Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 36-37

United Nations Report

What’s Meant by “Reform” of the U.N. Depends on Who’s Calling for It

By Ian Williams

U.S. President George W. Bush (l) listens as United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan speaks at the American Jewish Committee’s Centennial dinner in Washington, DC May 4, 2006 (Reuters/Yuri Gripas).

“REFORM” IS a word that congressmen frequently bandy about when it comes to the United Nations, and usually it has the same significance as Humpty Dumpty gave the words he chose to use. It means whatever they choose it to mean, neither more nor less.

In the case of the U.S., “reform” of the United Nations typically has meant, above all, dropping the special programs and resolutions about Israel and the Middle East. In a more general sense, it means bullying the other U.N. member states into accepting whatever Washington wants.

These two run together, since usually it is only on the Middle Eastern issues that the U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world. Amusingly, Israel supporters in Congress often boast of how Israel is America’s only true ally, because it always votes with Washington—when in fact it is the U.S. delegation supporting Israel despite all its other allies’ disagreeing.

If you really want to see those campaign contribution dollars at work, the voting records in the General Assembly, along with the U.S. Treasury Department, where the aid checks are written, are where the lobbying efforts take tangible form.

When American critics of the United Nations sound off on the organization, they are always ambiguous about what they mean: about whether they are attacking the organization as an institution, or whether they are taking to task the members of the United Nations—that is, almost every country—for disagreeing with them.

In the real world, the institution itself, the U.N. Secretariat—bullied, hectored and starved of funds as it has been for decades by Congress—is far more likely to be solicitous of U.S. demands than of mandates from the other members. From Mary Robinson, the former human rights commissioner, to UNRWA’s Peter Hansen, there are plenty of truncated U.N. careers to testify to the fact that international civil servants who cross Washington are inviting early retirement—and that the way to cross Washington is to pay over-assiduous attention to resolutions agreed upon by the other U.N. members.

So what Congress usually is attacking is, in effect, the rest of the world, for having the temerity not to be bought and bullied by domestic American lobbies. Very often that includes close military allies like Britain, France, Germany and Japan, each of whom has, no matter how regretfully and respectfully, been forced to disagree with some of the less principled aspects of U.S. foreign policy—and each of whom plays a much larger and more constructive role in American military, diplomatic and economic efforts than a certain small country in the eastern Mediterranean.

So when the U.S.—burdened as it is with DeLay, Enron, Halliburton, and FEMA’s response to Katrina—starts insisting on the uniquely desperate need to reform the United Nations, you can understand that it labors under a certain credibility gap with other members.

This is not to say, of course, that the United Nations does not need reforming. It surely does. Former Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar once was asked how many people worked at the U.N. His response—“about half”—has sometimes been seen as over generous. Anyone who has had to deal with the city or state bureaucracies of the host country, however, will find it immediately recognizable. Crosshatching the U.N.’s official organizational hierarchy are spiders’ webs of patronage that have grown in and around the organization.

Officially, all lines point to the secretary-general, who relays to the Secretariat the instructions of the General Assembly and Security Council, and in turn passes on to those bodies the information and advice gathered by his staff.

In reality, since the U.N.’s founding, no secretary-general has been free to appoint his own senior staff. Instead the heads of his major departments have been foisted upon him by the major powers. And, at a lower level, far too many U.N. ambassadors—often, but by no means exclusively, from the developing world—have had an ancillary role as recruiters trying to place their nationals in U.N. jobs. In fact, when their terms are over many of them are desperate to get such jobs themselves rather than face the political and financial vicissitudes of returning to their own countries.

For many staff, then, the first port of call if disciplined is not their union representative but their ambassador, whom they, with deserved confidence, expect to back them. It is not conducive to good discipline.

With these constraints in mind, for a Secretary-General like Kofi Annan, “reform” means many things. On a reflexive level, it means getting Congress off his back and ensuring a steady budget, and a constructive American involvement in the organization. That entails a considerable amount of pandering: it is almost like negotiating with an 800-pound gorilla with the mind of a toddler, wanting to throw tantrums when it does not get its way.

On the other hand, the developing countries have good reasons for being suspicious of any “reform” initiative that the U.S. supports, since even though much of what it advocates makes a lot of sense from a managerial point of view, Washington has demonstrated time and again that it has strong ulterior motives. In particular, the U.S. for decades has compounded the U.N.’s problems by insisting on a zero-growth budget for the organization, even as it agrees to load on new mandates and tasks—and, of course, often threatening not to pay its dues.

Congressional grandstanding usually presents the U.N. as wasteful and extravagant. As with any bureaucracy, of course, there is waste (albeit not that much extravagance, as the somewhat shabby ambiance of the U.N. building bears witness). But to put it in perspective, the U.N. could run for several years on the amount that Halliburton won for a single no-bid contract in Iraq. In fact, the pressure on the U.N. is not about the money: it is political, and the money gives leverage.

Apart from Kofi Annan, who has spent the last two years trying to fend off ferocious attacks from enemies in the U.N., there are few heroes in this process, as was shown in the recent elections for the new Human Rights Council. Annan had to face intense suspicion on the part of many members who saw the whole thing as an American plot to pillory Washington’s expedient targets of the month. In general, the U.S. delegation has solid grounds to attack the oppressive regimes that it does. Human rights violators that march to the American drum, however, are virtually guaranteed a free ride—and, of course, the continual revelations from Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and the guaranteed protection for Israeli abuses in the Palestinian territories, do not give the U.S. a solid pulpit from which to hector the rest of the world.

Still a Long Way to Go

Sadly, much of the rest of the world responds equally inappropriately. The results of the first elections for the Human Rights Council this May demonstrated that, although there has been some progress, there is a long way to go. Firstly the U.S. did not even seek a seat on the new body—not, one suspects, from any sense of shame over recent events, but rather because it feared there would be a backlash in a secret ballot from members peeved with Ambassador John Bolton’s browbeating.

Interestingly, all the other permanent members who ran, including China, no paragon of human rights, and Britain, Bush’s ally in Iraq, each won handsomely.

The entire General Assembly voted for seats nominated from the U.N.’s regions, and there was much pressure from human rights organizations to ensure that there was a proper election, with more candidates than seats.

Perhaps the worst results were in the African section, where there was the usual carve-up to ensure the usual rotation of seats. Since they agree beforehand on a slate of the same number of candidates as seats, there was effectively no election for that region. In one concession to international pressure, however, Zimbabwe and Sudan were squeezed out as candidates.

On the other hand, neither Algeria nor Morocco springs to mind as a paragon of human rights, and they were elected.

Interestingly, in Asia Iran lost by a wide margin, while Saudi Arabia won. In Latin America, Cuba won with a large vote that was definitely intended more as a snook cocked at the U.S. than as an accolade for the Castro regime’s record.

In the old days, regimes wanted to be on the former Human Rights Commission to thwart attempts to scrutinize their record. What holds some promise for the new version is that elected members will be the first to have their behavior scrutinized. It will be interesting to see how effectively that will be done. Morocco and its acts in Western Sahara would be an interesting report, not to mention China and Cuba.

Almost inadvertently, however, it is possible that the Israel lobby may have gained one small victory. The Council will be so busy establishing its new procedures and gathering mandatory reports on its new members, that it is unlikely to have the time to examine Israeli behavior as the old commission did. But it will, and when it does so, it will have even more credibility. And observers can be sure that, as soon as it begins to do so, it will come under attack yet again from the usual suspects. 


Ian Williams is a free-lance journalist based at the United Nations.

Additional information