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It's the nations, stupid!

About the author
Ian Williams is the United Nations correspondent for the Nation and a columnist for Tribune.

The months before this week’s world summit at the United Nations presented Secretary-General Kofi Annan with a rare opportunity to persuade world leaders to treat the organisation as more than just an annual opportunity to grandstand in front of the TV cameras. His March 2005 reform package - In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all – was designed to persuade them to live up to their promises, and the UN talked it up accordingly.

Sadly, with the US right’s continuing assaults against the UN, the inflation beyond all reality of what (pre-emptively) came to be known as the “oil-for-food scandal”, and with deeply personal assaults on Annan, the summit has been given a millenarian tinge. The implication is that the success or failure of the reforms will make or break the organisation.

In fact, the United Nations will survive – because most of its members, and indeed most of the world’s people, want it to. It is significant that Kofi Annan’s package proposed only minimal changes to the UN charter: the deletion of already defunct clauses on the trusteeship council and about enemy powers. Even the suggestions for expansion of the Security Council hardly amounted to a fundamental reform.

Indeed the UN charter has proven to be a remarkably resilient and adaptable document. It has helped win general acceptance for an entirely new concept of peacekeeping; by contrast, the military staff joint committee of the Security Council’s five permanent members – which at its creation seemed a vital part of the UN’s structure – has continued to meet with symbolic aplomb but near-zero practical effect.

In reality, it is not the charter that needs reform – but what use the member states put it to.

Annan’s proposals were mostly quite modest restatements of existing and generally accepted goals on poverty reduction, the environment, peace and security, and human rights. They were an attempt to capitalise on the global social pressure of amassing 180 or more heads of state (out of the 191 member-states) in one place. The pressure on the assembled leaders to fudge differences, to overlook points of disagreement in favour of a general consensus, could normally be expected to be quite high. That consensus, the argument went, could then be wielded to effect delivery.

In light of Kofi Annan’s document – and the November 2004 report of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that preceded it – the sixtieth anniversary summit is more like a revival meeting than a constitutional assembly. The main purpose is to get member-states to firm up and carry out commitments that most have already pledged themselves to, even if many of them – notably the United States – did so with fingers crossed behind their envoys’ backs. That is not to denigrate the proposals: they are desirable, even essential for a civilised global society.

When drafting the package, Annan’s team tried to make an implicit deal. If the developing world would accept the security, disarmament, anti-terrorism and human rights aspects that the industrialised world – including, everyone presumed, the US – wanted, then in return it would get clear and explicit commitment for the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

However, community pressure will not work with those who do not think they are part of the community, notably new US ambassador John Bolton, who has been trying to anathematise much of what had hitherto been generally accepted. He is not going to allow the US Gulliver to be tied down by all these Lilliputians.

Bolton and the US have effectively broken the implicit trade-off between security and development initiatives. Almost the only part of the package they wanted to leave in were anti-terrorist moves made even more unpalatable by the implicit American reinterpretation of the UN charter so as to allow unilateral military action; in the event, agreement on this issue was a step too far.

We should not be too harsh on John Bolton: his predecessors, including during the Clinton administration, signed on to commitments from the pledge to work towards 0.7% of GDP for development aid to the International Criminal Court that they had no intention of honouring. However, while his predecessors did not officiously strive to keep alive many of the UN’s pledges to action, nor did they kill them.

Bolton’s theological fervour does not allow for such mercy for concepts he regards as dangerous assaults on absolute American sovereignty – which includes almost all multilateral treaties and conventions.

The UN’s US problem

One of the ways Annan tried to make his package palatable to the Americans was to emphasise its reform elements, despite the absence of significant structural reform. There is no doubt that the organisation could benefit from major administrative reforms. That has always been the case, and every few years a body like the Paul Volcker committee on the Iraq oil-for-food programme comes along and rediscovers that the “secretary-general has not been provided with a structure and instruments conducive to strong executive oversight”, singling out “the area of personnel management, where professional competence must compete with, and often take second place to, the narrow political interests of member states.”

This is, if not reinventing the wheel, certainly redescribing it. This failing has been identified for decades, and nothing has been done because it is not in the interests of the major members, particularly the US, that anything be done. They have, since the beginning, mocked the whole concept of an international civil service and the explicit prohibitions of the UN charter by insisting on their right to nominate the senior office holders of the organisation. In the old days, the Secretariat used to pander to the Soviets and Chinese as well. But now there is only Washington left to kowtow to.

Recently Kofi Annan announced an end to the system, and appointed non-nationals of the permanent five to senior positions. But he only did so after the “American” jobs had been safely refilled.

For decades successive US administrations have sent a series of presidential political patronage appointees to UN posts, most notably the under-secretary-general for management, while excoriating the organisation for “waste, mismanagement and corruption” – which one would have thought was precisely the responsibility that appointees like Richard Thornburgh (selected by the first President George Bush) have held in the past, and which is currently held by Christopher Burnham, a leading George W Bush campaign supporter.

It is hardly surprising that other countries, faced with such patronage, feel free to exert undue influence to seek favourable positions. In any case, the UN’s tendency to bow to US pressure (from Congress and media alike) was evident at Paul Volcker’s press conference in New York on 7 September.

The oil-for-food inquiry was the result of a conservative media storm suggesting that Annan had influenced the programme in favour of his son; in the words of Charles Krauthammer on Fox TV, it was the “biggest scandal in the history of the world in money terms”. But perhaps the most outstanding evidence of mismanagement by the United Nations is that it was stampeded by the Murdoch media empire into wasting $35 million on Volcker’s massive but anodyne report – one that continually minimised the beam in the US eye while maximising the mote in the UN’s.

The report found no evidence of nepotism or corruption by Kofi Annan. It could find no records from the US to account for the $10 billion or so in oil-for-food surpluses that were handed over to the occupation authorities. It identified $8 billion of revenue for Saddam – nothing to do with the programme – in oil trades to US allies that the US condoned, and a little over $1 billion dollars in oil revenue that it estimated Baghdad secured in kickbacks (which the UN reported to the Security Council sanctions committee).

Against this backdrop, the funds that Volcker found suspicious – $147,000 in income over four years that the head of the $100 billion programme reported to the UN – appears rather trivial; yet that is the evidence for claims that the UN is steeped in waste, mismanagement and corruption.

Oh, and by the way, the programme successfully kept most Iraqis fed, and allowed sanctions to stop Saddam Hussein from developing WMDs.

In effect, the Volcker report held the UN responsible for doing what the permanent members of the Security Council told it to do and for the failure of the US in particular to enforce sanctions on its allies. Inadvertently, it highlighted an indispensable role of the organisation for successive US administrations – that of scapegoat. Set it up to fail – and then blame it.

There were many better uses for $35 million.

When US Congress members call for reform, their last concern is the welfare of the United Nations, whose efficiency and ethics would certainly bear favourable comparison with the standards of federal administration. They want an organisation that is amenable to US demands, and broadly speaking the US does get what it wants in the UN. It has demanded, and succeeded, in removing personnel as various as Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights; Peter Hansen, the head of the United Nations Relief and works Agency (UNRWA); and Jose Bustani, the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Some of the resistance to “reform” from the general assembly is cover for nepotism and patronage, but much derives from the assembly's reluctance to allow more managerial discretion for the secretary-general for fear that US pressure on Kofi Annan will reduce its own power. In this, assembly members are simply following in the original breach of the charter made by the “permanent five”.

The lesson is that paying “Danegeld” to Washington only increases its predatory appetites for more. Most secretaries-general have had to appease the US, and Kofi Annan has actually been quite good at engaging sections of the American establishment constructively. But sadly, you cannot really pander to people who actually want your destruction or your complete complaisance, except by running up the white flag. Even if Annan wanted to do that (and he certainly doesn’t), the other members would not let him – even if they are hardly on the frontline helping him resist pressure.

In fact, while the UN could certainly do with reform – which for most observers would begin with radical surgery of the human-resources department – it is easy to forget that the reason most of the world loves the organisation and the American right hates it is not necessarily because of what it “does,” but because of what it stands for, and the global order that has been crystallising around it.

The UN has evolved from a group of military victors into a truly global organisation, under whose auspices there have been tremendous steps forward towards forging a rule-based global society. While the organisation has provided the framework for those developments, it is the member-states with their adherence to the conventions and treaties that have made the difference.

Despite the worst conservative fears, and the naïve hopes of some internationalists, the UN is not, and never will be a world government. Indeed no one who has seen it in operation close up would want it to be. But it is a crucial part of a cooperative world.

A balance of perception and reality

The United States’s unilateralist positions, while far from unique, hardly set an example for others. John Bolton in particular seems to have inspired nationalist, balance-of-power tendencies – as exemplified by his cynical alliance with China to scupper Security Council reform, even at the expense of US ally Japan. Such maneouvres have helped make such reform dead in the water. In fact, despite the high profile and attention it has received, this is probably the most dispensable part of Annan’s proposals.

As Winston Churchill said about democracy, the present Security Council is the worst possible arrangement, except all the proposals to reform it. Indeed, the importance placed by several major members on securing a permanent seat, and the importance placed by their regional rivals on stopping them, have diverted attention from far more pressing issues. It is indeed difficult to see how an “unfair” permanence for five members is improved by simply doubling the number of those unfairly privileged.

The structure of the United Nations reflects two somewhat contradictory principles. The first is that all nations are “legally” sovereign and equal, which is reflected in the general assembly’s membership. The second is that it has to reflect reality, or it would lose its support and effectiveness, and reality has, to some extent, been reflected in the Security Council. The veto is unfair, but enforcing decisions against those who hold it would be unlikely.

There has always been some balance between perceptions and reality. At the time of the UN charter’s creation, it would have been difficult to justify the seats for France or China in terms of military might and economic power. Indeed the Council functioned without too much impairment when the Chinese veto was held by a corrupt, defeated “generalissimo” (Chiang Kai-shek) in Taiwan.

Far more important than who is on the Security Council is the question of what they do when they are there, and what the council does. Acceptance of the basic premises of the “responsibility to protect” (a set of agreed guidelines and safeguards for humanitarian intervention) would be a major step forward towards reaffirming developments in international humanitarian law.

In modern development parlance, a “quick win” for Security Council reform would be for the members of the general assembly to take their responsibilities seriously. Genuine elections for the ten temporary members, and a serious effort to hold them accountable would go a long way to reduce the power of the permanent five.

Alas, the general assembly’s performance has, on the whole, been disappointing. The countries which could have a clear majority there too often allow recidivist human-rights offenders to claim the consensus, hiding behind a spurious “third-world” solidarity. Instead of returning the assembly to the prominence it once had, too many of its most important members have been trying to get on the Security Council, whether permanently or temporarily, implicitly downgrading the significance of the body.

Members of the general assembly have also been subject to inordinate US pressure vis-à-vis exemptions for the US from the International Criminal Court, for example. Too often, weaker members are left on their own to face the superpower.

Another instance was the response to the United States invasion of Iraq. Although most of the membership agreed with Kofi Annan that it was illegal, the US was protected from any such assertion by its veto in the Security Council. In the general assembly, where there is no veto, the US introduced a procedure called “uniting for peace” in order to bypass the council in case of what was then a perennial Soviet veto in the 1950s.

Faced with a Palestinian resurrection of the procedure, the US declared (unilaterally) that it was no longer valid. It has had little or no support for this view, but sadly, nor has it had very vociferous opposition. In the aftermath of the war, when the Czech president of the general assembly sought member states that would initiate the procedure, he could find no one prepared to put their head above the parapet.

Apart from Security Council reform, the responsibility to protect principles and the proposed Human Rights Council are important steps forward, building upon a growing global consensus. But insofar that the compromise document reached after nights of fevered negotiation following Bolton’s proposed amendments represents a failure, it is not just the US that is directly responsible – nations like China, Russia and (disappointingly) India are resolute in defence of sovereignty in its most murderously Westphalian form.

Ian Williams is the United Nations correspondent for the Nation and a columnist for Tribune. His books include The UN for Beginners (1995) and Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation Books, 2005).

Ian Williams has worked as a consultant for the United Nations and in 2004 appeared as a guest on a UN Television programme, receiving payment in both of these roles

But looking at how the United States and Britain retrospectively abused the concept of humanitarian intervention over Iraq, one can hardly blame the Russians, the Chinese and the Indians. Indeed, US and European attempts to bulldoze a resolution through on Iran for its entirely legal (even if not very clever) uranium refinement, suggest that if enough arms can be twisted in the Security Council, strict legality may not be enough.

In the past, significant progress at the UN has been thwarted or at least attenuated by the tyranny of the consensus, which allows a Cuba, Sudan or, in a different context, the US and the Vatican, to veto the innards out of proposals.

When you want an international convention, consensus does indeed confer legitimacy. But it is worth remembering that had the UN relied on international consensus for the charter, it would not have been accepted: many countries, and not just the Axis powers, initially wanted no part of it.

Since then, the universality of membership has indeed legitimised the organisation, which in turn legitimises those who join, signaling their global acceptance as genuine sovereign states. The problem facing the United Nations and its members is how to run a collective body when one of its most important members refuses to accept the rules.

After the summit, new purpose?

A perspective in mid-summit is that the US has indeed succeeded in sabotaging the reform proposals; Kofi Annan himself has said:

“We have not yet achieved the sweeping and fundamental reform that I and many others believe is required. Sharp differences, some of them substantive and legitimate, have played their part in preventing that.”

Nonetheless, several precedents can be used to implement the most important, development, parts of the original reform package – beginning with the abandonment of consensus. When the US wanted to legitimise the war in Iraq, it pulled together a reluctant coalition outside the United Nations. Faced with heavy domestic pressure on global warming it set up the Asian-Pacific Partnership, while ignoring the Kyoto Protocols. Rather than set up a multilateral or UN framework for the Proliferation Security Initiative, it assembled a coalition of nations.

Conversely, when the US played hard to get on the protracted international law of the sea negotiations, the other parties, who saw how vital the treaty was, made as many concessions to the US as they thought bearable – and then went ahead anyway, while leaving the door open for the US whenever sanity returned to Washington.

These precedents suggest a way forward for the vast majority of member-states.

In effect, the members of the United Nations who accept the UN charter and the commitments of the millennium summit should form an implicit coalition of their own — the group of 191 minus the US and whoever it can browbeat – that pledges to implement the proposals in its own right.

Most of the proposals do not need a charter change, and they can be accepted in the general assembly, by a majority vote if necessary, even if the official statement is a bland and attenuated version.

The US’s lawyers will then immediately claim that the assembly decisions are not binding. But that makes no difference, if an overwhelming majority of the members decide to back and implement them. If the US alone in the industrialised world wants to stand out and retreat from its obligations under the MDGs, then let it.

Tony Blair, the Bush administration’s closest ally, claims that Kyoto, disarmament, the MDGs — in fact Annan’s proposals overall – are close to his heart. We must presume that they are equally close to the hearts of a substantial number of other European and developed countries who would, as they did over the International Criminal Court, be proud to declare their acceptance and work constructively with the members of the assembly.

Indeed, it would be a very positive sign if a significant number of more affluent governments moved into a more actively defensive role vis-à-vis the organisation, so that in the event of the US reneging on its dues, they would be prepared to pay theirs in advance to meet the shortfall. The sums involved are minute in comparison with most government budgets. The tone is significant. It should not be confrontational but sympathetic, not an attempt to isolate the US, but to involve it in a non-confrontational way. In a week where the US is accepting UN aid for New Orleans, it would be a good time to do it.

In conclusion, the world summit will not significantly affect the UN’s future, even if it does represent a lost opportunity. It is up to the member-states and their electorates (those who have them) to decide that the organisation is worth fighting for and to collectively resist any attempt by any state or group of states to weaken or subvert it. The debates provoked by John Bolton’s rebarbative style of diplomacy may galvanise just such a movement, both in the United States and around the world.


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