By Bill Miller
The general public and some UN observers, who erroneously believed the rhetoric about how the UN was not relevant and was precariously hanging on the brink of extinction, may wish to review Mark Twain’s famous quote, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
A major Achilles heel afflicting the UN’s credibility, public image, and reputation was the Oil for Food Program (OFFP) scandal and the atrocious behavior of a handful of UN peacekeepers (out of a total of nearly 85,000) who violated their moral and legal authority by exchanging sex-for-food.
Former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker conducted a thorough investigation that basically exonerated UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and the staff (except one person who has been accused of corruption, but has not been proven guilty) of any criminal activities or wrongdoing. However, the Volcker Report did criticize Annan’s managerial capabilities and the administration of the OFFP, while making specific recommendations to improve future programs.
Regarding peacekeeping abuses, the UN has established a “zero tolerance” for any peacekeepers violating the stringent ethical and military guidelines that direct peacekeeping missions. After these two embarrassments for the UN, some pundits thought —and most UN critics were probably hoping — that the international organization would be impotent in dealing with future challenges and fade into oblivion.
A quick glance at the UN agenda quashes that doomsday scenario. World leaders, even President Bush, who has frequently questioned the UN’s relevancy, and non governmental organizations (NGOs) are encouraging the UN to roll up its sleeves and confront even more aggressively the spiraling panoply of international problems.
These problems range from Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Darfur, Southern Lebanon, tension between Israelis and Palestinians, international peace and security challenges, globalization inequities, and Tsunami relief to controlling health problems and achieving the Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty, infant mortality rates and providing an education for all elementary school children.
The UN’s agenda is overflowing with major crises and challenges that have the potential to spin out of control and become even greater disasters. One bright spot is that the UN has had many major accomplishments over the past year or so. For example it:
— Implemented a Peacebuilding Commission that will work with a state moving from armed conflict or a failed condition to creating one that is stable, peaceful and productive. The Commission will mobilize the international community to develop strategies — after the fighting stops — to focus attention on “reconstruction, institution-building and sustainable development.” If the Commission had been in place a few years ago, perhaps Timor Leste (East Timor) would not have collapsed back into chaos.
— Created the Central Emergency Response Fund that will allow the UN to move financial resources quickly in the event of a humanitarian disaster. A major challenge for the UN, which has a very limited budget and human resources, has been to rapidly intervene to provide immediate assistance.
— Launched the Democracy Fund, which was first promoted by President Bush in a 2005 UN General Assembly speech, to promote and consolidate “new and restored” democracies. The Fund will provide electoral assistance to emerging democracies, emphasize the rule of law and democratic governance, and develop a comprehensive framework to combat corruption.
— Provided humanitarian assistance to people ravaged by war or nature, such as in Darfur and the Tsunami affected countries of Asia. Even though the Security Council was unable to convince the Sudanese Government to allow a stronger peacekeeping force into Darfur, UN agencies have been quietly and effectively working with victims by providing food, shelter, health and educational services. The UN took a page from the OFFP playbook and improved upon it, when providing assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Tsunami victims, by mobilizing human and financial resources more quickly, by upgrading its managerial and administrative capabilities and by being more accountable and transparent in all of its dealings and purchases.
— Saw the UN Security Council pass substantive resolutions to contain Iran’s nuclear enhancement program and apply sanctions to encourage the North Koreans to halt nuclear testing and weapons development.
A few of the major shortcomings of the UN this past year have been with:
— The widely acclaimed Human Rights Council, which replaced the somewhat flawed Human Rights Commission, has been criticized for failing to live up to its mandate and for allowing a bloc of countries to hijack the agenda and disproportionately criticize Israel, while ignoring other countries that have committed major human rights violations. There is a mechanism to review each Council member’s human rights records and to oust those who are egregious human rights violators. The Council has, for the first time, encouraged its members to abide by the highest human rights principles in their own countries.
— Not expanding the Security Council to encompass a greater diversity of geographical, financial and demographic representation by bringing in major UN players, such as Japan, India, Brazil and Germany.
Although the UN had several successes, and a few failures, one poignant example of the UN's importance occurred with the forceful action of Secretary General Kofi Annan who personally inserted his “good offices” into dealing with some very delicate issues.
For example, after the Security Council — which had been tied up for over a month by US Ambassador John Bolton in order to give the Israelis more time to throttle Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon — agreed to a resolution promoting a ceasefire and delineated certain steps to permanently end the conflict, Annan conducted a 10-day whirlwind peacemaking tour. He visited ten Middle Eastern countries to confer with the key players and cement the fragile peace agreement so that it would not crumble.
By meeting with Israelis, Syrians, Iranians and others, Annan was filling the role of an “honest broker and catalyst,” a role which used to be played by the US. Given the US’s dramatic tilt towards Israel and its official policy of not negotiating with enemies, such as Iran and Syria, the US has relegated itself to the sidelines and drastically diminished its influence.
There are dozens of examples as to how the UN has played a critical role in defusing tensions or providing assistance under adverse conditions. Two in particular are the Herculean efforts made by the UN agencies during the violent conflict in Southern Lebanon and the genocide in Darfur to assist the victims.
Many questioned why the UN was not effectively stopping the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah or inserting more peacekeepers into Darfur. The mantra was, “Where is the UN?’
Answer: The UN was quietly providing a vast array of services to refugees in Lebanon even while the intense fighting was underway, and UN peacekeepers were escorting civilians to safety and out of harm’s way.
In both Lebanon and Darfur UN agencies provided food, shelter, sanitation, and maternal and child health care programs, to name just a few, under extremely dangerous conditions. The UN was on the ground working while the bullets were flying and people were suffering. Ironically, very few media outlets — perhaps because of their myopic fixation with the Security Council’s wrangling and their “herd” mentality to cover Hugo Chavez’s antics at the UN — generally failed to report these activities. (Speaking of Chavez, his undiplomatic attack on President Bush probably cost Venezuela a seat on the UN Security Council. Apparently, diplomats did not want to suffer through two years of unproductive, vitriolic exchanges between Venezuela and the US).
Arguably, the countries of the world have come to the conclusion, more or less, that the UN — even with its faults — is still the only major international forum that has the expertise and authority to deal with the vast array of thorny, intractable international problems. One lesson learned by the 192 countries of the UN is that, even if the Security Council is tied up in knots and unable to play a constructive role immediately, UN agencies can still pitch in, in most situations, and deal with either an environmental or humanitarian disaster.
Incoming UN Secretary General Ban Ki -moon, a highly-respected South Korean diplomat, summed it up during his acceptance speech, “The surge in demand for UN services attests not only to the UN’s abiding relevance… The UN is needed now more than ever before.”
A recent national opinion poll by the Better World Campaign has confirmed what many other polls have shown over the history of the UN: '78% of Americans believe it is in America's best interest to continue to actively support the United Nations.'
Nations, including friends and critics alike, are rapidly coming to the same conclusion that the UN is still the only game in town. Perhaps the debate about the UN’s relevancy is close to being decided.
Bill Miller, former Chair of the UN Association of the USA, is the accredited Washington International journalist covering the UN.