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”)