United Nations Archive 1

Reform or Perish?

By Bill Miller

With the General Assembly convening in mid-September in New York, the 191 members of the United Nations have a unique opportunity to confront two challenges that will strengthen the UN, make it more effective and streamlined, and allow it to improve the quality of life for billions of humans.

The first challenge confronting the member states will be to seriously commit to implement the laudable Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were agreed upon at a summit held in 2000. The eight practical, achievable and measurable goals are generally supported by governmental and nongovernmental entities worldwide.

To achieve the MDGs by 2015, UN member states have agreed to reduce extreme poverty by 50%; provide a primary education to all boys and girls; promote gender equality; reduce by two-thirds infant mortality rates; reverse the spread of AIDs; reduce by 75% the ratio of women dying in childbirth; integrate sustainable development principles and reverse the loss of environmental resources; and create a global partnership for development.

If these important goals are to be realized, the wealthy, developed countries must make sufficient financial and human resources available, while the economically developing countries must assist with some resources and commit to transparency and accountability (which neither group has done sufficiently). It has often been suggested that the goals would be primarily accomplished if all countries would dedicate 10% of their bloated $1 trillion defense budgets to the MDGs. Another possibility is that the richer nations make good on their commitment to appropriate .7 of 1% (70 cents of each $100.00) of their GDP to assisting poorer countries. Unfortunately, neither is a viable option today.

The second major challenge will be to implement a broad range of reforms to strengthen the UN and to make it more effective and efficient. During UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's eight plus year tenure as CEO, the UN has made great strides in reducing staff, implementing a more professional management and personnel system, curtailing waste, and enhancing cross-agency communication and coordination. Yet, as with any bureaucracy, more needs to be done.

Two UN Reports, 'A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility' and the 'High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change,' have served as the foundation for Annan to present a bold and ambitious panoply of 101 suggested reforms. A principal premise is that the UN is at a critical juncture -- as it plunges into the 21st Century -- to reshape itself and redefine collective security (especially in light of the imbroglio in the Security Council (SC) over whether to invade Iraq). UN members should realize that today's threats transcend national boundaries, are inter-related, and must be confronted collectively and individually if they are to be defeated.

Some of the proposed UN reforms include:

-- Abolish the largely discredited Human Rights Commission and replace it with a Human Rights Council that would be elected by a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly. It would by composed of countries that 'undertake to abide by the highest human rights standards,' according to Annan. Ostensibly, this would reduce participation by the major human rights violators, such as Zimbabwe.

-- Implement a Peacebuilding Commission to work with countries that are moving from a disruptive conflict to economic and social normalization. It is extremely important to make sure these countries do not slide back into a dysfunctional condition. A classic example is the mercurial rise of the Taliban extremists in Afghanistan after the former USSR withdrew and the western powers offered little assistance in the transition.

-- Review two separate proposals to expand the UN Security Council from 15 to 24 members in an effort to broaden and democratize the SC representation. Also, this would involve countries who pay more to the UN and who could share the burdens of peacekeeping.

Supports will probably be adopted. However, the myopic media and the jingoists in Congress may be tempted to focus on several minor distractions and miss the major stories. The perennial UN bashers, such as CNN's Lou Dobbs, Fox News, US News and World Report, Wall Street Journal editorial page, and the Heritage Foundation, will probably lead the charge in disparaging the UN.

Hopefully, the more professional and well-respected mainstream media will focus their attention on the real stories and adhere to high journalistic standards. It is rather curious how the Tsunami relief effort, which is the largest humanitarian assistance program ever undertaken and, by all accounts, is a spectacular UN success story, has received little media coverage.

What are some of the distractions that will get more coverage than they deserve? For starters,

-- The battle over whether India, Germany, Japan and Brazil should become permanent SC members will be front-page news. Arguably, this may be one of the least important proposals, especially since the four countries have several foes and regional organizations, such as the African Union, lining up to oppose them. This should NOT be a litmus test of success.

-- The Oil for Food Program (OFFP) is the Pandora's Box of misinformation for UN critics to bash the organization. Some Congressional zealots and ill-informed media types seem to have difficulty in comprehending that there may have been some minor UN mismanagement, however, the US and other SC members were fully aware of Saddam's illegal oil sales and his skimming activities. How? Because UN staff alerted them and the SC members signed off on the illegal sales of oil to Turkey and Jordan.

-- John Bolton's recess appointment as US Ambassador to the UN will be a headline grabber. Mr. Bolton, who has worked tirelessly to undermine many international agreements (such as the International Criminal Court (ICC)) and to disparage the UN (ironically both the ICC and the UN are in the best interest of the US), will need to make a 180-degree turn if he expects to be effective in promoting the interests of the US at the UN. Many international relations experts view Bolton as being unqualified for the post because he lacks diplomatic, intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, as well as not being cognizant of how the UN benefits the US more than any other country.

Perhaps Mr. Bolton should remember a few facts: the UN is New York City's third largest employer and pumps over $3 billion in the area economy; the UN is still dominated by the US and is indispensable in assisting the US in the disastrous Iraqi quagmire and in reconstructing Afghanistan; the UN's 18 peacekeeping missions help keep US troops out of harm's way and are more cost effective than a US-led operation; and, the UN is providing critical services to Americans on a daily basis. Many of these services include moving aircraft, ships, mail, and weather information safely worldwide.

Arguably, when John Bolton traipsed around the world stonewalling international agreements, irrationally undercutting the UN, and bullying friend and foe alike, he may have done more than any other US official to increase international disdain for the US Government and its foreign policies. In many capitals, he was the face of the 'Ugly American.' Hopefully, Bolton will reverse course, drop the hubris and represent the US well at this critical session of the UN.

For the past several years, some national and international leaders have railed that the UN must reform or become irrelevant. Irrelevancy -- an oft-quoted hyperbole -- will not afflict the UN for a wide range of reasons. As President Bush apparently has discovered, even with its imperfections, the UN is still the only international forum that brings the countries of the world together to deal with thorny, intractable challenges and to stamp the imprimatur of international legitimacy on dealing with problems ranging from dangerous peacekeeping missions, confronting environmental degradation, promoting human rights, to battling diseases or drug abuse. The real question is not relevancy but how effective and efficient the UN will be in achieving its goals to end the scourge of war, promote economic and social development and enhance human rights. Today, there is no other alternative to the UN. The UN will still be here when most of today's leaders have long faded away.

The US, still the most powerful country, must play a pivotal, positive role in achieving these goals. Will it? Also, the other 190 UN members must be statesmen and not politicians. This is one the most important crossroads in the UN's young 60-year history. As the famous playwright Tennessee Williams said, 'If people behaved the way nations do, they would all be put in straightjackets.' Hopefully, key UN member states will mature by mid-September.