegemony will ultimately fall. It may be bloody and nasty, but institutions like the UN have the potential to pick up the pieces.

    Climate change will get the US in the end; their economy and ecology is unsustainable.

    On the issue of woman in charge. I couldn’t care less whether the SG has a or not. Thatcher didn’t have one and look what she did to the working people of Britain. They are still paying for it. Thirty percent of the GDP of the UK is made up of drug money launderers like HSBC. None of that money goes to the ordinary person. With Hilary in the White House with her winner take all philosophy and her hatred of Putin would we be any safer? Hardly.

    Theresa May is hardly a pin-up poster person as a woman at the top.

    I like Helen, I think she would have made a good SG. But it’s not because she is a woman, it’s because she is a bit of a rat-bag in the political sense and that’s what the UN needs to shake it up and to upset some of the conventional wisdoms and by doing so create some positive change. But anyone who leads the UN is up against the most powerful and wealthy country in human history, a country led by and controlled by a small number of incredibly wealthy, and clever oligarchs who are getting richer and more powerful as every year goes by. Until these bastards are brought down nothing will change.

    As long as these people see themselves as leaders of the “indispensible” country all of us dispensable countries will just have to suck it up.

  6. gjb

    The UN is ineffective and in need of renovation on many levels. But consider the alternatives. Corporations would gladly “fill” the void if the UN continues to stagnate.

  7. Roger Clifton

    The overloaded greenhouse is a global problem. We must achieve zero emissions globallyby the year 2100, and in case you haven’t noticed it, that is within the lifetimes of some of today’s Crikey readers. In this period an awful lot of international agreement must be reached, globally. Technology to recycle carbon into synfuels cheaper than contraband must be developed (it’s already been invented), mass produced and installed – globally. Ditto the noncarbon energy sources to power it. International trade in synfuels must be monitored and trade in contraband fuel must be policed, globally.

    Revamped or not, we need the UN.

  8. AR

    …woop..woop! … Alert, Dodger appears to have been given a new cheat sheet.

  9. kyle Hargraves

    “She [Helen Clark] also suggests the SG should be restricted to one term in office to deliver action quickly — “The way things are the moment, the UN is not seen as anything like a top or sometimes even relevant actor in the resolution of [conflicts]”

    True enought but where is the substance? Another contributer asserted “The United Nations is presently structured to deal with wars by mustering coalitions of nations amassing a greater force than the warring parties.” which is at variance with its own history for the last 30 years. The military officers appointed to “manage” conflicts “monitored” by the UN are so risk-adverse that they would be Cashiered (dismissed) in normal circumstances. On this account (alone) the UN is utterly ineffective.

    > and [she] calls for changes to the SG selection process.
    which, Arcky & CC have gone to some trouble to point out, isn’t going to occur in the short term. In fact Trump has put the members of the UN and NATO on notice to start “paying their own way” or the USA will walk away. Such might be a toothless threat given to benefits of both NATO and the UN to the US (keeping the kids under control) but the members could find themselves paying something like their share before too long.

    “A sorely missed opportunity for Clark to have had her hand on the UN tiller.” is the fundamental assumption of the article but NO attempt has been made to assess Clark’s capacity in management; an analysis of her (impressive) period as PM of NZ would have been a good place to start. While not without ability she has strong inclinations to micro-manage (as does Rudd). The policies of Key were not significantly different from Clark’s at the beginning of 2009 but anyone could hear the thud; ditto for English and Ardern.

    In any event the vote in 2008 was against Clark and less so with Labor Party –
    I was there – if the Franklin Club (its incorporated name because shop-girls are now members – but previously the Franklin Gentleman’s Club) is to be appealed to as a proxy for assessment.

    Its JUST possible that Clark was NOT the best candidate for the job. Alternatively the relations between the US and ANSUS etc. could have been a contributing factor to being “passed over”. It has been NZ Labor that has objected most strongly to nuclear-powered warships. Their (Clark and Rudd) reputations may have preceded them in respect of their aspirations for the UN.

    Noted by some “We must achieve zero emissions globally by the year 2100” just isn’t possible; common agricultural practices will prevent the realisation of such an objective. Then as a conclusion : “Revamped or not, we need the UN.” ought to be turned upon its head with the conclusion : the “feel good drivel” that that is discharged from any number of UN Committees is precisely the reason for the the eventual irrelevance of the UN. As it stands it it about as effective as the League at its zenith.

    1. Roger Clifton

      Re: “We must achieve zero emissions globally by the year 2100”

      More precisely, the Paris Agreement of 2015 required “net zero emissions” by 2100 for warming to converge on 2 degrees. (Some cynics called the “net” qualifier a fairy godmother who would magically vanish all continuing emissions, implying that sequestration cannot.) The word “net” does allows CO2 to be recycled – so that as much is removed from the atmosphere as the burning of synfuels emits. Practicability requires that synfuel be available globally cheaper than fossil fuel.

      Farmers who burn stubble return about as much carbon to the atmosphere as the grass (the stubble part) had withdrawn. Net zero.

      1. kyle Hargraves

        Agreed : NO net ‘anything’ means no increase or decrease; i.e. steady-state; the absolute compositions remain the same. But, with all due respect, the remarks that you have made (of which countless others concur) are beside the point. Combined with your other remark (which I refer to because the assumption is so common or wide-spread) viz., “The UN will need to evolve into something with smiles to persuade and with teeth to coerce, whole nations into decarbonising.” –

        is not even close and, moerover, impractical (given very real commercial forces to the contrary of this objective – to say nothing of the asprations of developing countries.

        what IS required is (in this order)
        (1) A calculation for the percentage of C02 in the atmosphere so matters do not get out of control; I envisage about 300-325ppm but we’ll see.

        (2) A calcuation to bring the current level (400ppm+ to circa 310ppm); about 50 years; I would envisage; rough calc is available if you wish to see it – at tad mathematical for the general audience)

        (3) similarly for Methane but the interval of time would, (rough calc on a scrap of paper) be close to 70 years; perhpas a tad more.

        The above (rough estimates – that anyone with some clue as to STEM could do ) bring us rather close to 2100. The move away from petroleum products to small scale electric transport (cars, buses & trains) will ameliorate matters but the petroleum companies have already begun their assault by calming that with electric (automated-driver) cars there is no net (that word again) “carbon” benefit.

        With small scale transport under control (let’s assume) then there is the matter of heating (or cooling). If one thinks that every wombat has an opinion on climate change attempt a discusson between the Adani coalmine and a nuclear power plant (heaps of U235/8 in the NT) as an exercise in PR.

        As brief adendum, Shorten does have a point but he may not realise it. A modern coal-fired power station has about a sixth or a seventh of the emmisions of those plants constructed in Oz decades ago. For eveyone six plants scraped and a new one built there would be, as a matter of arithmetic, a significant reduction in emisions. An effective “solution”, whatever it is will cost some dosh. Company tax to 39%; why not (given the history)!

        1. Roger Clifton

          If we could hold global emissions at net zero for a long time (beware upwelling ocean), yes, the greenhouse would be steady at 400+ ppm. But if we were to draw CO2 out of the greenhouse (to reach 350 ppm or whatever), we would have to put it somewhere. There’s no hideaway big enough!

          “We” would still have to be a global movement, perhaps led by such as Helen Clark.

          1. kyle Hargraves

            ok Roger we’ll do it by numbers. As an aside I did make a modest contribution to the discussion re :

            > If we could hold global emissions at net zero for a long
            > time … yes, the greenhouse would be steady at 400+ ppm.

            correct but 400ppm is too high particularly when the quantity of CH4 is taken into account.

            > But if we were to draw CO2 out of the greenhouse (to reach 350 ppm
            > or whatever), we would have to put it somewhere.
            indeed – we would.

            > There’s no hideaway big enough!

            Just NOT true but the chemistry is a tad more involved that the maths. People just arn’t interested. Nevertheless, consider, as I mentioned in the above link : the Paleocene (Eocene) Thermal Maximum. It is a big topic but the two (of many) links will get anyone started :

            The C02 increased 3.5 to 4.5 fold over a considerable period of time. The current increase in CO2 ( about 45%) has occurred over something like 100 years! NOW, sketch the graphs (info given in the first link) for the next 50 years if matters don’t change. I’ll leave the interested reader to digest the rest – but, just consider the Artic Ocean at 23C during the Eocene. Did it have an effect on ocean currents and fauna? Is George Pell an atheist?

            ““We” would still have to be a global movement, perhaps led by such as Helen Clark.”

            …mmm funny – sorry – but it is. Frankly (1) no one gives a rat’s butt (or we would not be having the discussion) and (2) if the impending climate issue could be “solved” then any political problem could be solved (e.g from Korea to Israel to Afghanistan etc.; resolution of corporate intellectual property issues – the whole bit) and we could all live as God intended us to live (appealing to Genesis) in a Garden or Gardens of Eden. The Monty Python crew could come out of retirement and have a field day.

            Do you think people will turn up (anywhere) to discuss the maths and chemistry of this issue? An advertisement for free beer and snags might stand half a chance for generating interest. As to a modest suggestion for a Friday : locate a Peter Cook and Dudley Moore tape. Now that’s intellectual!

      2. Roger Clifton

        Okay, Kyle, I must call you out on that one. I said “There’s no hideaway big enough” to permanently sequester the overload of CO2 – about 1000 gigatons of it. You say, “Just NOT true but the chemistry is a tad more involved”.

        No matter how involved its chemistry gets, no process can make that vast mass vanish. Permanently.

        The most we could achieve would be to replace all uses of fossil carbon (achieve net-zero emissions) , so that the GHG concentration can be held steady and the rising temperature converges on the new norm.

        The global “We” has to be defined by a global leadership.

        1. kyle Hargraves

          “Okay, Kyle, I must call you out on that one” I don’t mind at all Roger – not in the least.

          “No matter how involved its chemistry gets, no process can make that vast mass vanish.”

          ok – dispense, (excuse the pun) with the chemistry for a moment. I did refer to the Paleocene (Eocene) Thermal Maximum and I do wonder if you have read the content of those and associated links provided. The CO2 (moles/volume or ppm) well exceeded that of what exists today. By the beginning of the Industrial Revolution the composition of CO2 in the atmosphere was circa 275ppm. The composition had probably been at that value (given a population of a billion world-wide by 1700-ish) since the Mesolithic. It DID require some tens of millions of years to return to that value! Given the current mess NO solution is going to be short-term.

          “The most we could achieve would be to replace all uses of fossil carbon (achieve net-zero emissions)”

          Is such a realistic option in the sort term : i.e. 50 years (for aviation and marine requirements)? Then there are petroleum and agricultural methane emissions (1/3 & 2/3 respectively).

          “so that the GHG concentration can be held steady and the rising temperature converges on the new norm.”

          That is just the point. “Everyone’s model has different coefficients but just based on a moderate (1st order) Logistic function the matter will become only too clear. Lovelock made the point twenty years ago Roger : we’re
          screwed (if we had shut off everything yesterday). Holding CO2 “steady” at 4xx ppm isn’t an option especially when the quantity of CH4 is taken into account.

          With all due respect Roger you haven’t “called me out” or taken me to task at all. As to the problem I think we are more or less agreed. You are displaying you optimism with remarks such as “The global “We” has to be defined by a global leadership”. I, for one, anticipate no such reaction (of any significance) from anyone or any organisation. There is just too much vested interest from the “developing” and the developed world for any kind of realistic (as opposed to piece-meal) “reform” to appear (or occur).

          I despise the Greens for their FUD campaigns along with their very partial-truth (cough) explanations. In a nutshell wind isn’t an option but solar is. The most effective solution is nuclear (but please don’t bang on about waste; the methods have changed considerably). Shorten OUGHT to have provided the “for and against” for regarding the Adani coal mine; i.e. explored ALL options – assuming that he has advisers that are up to the task. The content of this paragraph (somewhat) negates your optimistic assertion in the previous post and the preceding paragraph. The major players cannot be expected to act rationally or without an eye to their Parliamentary seats or their aspirations for government. We’ll just have to release more CO2 by opening another beer.

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