Historical perspective of the Economic and Social Council and role of the President of the Council



Briefing on the Economic and Social Council for Members of the Council

United Nations Headquarters, New York, Conference Room 9

Thursday, 18 May 2006.

Ambassador Hjálmar W. Hannesson, Permanent Representative of Iceland

and Vice-President of the Economic and Social Council


"Historical perspective of the Economic and Social Council and role of the President of the Council"


Distinguished participants,

I would like to thank UNITAR for giving me the opportunity to speak on such an important topic, as development is one of the central objectives of United Nations’ work.

It is my pleasure this morning to address some of the milestones that have led to the current structure of the Council, and the role of its Bureau and Presidency, and the recent decision to reform it. To do so, I would like to go back to the early days of its inception and to the ideas that found their way into the UN Charter.

The Council was established with the purpose to deal with international economic and social problems that might come before the UN and as the principal UN body to coordinate the economic, social and related work of the United Nations and the specialized agencies and institutions known as the United Nations family.

The need for a forum on economic and social issues was strongly felt since the time of the League of Nations. The so-called Bruce Committee, for example, had advocated a wide expansion of the League’s economic and social functions. The Bruce Report, produced in 1939 and then overtaken by the outbreak of war, anticipated the role later taken by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations after 1945. Many of the Bruce Committee’s recommendations were indeed incorporated into the UN Charter in the provisions of Chapters IX and X, which include the creation of an Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) (Art. 60, Chapter IX).

The proposals made during the Dumbarton Oaks conferences, which elaborated the principles then incorporated in the UN Charter, had initially suggested a fairly modest structure with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) being clearly subordinate to the General Assembly. However, a number of developing countries aspired to a new prominent body. These collective efforts at San Francisco led to the creation of ECOSOC as a principal organ. Ambiguity remained from its inception, however, since Article 60 of the UN Charter placed ECOSOC under the authority of the General Assembly, while Chapter IX, art. 55 of the UN Charter vested the responsibility to discharge the UN functions in international economic and social cooperation in the General Assembly and, under its authority, in the ECOSOC.

Thus, unlike its twin- the Security Council- ECOSOC, from the beginning enjoyed limited authority in international policy making. The Council could make policy recommendations on economic, social, and related matters to the UN system and member states and to the specialized agencies only through the General Assembly. Its decisions were only recommendations with none of the binding character of Security Council decisions under Chapter VII.

Nonetheless, ECOSOC's early years were promising: ministerial participation was frequent; technical assistance to less developed countries was started; and important reports were written under its auspices, which contributed and generated new ideas on economic and social issues and thinking.

But the advent of the Cold War strongly interfered with the working of the ECOSOC. The role of the Council was sidetracked by the preference and practice of its members. Many developed countries preferred to do business in organizations which they controlled, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). These specialized agencies, which according to the Charter should be coordinated by ECOSOC, stood on their independence. By the same token, the less developed countries preferred to conduct business in the General Assembly, and in the newly created General Assembly organs such as the UNCTAD.

There is no lack of efforts in this period to increase the influence and effectiveness of the Council, which was indeed the target of repeated reforms campaigns. The only reforms that managed to gain support in the GA, however, were those aiming at expanding the size but not the powers of the Council. Its membership, which was originally of 18 members, was expanded to 27 in 1965 and to 54 in 1971 through amendments to the UN Charter, which enhanced its legitimacy but not the role and the effectiveness of its functioning.

The enlargement of the ECOSOC made the Council more accessible to Member States but clearly did not address its weaknesses and shortcomings, nor provided a stronger tool and machinery to deal with the world’s persistent economic and social problems.

Another outcome of these rounds of reforms was the creation of subsidiary bodies of the Council. These bodies contributed in enhancing the access and impact of the ECOSOC. It truly became a system. The UN regional Commissions, for example, managed to launch a number of ideas on economic and social development at a time of decline in the Council’s work. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has been the most active in developing policy ideas that it considered crucial for its region, such as the centre–periphery framework, import substitution policies, and dependency analysis. Particularly in the 1980s, which were dominated by the Washington Consensus, ECLAC was able to develop alternative thinking on issues of trade, finance and development for its region. The UN Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), on the other hand, was the only forum during the Cold War in which East and West met and worked together on a range of very specific economic issues and later on were able to develop together alternative approaches for the economies in transition of Eastern and Central Europe.

The end of the Cold War opened new possibilities for the scope of action of the Council. At the beginning in the 1990s, a number of member states felt that the Council needed to be revitalized. They began an effort to make the Council more relevant by strengthening its policy responsibilities in economic, social, and related fields, particularly in the area of development and development objectives. The purpose was to turn the Council into a more effective platform of global policy advocacy and coordination on economic and development issues.

The reforms of the 1990s aimed at revitalizing the Council managed to enhance, to a certain degree, the prestige of the Council. Subsequent resolutions of the General Assembly brought about institutional changes that made the substantive sessions of the Council more high-level, focused, and action-oriented. In particular, General Assembly resolution 45/264 (1991), decided that the ECOSOC would hold one substantive session annually, between May and July, to take place in alternate years in New York and Geneva. The substantive session would have a four-day high-level segment open to all Member States, with ministerial participation, devoted to the consideration of one or more major economic and/or social themes, and a one-day policy dialogue on important developments in the world economy and international economic cooperation in which the heads of the international financial and trade institutions of the UN system would be invited to participate. The high-level segment would be followed by a coordination segment, an operational activities segment, and a committee segment where economic, social and related issues would be considered in two separate committee meetings simultaneously. These arrangements remain current except the replacement of the committee segment with a general segment in 1993 (GA res 48/162), and the reduction of the substantive session to four weeks in July in 1996 (GA res. 50/227) and the inclusion of a humanitarian affairs segment, which deals with one of the most important features of the United Nations.

General Assembly resolution 50/227 and 57/270B, respectively in 1996 and 2003, further enhanced the institutional role of ECOSOC as a prime policy forum to debate emerging issues and to offer policy guidance to member states and the UN system. The institution of organizational sessions and informal consultations ahead of the Council’s substantive sessions also enhanced the role of the Bureau and of the President of the Council. The Bureau acts as a facilitator in the convening of the informal consultations and assists the Council in identifying relevant issues for discussions in its session and areas of possible action.

I would like to highlight a few elements of these reforms that have, in my view, contributed significantly to enhance the role of ECOSOC and that of its President and Vice-Presidents:

1) The institution of informal consultations has enhanced the role of the President and that of the Vice-Presidents comparable to that of the Vice-Chairs of the GA Committees. The President has acquired active role in promoting specific initiatives in development policy and goals. Since 1992, various initiatives have been undertaken by various Presidents of the ECOSOC: examples are the "Manifesto on Poverty" in 1999 (President Fulci), rural initiatives in countries such as Madagascar, Burundi and Benin, and the support to New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). These initiatives are an indications of the extent to which the role of the President has evolved over time, which paralleled the evolution of the role of the Council itself. The President tasks are now broader. He/she is much more involved with the intergovernmental and legislative process and has greater access to the media. This gives him/her potentially more exposure to promote ECOSOC’s initiatives and actions. The President is chosen from a different region every year. The first president was Sir Ramaswami Mudaliar of India. The current one is Ambassador Ali Hachani of Tunisia. The first woman to become President of ECOSOC was Marjatta Rasi from Finland and that did not happen until last year.

2) The theme oriented sessions of the high-level segment and of the other segments have also facilitated the emergence of more concrete initiatives, which have emerged over the years not only as a result of the working of the segments, but also of its Functional and regional Commissions, which all report to ECOSOC. The theme is assigned every year for ministerial discussion in the high-level segment. This year’s theme is "Creating an environment at the national and international levels conducive to generating full and productive employment and decent work for all, and its impact on sustainable development".

The reforms also made the ECOSOC the oversight and policy-setting body for UN operational development activities and established smaller executive boards for the UN Development Programnme (UNDP), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which would provide those agencies with operating guidance and promote more effective management. The reform also gave ECOSOC a strong hand in ensuring that UN agencies coordinated their work on issues of common interest, such as narcotics control, human rights, the alleviation of poverty and the prevention of HIV/AIDS. The impact of this reform was to enhance the profile of the Council in development and improve the coherence and coordination within the UN development system.

In 1998, ECOSOC initiated meeting with the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade Organization and later UNCTAD. This yearly meeting provides a major forum to address the current financial and economic situation. Since 2002, this meeting has assumed a new important role in the follow-up to the Monterrey Consensus. This is a unique forum, which brings all key actors on one platform.

ECOSOC is being brought to the centre of the implementation of the UN development agenda. The 2005 World Summit has assigned three new implementation features to the Council: firstly, to ensure the follow-up to the outcomes of major United Nations conferences and outcomes, including the internationally agreed development goals, for which it will hold annual ministerial-level substantive reviews to assess progress; secondly, to review international trends in international development cooperation and promote greater coherence among development partners. A biennial Development Cooperation Forum will be the instrument to deal with this responsibility; and thirdly, to support and complement international efforts to address humanitarian emergencies, including natural disasters. The ECOSOC initiative last year on the Avian flu, which will be followed up this year, provides an example of how the Council can take action on future emergencies.

Thank you.

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