Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

UN Reform?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Ambassador John Bolton will appear before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations today to be asked the $64,000 question: Following years of death-defying scandals, has the U.N. reformed? The answer will leave Congress with the follow-up: If not, what ought to be the consequences for U.S. financial contributions to the failing organization?

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has headed the U.N. through years of controversy that have made their way into the consciousness of the average American taxpayer, who is, after all, paying for 22 percent of the skullduggery. The dullness of the average U.N. meeting has finally been outweighed by the enormity of the transgressions: billions of dollars stolen by Saddam Hussein through a U.N.-monitored scheme; U.N. peacekeepers that raped their wards; genocide that wasn't stopped, or even named, by an organization premised on "never again"; nuclear weapons proliferation with impunity; human rights thugs on its lead human-rights body; grossly inadequate financial management and oversight; a bloated secretariat rife with duplication of mandates and responsibilities.

Into this morass came Ambassador Bolton, a no-nonsense, straight-talking foreign-policy expert, unswervingly dedicated to serving American interests-namely, to ensure that taxpayer dollars were wisely invested and that the causes of democracy, justice, and peace were well-served. It was August 2005 and the U.N. was in the throes of "reform," as Annan tried desperately to save himself from the judgment of history, if not Congress. Bolton's appointment came too late to do much about the outcome of the U.N. reform summit of world leaders which took place in September 2005. The summit document was as vague, ambiguous, and contradictory as the diplomats could make it while pretending it was a serious map for a real overhaul. The fact that it was hailed by dictators, despots, and democrats alike is enlightening.

Nevertheless, the next nine months did engender a slew of reform negotiations over a broad range of subjects. Part way through the process came the thorny issue of the approval of the 2006-7 U.N. budget. Ambassador Bolton, with congressional leaders looking over his shoulder, put his finger in the dike. In December 2005, the General Assembly made a unique decision not to rubber-stamp a two-year budget in the absence of tangible progress on reform. An allotment of $950 million, which was roughly equivalent to one-quarter of the budget-meaning an end of June 2006 expiration date-was approved. The rest of the money would be subject to a further approval process, although the precise conditions were deliberately avoided.

So here we are, only a few weeks before the U.N. runs out of money, and Congress set to answer the question of whether the reforms to date are sufficient to warrant the remaining three-quarters of the $3.8 billion budget. The easy way out is also the most familiar. The standard State Department response in the face of the mounting crisis of confidence in this organization is to call the glass half-full. The lines are familiar: We need the U.N. It's the only global multilateral body. It's better to keep talking. We're not perfect either. U.S. hegemony needs correction.

But if ever there was a time to resist the temptation for obfuscation and timidity, it is now. No doubt, we are all cognizant of our global interdependence, which ought to be accompanied by mutual concern and responsibility. That very duty, however, brings with it the necessity of giving an honest answer to the $64,000 question the Senate is about to pose. If Secretary Rice resists the temptation to manufacture the usual, artificially upbeat spin, the facts will speak for themselves.

The new Human Rights Council, which replaces the discredited Human Rights Commission as the U.N.'s lead human-rights body, now seats some of the world's worst human-rights abusers firmly on the inside. China, Cuba, Russia and Saudi Arabia are among its members. The controlling 55 percent of the Council's votes are in the hands of the Asian and African regional groups, and the election handed a 62-percent interest in those groups to the members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Issuing human-rights abusers a new license to judge human rights abuse is not successful reform.

On management reform, the situation has gone completely off the rails. Annan put a minimal reform package on the table that attempted to wrestle some control from the General Assembly majority which pays a small fraction of the U.N.'s costs. In response, for the first time in 19 years, that same majority forced a vote in the U.N.'s budget committee and sidelined the reform effort. The 50 countries that voted in the minority pay 87 percent of the U.N.'s dues.

On preventing genocide, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights appointed a Palestinian as executive director of a Commission of Inquiry on Darfur. Not surprisingly, the 2005 Commission's report refused to identify the millions of dead and displaced as an instance of genocide. The commission was loathe to label Darfur an ethnic or racial conflict between Arab militia and non-Arab victim. This pre-summit failure, along with Sudanese intransigence and African Union reservations, contributed to the continuing spectacle of U.N. troops remaining on the sidelines despite the carnage.

On stopping nuclear proliferation, the International Atomic Energy Agency decided three years ago that Iran had violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and associated legal obligations. And still the Security Council has yet to adopt a single resolution finding Iranian action to be a threat to international peace and security, let alone adopt serious sanctions before it's too late. Rooting all along for the Iranians, the Chinese, and the Russians have been the head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, and Annan himself, both of whom have repeatedly sought to scuttle Security Council resolve. Meanwhile, Iran was elected a vice-chair of the U.N. Disarmament Commission.

On so-called mandate review, Annan dumped a list of thousands of mandates of U.N. entities into the lap of U.N. members with no recommendations for streamlining and elimination. He apparently figured there was no reason to take the heat for pointing out the obvious anomalies, such as: there is one U.N. Division within the secretariat for Palestinians and another Division for everyone else in the Asian and Pacific region; there are two refugee agencies, one for Palestinians and one for every other refugee; there are two U.N. human rights websites and databases, one for Palestinians and one for everybody else; there are two parts to the Department of Public Information, one devoted to Palestinians and one for all other subjects. U.N. member states have barely started to discuss the details of Annan's list.

On terrorism, the U.N. is no closer to a definition. The gulf is so great on the question of which women and children are legitimate targets that Western states are now agreeing that the issue is best set aside in the name of "progress" on other fronts, such as giving technical advice to allegedly hapless developing nations. In the meantime, the drafters of a comprehensive convention against terrorism can't agree on their next meeting date. And Annan's new counter-terrorism report is in the middle of a war of words being waged in "informal consultations" about the root causes of terrorism, or the underlying evils that drive unfortunates to blow up themselves along with as many Americans, British, Iraqis, or Israelis as possible.

Aside from the reform pastime, there are the daily realities of U.S. life at the U.N. As monitored by, of all the votes cast in the fall 2005 General Assembly, the U.S. was in the minority 77 percent of the time. Furthermore, having reviewed every 2005 U.N. document, report, and resolution critical of human-rights records of specific states, found that the country subject to the most U.N. condemnations was Israel, while the U.S. was ninth-equal to Afghanistan (see graphs here). Countries subject to less U.N. condemnation for human rights abuse than the U.S. included China (11th), Iran (17th), and Cuba (25th).

Among the drops of water sitting in the bottom of the glass (and in danger of evaporation) are the following. A peace-building commission to assist in post-conflict situations has been created and its organizational committee was finally chosen May 16. A new ethics office has been established, along with new rules explaining ethical behavior to the U.N. secretariat. The rules include reducing the maximum amount for undisclosed gifts, to a selected 1,300 U.N. staffers, from $10,000 to $250. Since then, the secretary-general accepted a disclosed $500,000 prize from the U.N. member state of Dubai. This incident raised serious questions about conflicts of interest, among them being the fact that a judge on the panel awarding the prize was subsequently named to head the U.N. Environment Program. A U.N. Democracy Fund, first proposed by President Bush in 2004, has been established. But little more than a dozen states have made or promised contributions, totaling to less than $50 million, close to half of which is from the U.S. alone.

Congress and the administration are therefore squarely faced with the follow-up question-the financial consequences for the failures of U.N. reform. It may be, however, that an administration desperate for U.N. Security Council approval of any Iran strategy will pull Ambassador Bolton's finger out of the dike.

This would be a serious mistake. The story of the failure of U.N. reform is not one of bad-luck or bad-timing, which may improve down the road. The U.N. is a body of 191 states, less than half of which are fully free according to Freedom House. It is essentially controlled by the 132-strong G-77, a group of developing nations that believe development trumps democracy. The largest single block within the G-77 is the group composed of 56 Islamic states. The U.S. and its democratic allies are simply outnumbered. In the Security Council, where the U.S. holds a veto power, the American role is most often defensive. Proactive efforts in modern times to condemn and sanction states posing the greatest threat to peace and security have largely been thwarted.

The straight goods on U.N. "reform" would be an important first step in redirecting U.S. foreign policy away from the game of U.N. reform to the design of an effective multilateral institution that meets the needs of democracy in the 21st century.

This article originally appeared in the National Review Online.