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UNDIPLOMATIC TIMES

INDEPENDENT NEWS AND COMMENT ON WORLD AFFAIRS

DOCUMENTS ANCHOR THE REALITY OF UN LIFE


The United Nations is founded on a Charter negotiated at a conference in San Francisco in 1945. Everything the Organization has done since then is recorded in documents and most of the important ones can be accessed through the hyperlinked list on the right.


There are many other kinds of documents linked to the daily work of the UN. The UN Journal issued daily in major UN Centers is a guide to what is happening that day and in the weeks immediately ahead. You can it by email. One of the links on the right will take you to the UN Documents Center allowing access to all UN resolutions and decisions. A Research Guide tells you what else is available. Also available are a selection of maps. Most of the Map Collection, however is still in hard copy.  


More ephemeral than the historically important documents are the Reports of the Secretary-General that explain issues so that diplomats are on a common page in discussing problems. Personal interactions among diplomats are key to UN work but only when they agree in writing on a course of action can the Organization act. Consequently: much of the diplomatic work at the UN is focused on drafting politically nuanced texts of resolutions. 


 In addition to defining particular issues, documents also set the procedural paths delegations must follow to get to the point where they can agree or disagree. That involves documents that set the agendas of meetings and the programs of work. Analytical documents bring important problems to governmental attention and recommend remedial action. Verbatim records: summaries: draft resolutions and decisions reflect what is said and done in intergovernmental or expert bodies.


Over 200 reports a day are produced at UN Headquarters in New York to support the work of approximately 5,500 meetings per year. In addition to parliamentary documentation — much of it in all six official UN languages: Arabic: Chinese: English: French: Russian and Spanish — the Organization also issues major analytical studies: books: magazines and other public information material aimed at a global audience. A substantial part of this output is freely available on the Optical Disk System accessible through the UN web site. 


PROBLEMS WITH UN DOCUMENTS
Purely in terms of process UN documentation presents a picture of marvelous efficiency. However: in substantive terms they have significant short-comings. The Secretariat is loath to offend powerful governments and groups so most UN documents pussy-foot around the truth; the worst of them trample on it. Almost any document presented by the Secretariat to the Security Council will illustrate either or both characteristics.


The most glaring obfuscations occur in documents dealing with conflicts in resource-rich developing countries and regions. It is never possible from reading those kinds of reports to tell how conflicts began and how they are being sustained. They are alo extremely vague about what exactly is happening and who is arming and funding the parties in conflict. Nor does any "Report of the Secretary-General" (as most substantive documents are called), provide information embarrassing to a powerful member State. To become politically innocuous UN reports routinely avoid the historical and political context necessary for readers to understand the prevailing situation.

The poor quality of information and analysis available in UN reports is a perennial source of complaints but little has been done about it. The Security Council has set up special analytical capacities within the Secretariat, including a Situation Center and a Lessons Learned Unit but they have not addressed the crux of the problem.