United Nations Archive 1

US and UN: Strange Bedfellows

By Bill Miller

Both supporters and critics alike should have cause for celebration in the recent selection of members for the newly established Human Rights Council (HRC), which replaced the somewhat embarrassing Commission on Human Rights. In a recent election to the new and improved HRC, a few human rights violators were elected to the council. The bad news was that China, Cuba, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan were elected.

The good news is that this is a smaller number and percentage of the total members than were on the old Commission on Human Rights. It is unlikely that these six countries will wrestle moral and procedural control from the remaining 41 members.

Many human rights experts, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, believe the new council is a marked improvement over the commission and the process has derailed the hopes of several violators from securing seats. For example, Iran and Venezuela did not receive sufficient votes to be elected. Other countries with poor human rights records, such as Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Ethiopia, did not participate. Unfortunately, the US did not run for a seat primarily because it probably would not have garnered a sufficient number of votes.

The situation with the Human Rights Council may be viewed as a microcosm of the somewhat schizophrenic relationship between the US and the UN. During the deliberations to implement the council, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton stressed that the US wanted to improve the UN and achieve the best council possible. That was the rhetoric.

The reality was different. During the process of deliberating the new Human Rights Council, Bolton rarely participated in the discussions, was vague as to how the US wanted the Council to develop and was acerbic and undiplomatic, actually weakening the US’s bargaining position. Confusion and arrogance were the bywords.

The creation of the Human Rights Council is endemic of the tangled relationship between the US and the UN. Over the years, President Bush has questioned the UN’s “relevancy,” only to reverse himself and run back to the UN for assistance in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, Iran, North Korea and every hotspot imaginable.

Mr. Bolton claims to be a team player working for the good of the organization, while simultaneously undermining its activities, throwing up unnecessary roadblocks and undermining the UN on many fronts. Bolton is rapidly becoming an isolated figure at the UN, not because the other 190 countries hate the US, but because he is such an arrogant and incompetent paladin for US interests. According to the polls and diplomatic discussions, the ire is aimed at the US Government, not at Americans per se.

Mr. Bolton has, with his classic sledge hammer approach, stalled work on refurbishing the UN (which will run costs up for US taxpayers), stymied the UN reform efforts, alienated friend and foe alike at the UN, and threatened to cut off UN funds if reform is not implemented by early summer.

Given that the UN has been indispensable in leading the Asian tsunami relief, keeping pressure on Sudan and Iran, providing the backbone of Afghanistan’s rebuilding, working to set up the three democratic elections (along with educational and humanitarian programs) in Iraq, it is incredulous that the US appears to be going out of its way to harass the UN. Axiomatically, the US needs the UN, and vice-versa.

Recently, UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown, while giving a speech at a major foreign policy gathering, referenced how important it was for the US to be more engaged in the UN. Brown indicated he was not attacking but encouraging more US engagement to help the UN through its reform transition and imminent financial crisis. Although Brown did not directly mention Bolton, apparently Mr. Bolton perceived this to be a breech of protocol and a direct partisan attack on him. Brown has been blatantly honest in previous speeches about the shortcomings of various UN member states, including the US. For months, Bolton and many UN watchers have been calling on the UN to return to its original purposes and lofty goals. Brown turned the tables and called on the US, which was the main founder of the UN and benefits more from it than probably any other country, to also return to its core principles to strengthen the organization.

Interestingly, Brown also referenced the “stealth attack” by the media to undermine the UN and its accomplishments. Apparently, this was a reference to the virulent UN bashing media, such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, US News and World Report, the Washington Times, and the Heritage Foundation, just to mention a few. The polls consistently show that the American public strongly encourages the US to work through the UN, whenever possible; however, the polls also show that the vast majority of the public knows very little about the UN. The “stealth attack” crowd helps perpetuate that ignorance, which unfortunately also carries over to a large number of Members of Congress.

Arguably, the White House has come to the conclusion that the UN, even with its imperfections, is critical to the US achieving many of its foreign policy goals. It is tragic that Secretary Rice, who supposedly is keeping Bolton in check, cannot convey that important message to him. It is long overdue to drop the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde/Good cop-bad cop routine because it is counterproductive and is wearing thin.

To his credit, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, a strong ally of the US, agreed with Brown’s statements. Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Ambassador Bolton has had a proliferation of failures; however, a substantive success is still elusive.