No Quick Fix for the UN

30 March 2005

No Quick Fix for the UN

By Gwynne Dyer

“(Kofi Annan’s) lack of leadership, combined with conflicts of interest and a lack of responsibility and accountability, point to one, and only one, outcome: his resignation.” If that had been the conclusion of Paul Volcker, chairman of the independent committee of inquiry into the oil-for-food scandal at the United Nations, the UN secretary-general would have had to resign on the spot.

In reality, however, it was only Norm Coleman, a Republican senator who has devoted his career to attacking the UN, putting the worst possible spin on an interim report last Wednesday that actually said “there is neither convincing testimony…nor documentary evidence” that the secretary-general was guilty of any misconduct. When Annan was asked if he planned to resign over the report, he replied “Hell, no” — but it does make his task of reforming the UN even harder.

Kofi Annan may privately wish to strangle his son Kojo, who is suspected of trading on his presumed influence on the secretary-general for personal gain. In 1997, at the age of 22, Kojo walked straight into a $200,000-a-year job with a Swiss firm, Cotechna Inspections, and he did not alert his father to the possible conflict of interest when Cotechna got a fat contract from the UN to inspect food shipments to Iraq the following year. But that is just a family matter. The damage to the UN is more serious.

Chief executive officers don’t usually launch massive plans for root-and-branch reform of the organisations they lead in their last year in office (Annan retires next year at the end of his second five-year term), but this is a rescue mission. The UN was already under fire as a useless talking-shop that failed to stop most of the civil wars and genocides of the past fifteen years, but the combination of internal scandals and President George W. Bush’s headlong assault on the organisation have created an atmosphere of crisis.

Intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign states, even to stop civil wars, was no part of the UN’s original job description, but once the paralysis caused by the Cold War was at an end, people EXPECTED the UN to do something about such tragedies. They didn’t understand that it can do nothing whatever without the agreement and support of the great powers. It is a club, not an independent organisation, and the members who sit on the steering committee, the Security Council, decide what it can and cannot do.

The most vivid case of the UN’s “failure” in the 90s, the Rwanda genocide, shows how things really work. The real reason that the UN did not send large numbers of troops to stop the killing there was that the great powers, and especially the United States, were unwilling to make that kind of commitment.

President Bill Clinton had inherited a commitment to the UN peace-keeping operation in Somalia from the first President Bush, and had his fingers badly burned when the American force took substantial casualties in an ill-judged raid and subsequently had to be withdrawn under the pressure of US public opinion. Clinton didn’t want another African military commitment blowing up in his face in the midst of the 1994 mid-term elections in the US, and refused to allow any major UN commitment to Rwanda. Then later, when the full scale of the atrocity became clear, he blamed the UN for its “failure”.

Governments shift the blame for their own inaction onto the UN all the time. The only way to change that would be to remove the UN from the control of the states that created it, and set it up as an independent power with its own sources of income and its own army. That just isn’t going to happen.

Since it’s impossible to fix the main problem with the UN, its supporters have come up with a series of diversionary projects to fix lesser problems. The most important by far is the expansion of the Security Council from its current fifteen members, including five veto-wielding permanent members, to twenty-four members including six new permanent ones (without vetoes).

The five existing permanent members are simply the five great powers that were on the winning side in the Second World War: the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. Japan and Germany weren’t on the list because they lost the war, and India wasn’t on the list because it was still a colony.

The new deal would give all of them permanent seats, as well as one Latin American country (Brazil) and two African countries (still to be decided). Secretary-General Annan is determined to push this reform through before September, but dissension in the ranks is so great that he may not actually succeed: the deal still provides no permanent seat for any Muslim country, and gives only three seats to Asia (half the world’s people) while it gives four to Europe (one-tenth of the world’s people).

Then there’s a project for a new human rights council to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission, and a plan to tackle the “crisis of relevance” at the UN’s Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament, and much other tinkering with the system. Some of it is well worth doing, but the main reason for popular impatience and disillusion with the United Nations, the fact that governments control the UN and not the other way round, cannot be changed. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 10 and 11. (“Kofi…serious”; and “The five…people”)