Global Policy Forum

Hammering the UN

Washington Post
June 11, 2005

Nobody says that the United Nations is perfect. In fact, the organization's top bureaucrats are pressing for reform. But some demands for change are unproductive. The extreme bill sponsored in the House by Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) is a case in point.

This bill, which passed out of the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, demands a long list of reforms at the United Nations. Some are reasonable. It's fine to call for a code of conduct for peacekeeping troops, who have sometimes abused the civilians they were supposedly protecting; the United Nations already has a code, but it needs to disseminate it better to the troops. Likewise, cuts in spending on U.N. conferences, which allegedly cost as much as $8,000 per hour, are sensible. But some of the reforms demanded by the bill are not so good. Requiring that certain programs be funded on a voluntary basis by U.N. members rather than by automatic membership payments would exacerbate the precarious hand-to-mouth budgeting that saps morale and efficiency.

But the bill's worst feature is that it mandates a 50 percent cut in U.S. payments to the United Nations if some of its proposals don't get implemented; other proposals come with a threat of a 25 percent cut. This is like using a sledgehammer to drive a nail into an antique table: Even if you're aiming at the right nail, you're going to cause damage.

The bill is right, for example, in highlighting the shameful practice of allowing thuggish governments, such as those in Sudan or Zimbabwe, onto the U.N. human rights commission. U.N. managers are seeking support for a reform that would require countries seeking election to a reformed human rights council to get the backing of two-thirds of U.N. members: This would make it possible to block the worst candidates. But the Hyde bill's approach is to declare that any country with a questionable human rights record become ineligible. Given the politics of the United Nations, this reform isn't going to be adopted. Sledgehammer-style, the bill would trigger a deep cut in U.S. support for the United Nations.

Mr. Hyde and his congressional colleagues must ponder a basic question: Is the U.S. national interest best served by disengaging from the United Nations and allowing it to atrophy for lack of resources? Or is the national interest served by supporting the institution, even while pushing it to reform? The actions of U.S. administrations, Republican and Democratic, suggest that the United Nations is a helpful tool of diplomacy. It provides a venue in which to seek consensus on global issues from nuclear proliferation to anti-poverty efforts, and even when that consensus is elusive, a visible effort to seek it can increase the legitimacy of U.S. action. At the same time, the United Nations' technical agencies help manage challenges, from the monitoring of avian flu to the care of refugees to the provision of peacekeepers and nation-builders. The United Nations, for all its flaws, is needed. Hitting it with a sledgehammer is the wrong way to go.

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