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United Nations Reform

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United Nations Reform

11 September 2005

United Nations Reform

By Gwynne Dyer

If we set out to create a farm in the wilderness, we should not expect the top local predators to help. We have our interests, and they have theirs: as our little patch of order spreads, their ability to hunt freely and dominate the local environment will be increasingly constrained. So we should not be surprised that John Bolton is trying to sabotage the reform of the United Nations.

The United States ambassador to the UN, recently appointed by President Bush in defiance of Congress’s wishes, believes that if the United Nations is not an instrument of American power, then it is an obstacle to the free exercise of American power. There is no point in getting angry about that. He and his neo-conservative colleagues are deeply traditional men and women who see world politics as a zero-sum game in which there are only winners and losers, and they believe that America’s best chance of remaining a winner is to preserve the world as a free-fire zone for the exercise of US military and economic power.

That is why Bolton, at the last moment, entered over 400 objections to the draft agreement on the changes that are needed to make the UN relevant to the challenges of the 21st century. About 175 heads of state and heads of government will be in New York by Wednesday for a three-daysession to mark the UN’s 60th anniversary and approve the landmark document that has been under negotiation for the past year, but the last-minute US intervention has re-opened many issues that were all but settled and it is doubtful that there will even be a final document by Friday.

This is not necessarily an deliberate American stratagem. The Senate’s refusal to confirm Bolton as ambassador to the UN distracted the White House from the actual negotiations underway at the UN, and in any case the Bush administration has always been sloppy and offhand about the nitty-gritty of detail work. For example, US negotiators at the UN originally proposed that only democratic countries should be eligible for membership on the new Human Rights Council that is to replace the old and discredited Human Rights Commission.

Fair enough: it made no sense that oppressive countries like Sudan and Libya which abuse human rights themselves should sit in judgement on others. But how do you define “democratic countries”? American negotiators suggested that they could be defined simply as those countries that have signed the major international treaties on human rights – and then hastily withdrew their suggestion when they realised that that would disqualify the United States itself from membership.

Such difficulties can be resolved by creative diplomacy: you just require that countries be elected to the Human Right Commission by a two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly, which allows even a minority of fully democratic countries to block any undesirable candidate without the need to define “democratic”. But what Bolton dropped into the laps of the negotiators, only three weeks before the UN summit opened, was quite different. He effectively demanded that the draft be torn up and rewritten to suit US tastes.

Bolton demanded that all references to climate change be removed, and likewise all references to wealthy countries like the US committing to a goal of 0.7 percent of their gross national product in foreign aid. There was to be no special help for developing countries to join the World Trade Organisation, and no commitment by nuclear-weapons countries to work towards nuclear disarmament. There should be no reference to the International Criminal Court (which the US is trying to destroy), and no reference either to the UN Millennium Development Goals on poverty, education, disease, trade and aid.

Passages promising a larger role for the General Assembly were to be struck out, as was the promise to create a standing military capacity for UN peacekeeping. Gone was the reaffirmation that “the use of force should be considered as an instrument of last resort,” the promise to “encourage pharmaceutical companies to make anti-retroviral drugs affordable and accessible in Africa,” and any legal responsibility for the Security Council to authorise intervention to stop genocides and ethnic cleansing. Bolton even wanted to remove the phrase “respect for nature” from the section on Values and Principles.

Since the core project of expanding the Security Council has already been postponed for several months in the face of apparently irreconcilable ideas about how to do it (and may actually be postponed for years), Bolton’s demands pretty much pulled the rug out from under the whole UN reform project. In three weeks of hectic negotiations, his only significant retreat has been to permit a reference to the “Millennium Development Goals”. So the choice effectively becomes to let the Bush administration gut the reform process – or to let it fail for now.

The option of pressing ahead without American participation, as was done with the Kyoto accord, the International Criminal Court and a number of other recent international initiatives, does not exist in this case, for the US is a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council and also contributes a quarter of the UN’s budget. But the current US administration and its extreme world-view do not represent the views of all Americans – the United States was, after all, the original moving spirit behind the principles of the United Nations – and President Bush will not be in power forever.

“There is no such thing as the United Nations,” Bolton once said. “There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States.” That sums up the neo-conservatives’ view of the world, but their political power is waning as their Iraq adventure collapses and their inability to cope even with domestic disasters becomes plain. Rather than agree to an inadequate document now and foreclose the possibility of further reform for many years to come, it would be better to let the current attempt fail and try again in three years’ time.


This article is longer than usual, at 1000 words. To shorten to 725 words,omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“This is not…tastes”)

United Nations Reform

3 December 2004

United Nations Reform

By Gwynne Dyer

 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s plan for UN reform, unveiled on 2 December, was a brave attempt to square the circle, but it will not work. It acknowledged the Bush administration’s strident demands for changes at the UN, accommodated a few of them, and proposed a new UN structure that will appeal to those who are really fed up with the organisation:: the non-Western, non-great power majority of the members. But it will not appeal to Mr Bush, and he has the power to thwart it.

Mr Bush spends a lot of time criticising the UN, but he will not be satisfied by reforms that just make it a more effective or representative institution; what he wants is one that obediently supports US strategies and policies. Since the whole style of his administration is unilateralist, and the UN is multilateralist by definition, he is not going to get what he wants — so very few of the 101 reforms proposed by the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change are actually going to happen. He won’t mind: a genuinely committed and activist UN is not in his administration’s interest.

Mr Bush was at it again last Wednesday on his visit to Canada. “The objective of the UN and other institutions must be collective security, not endless debate,” he said, adding that it must be “more than a League of Nations.” The rhetoric echoed what he said last year before the US invasion of Iraq, and the implication was that the UN had failed by not supporting America’s attack on that country, but the UN didn’t fail. The United States wanted to invade a country that had not attacked it, and the UN Security Council refused to endorse that attack, which made it illegal under international law (as Kofi Annan admits when pressed very hard).

The Security Council could not condemn the United States because the US has a veto, and nobody could stop the invasion because the UN has never been able to coerce the great powers. But the UN did its job, which was to consider the legitimacy of the US case for an immediate attack and find it wanting. So poor Kofi Annan, who was originally Washington’s candidate for the job of Secretary-General, found himself trapped between his sponsor and the institution he served.

His response, a classic bureaucratic manoeuvre, was to appoint a panel that would report on how to reform the UN and make it more effective. To raise the odds on a favourable response by the Bush administration, he appointed Brent Scowcroft, a former National Security Adviser to President George H.W. Bush, to the panel. To get support from the rest of the planet, he proposed the expansion of the Security Council. Neither move will succeed.

Expanding the Security Council is a good way to placate large countries in the developing world who don’t see why the Security Council should be virtually a Western monopoly: four of the five veto-wielding “Permanent Members” that dominate the Security Council are Western countries who gained their special status at a time when most non-Western peoples lived in colonial servitude. Unfortunately, the idea of adding some new permanent members to the Security Council breaks down over the details.

Nobody can agree on which countries should become new permanent members. Should Portuguese-speaking Brazil be Latin America’s candidate, or is Spanish-speaking Mexico more representative? Should South Africa, the continent’s richest country, or Nigeria, its most populous, be Africa’s permanent member? Which Muslim country should get a permanent seat? Handing out vetoes to new permanent members would just paralyse the Security Council, but why should China have a veto if India doesn’t?

The expansion proposals open many cans of worms and do not win Kofi Annan much support from the intended beneficiaries — while the panel’s thoughts on making it easier to intervene in countries that abuse their own citizens are unlikely to win over the United States either. It is “pre-emptive” intervention in countries that allegedly pose some threat to the United States that interests the Bush administration, and UN approval for that would still have to come by means of a Security Council vote that the US would not necessarily win.

The disdain and outright hostility towards the UN that now threaten the institution will not be ended by the changes that Kofi Annan and his panel are recommending, though they would be useful enough in their own right. NOTHING will do much good so long as the Bush administration sees the United Nations and the whole structure of international law as irritating constraints on the exercise of US power; pandering to Washington’s wishes would just further alienate the key group of countries in the developing world that have already grown deeply impatient with Western domination of the Security Council.

The wise men have laboured long and thought deeply, and their 101 recommendations for change are mostly sensible and in some cases long overdue. Debating them will give the delegations at the UN something to do while they wait to hear their fate — but their fate is being decided elsewhere, above all in the United States, and it will probably be years before we know the outcome. If the world’s greatest power turns against the UN permanently, then it does not have a future.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“The Security…succeed”)