Sixty years later: The United Nations in crisis, but not ready fort he Dunghill of history

Posted in Other , UN | 18-Oct-05 | Author: James M.B. Keyser

United Nations, New York. The recent Nobel Peace Prizeaward to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its chief, Mohammed El Baradei, is another reminder of the vital role the United Nations has in the world today. The Agency under Mr. Baradei was the voice of skepsis and warning during the time of the Bush Administrations’s efforts to create rationalizations for the invasion of Iraq. They withstood pressure from the United States and today they are taking the initiative where individual governments are too timid or inept to control nuclear proliferation in Iran, North Korea, and, Central and South Asia.

Other agencies of the United Nations are active in Darfur where the United States and Western European countries have not acted enough to prevent genocide. The World Health Organization along with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization are expected to take the lead in combating the Asian flu. Every day there are reports now of the UN taking the initiative in dealing with problems around the world.

In the past 60 years, since its founding, it has been taken for granted that the United Nations will act globally in a wide range of security situations, where individual nations lack the will or are simply incapable. It is paradoxical that the important and, at times, desperately needed, role of the United Nations in maintaining world security is taken for granted, on the one hand, and the institution, itself, is regarded, on the other hand as a great disappointment.

The Oil-for-Food Scandal

The theft of large sums of money from the oil for food program administered by the UN that allowed Iraq to purchase essential imports during an embargo took place within the UN itself and was directed by UN employees. Since the thefts occurred on United States territory, the Americans took responsibility for investigating the fraud and initiating criminal indictments. While this affair caught the public attention for a while, other events claimed the front pages and it was business as usual. The question remained: Even if criminal charges are filed and the criminals are punished, will any institutional changes take place within the UN? Note that both the institutional structure and the institutional culture that permitted this great theft were in place before the scandal and will likely to be in place after the scandal.

In view of the enormity of the crimes and, at the same time, the vital importance of the UN, the public and official indifference and ignorance are appalling. The US Senate hearings, for example, on the appointment of John Bolton as new US-Ambassador to The United Nations concerned John Bolton’s behaviour as a US State Department functionary focussed on his role in bullying subordinates into supporting questionable intelligence. There were practically no questions put to Bolton concerning the UN or what he would do at the UN. The hearings left the impression that there was a general ignorance all the way round and this should be distressing.

The UNESCO Affair

The United States has reacted to problems in the UN by shutting off money. The US withdrew financial support from the UN Educational and Scientific Organization during the Reagan administration and the quit altogether because of an alleged attack on the freedom of the press by the organisation. Although the matter was more complicated, it served as a convenient rationale for a popular sanctioning of a UN agency by tough Republicans in the Senate to enforce organisational changes. Satisfied with the remedies and with the appointment of a new Executive Director, support was restored under the Bush Administration, but characteristically the US did not push for any changes in the definition of mission or any changes that would have made UNESCO relevant and more effective.

Similarly, support was withdrawn from the UN Agency for Food and Agriculture for a period of time. The US objected to the style and manner of its Director General, but, as in the case of UNESCO, made no effort to review projects and to focus the FAO to respond more effectively to the needs of member states.

Consistent with the general indifference towards of UN affairs, the New York Times published an Op-Ed piece on 26 September, calling for the abolition of both the UN Secretariat and the General Assembly! “We must do away with the United Nations’ governing structures and let the agencies and programmes operate independently”, it said. But it does not seem that agencies like the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and UNESCO are ready or capable of operating independently. On the contrary, it is rather that they need to be gathered back in and given some firm direction.

Beyond Reorganisation

The World Bank is well known for its loose and loopy educational loans, for example. It spent millions of dollars financing school census capabilities all over Africa, the Middle-East and Asia. Expensive computers and expatriate training turned into the production of phony figures that did not raise educational levels on whit. UDP is known for projects that only create jobs and salaries for incumbent functionaries, while consultants hired as evaluators who do not go along with the program are black listed. And UNESCO, while it should be the leader in setting bold educational policy for the third world, weakly follows in the footsteps of benighted World Bank projects.

Anyone who has lived and worked with bureaucracies will recognize that reorganization is the first and last resort of the administrator who has not the faintest idea of substance. The first step in bringing the UN into line with both its promise and its duties in the present day is to know it.

As noted above, the Senators, who questioned Ambassador Bolton showed no genuine knowledge or concern for the United Nations. Moreover, the US congressional committees on foreign relations have no oversight capability for the UN or even for their own Agency for International Development. And the US-press doesn’t seem to care much either. In essence it is “oversight of crises”. If there are no crises, there is no oversight. Judging from the performance of the UN agencies, other member states follow the same rule of oversight by crises.

Believing that a better and more effective United Nations is necessary for world security, we intend to report regularly on the United Nations.