Global Policy Forum

To Save the World from Hell


By Samantha Power

Le Monde Diplomatique
September 2005

There will be an exceptional summit of world leaders in New York this month to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, and to consider proposals for its desperately needed reform, although whatever they can agree upon is sure to be disappointing and will be derided. The UN has failed to banish war, yet it remains indispensable to the world's peace.

Sixty years ago the battered victors of the second world war gathered in San Francisco to plan the creation of the global organisation that would not "bring us to heaven", as the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr, put it, but might "save us from hell". President Franklin D Roosevelt began the creation of the UN, but when he died, 13 days before the San Francisco conference, Harry Truman took over. Truman makes President George Bush look well-travelled: he had been to Europe only once, during service in the first world war. Yet he understood the importance of US engagement with the UN. "America can no longer sit smugly behind a mental Maginot line," he wrote (1). The stakes were too high: "In a world without such machinery, we would be forever doomed to the fear of destruction. It was important for us to make a start, no matter how imperfect" (2).

The UN's imperfections were manifest from its creation. It was built upon some obvious contradictions. It was necessary because greedy and bellicose states could not be trusted to avoid war, respect the rights of their citizens or care for people suffering outside their borders. Yet the new UN would rely upon those selfish states to enforce its principles.

Just as the US constitution hailed equality but legitimised slavery, so the UN charter proclaimed self-determination and encouraged decolonisation, but was steered by many member states that resisted surrendering their colonies. (In the UN's first two decades, membership, originally 51 states, soared to 117 - it now has 191 members.)

The UN gave equal voice to dictatorships and democracies, but its charter took sides, calling on members to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN, like any other organisation, depended on authoritative leadership, but power was put in the hands of the Security Council, a squabbling committee dominated by five permanent members with widely divergent interests and political systems. The secretary general, the nominal face of the organisation, was appointed to serve as only the chief administrative officer. He was a servant of the states, a point driven home by his place of work, a secretariat.

Moreover the UN was premised on the idea that the gravest threat to mankind was cross-border aggression, the main cause of the second world war: history later showed that the gravest threats came from states abusing citizens within their borders, or from terrorists who disregarded borders. It is no wonder that Charles de Gaulle referred to the UN as the "so-called United Nations", while David Ben Gurion teased the UN ("Oom" in Hebrew) by muttering "Oom Schmoom".

Annus horribilis

The organisation was ridiculed from its founding, but 2004 was its worst year, its annus horribilis, according to Kofi Annan. Its steep slide began in 2003 when the UN's most powerful state, the US, together with Britain, overrode the divided security council to make war in Iraq.

When it briefly looked as if the war had been won, the rest of Europe, which had been opposed to the war, and the US tried to conciliate, and chose to do so through the UN. The security council passed a resolution recognising the US occupation of Iraq (which was a victory for the US) and summoned Annan to send a UN political mission to Iraq to speed the transfer of power to the Iraqis (which was a victory for Europe). Annan seldom feels he can say no to the council, no matter what its request. He was so obsessed with the US accusation that the UN was losing its relevance that he immediately obliged with a mission. He did more. He offered the UN's best: his old friend, Sergio Vieira de Mello, the most seasoned nation-builder and diplomat in the UN. Eleven weeks after landing in Iraq with an oxymoronic mandate (for how do you simultaneously assist and dismantle an occupation?), De Mello and 21 other UN workers were murdered by a suicide bomber.

The year then worsened. UN peacekeepers from Morocco, South Africa, Nepal, Pakistan, Tunisia and Uruguay were discovered to have committed sexual offences against young girls in Congo and in Liberia. UN officials who staffed the $65bn oil-for-food programme that had fed Iraqis during the late 1990s were accused of receiving bribes. The UN Commission on Human Rights, chaired by Libya in 2003, re-elected Sudan to a three-year term of office in 2004 despite a campaign of ethnic slaughter in the country that had taken tens of thousands of lives.

In early 2005, as the UN hit rock bottom, the Bush administration announced that its next ambassador at the UN would be John Bolton, a man who did not recognise the existence of international law and said that if the UN building "lost 10 storeys, it wouldn't make a bit of difference". In March this year a reporter asked Annan if he thought it was time for him to resign. Annan has long liked to joke that the SG for his title of secretary general "stands for scapegoat", yet, totally out of character, he fired back, "Hell, no" and promised reforms in time for both anniversary celebrations this month.

New desperation

UN reform has been talked about, usually unhelpfully, for as long as the UN has existed. But never before has the subject been broached as desperately as now. In an organisation where jobs are difficult to acquire but impossible to lose, several key officials in Annan's inner circle have been forced out. He has recommended disbanding the easy entry (and embarrassing) Commission on Human Rights and establishing a smaller council of states that respect human rights. Germany, Japan, Brazil and India have forged a bloc to win permanent seats on a newly-expanded security council (3).

Nowhere is the talk of reform louder or more self-satisfied than in the US. The motives of the self-styled reformers vary. The House majority leader, Tom DeLay, a long-time UN-basher, hopes to use reform to diminish the autonomy of the UN, which he describes as "one of the world's great apologists for tyranny and terror". His colleague, Henry Hyde, produced a bill, passed in the House on 17 June, that would withhold 50% of the US's UN dues if the organisation does not meet at least 32 of 46 conditions by 2007.

The Bush administration rightly opposes the bill because it says it would depreciate US influence at the UN at a time when it is most needed and, more important to an administration famous for seeking control, because it would intrude on the president's foreign policy-making authority. Distancing itself from Delay and Hyde, the Bush administration has publicly backed Annan's calls to abolish the Commission on Human Rights and overhaul UN management and administration. It has called for building a caucus of democracies within the UN, as well as approving a convention on counter-terrorism. US officials say that only when these changes are under way should the General Assembly get drawn into a debate about Security Council expansion. "We don't want to see all the oxygen sucked out of the room [by the council debate]," said the US undersecretary of state, Nicholas Burns.

The administration supports giving a permanent seat (but not a veto) to Japan, the UN's second-largest financial contributor, and to one other country. It supports adding two or three non-permanent seats. A more dramatic intake of new members, Burns suggested, would not be easily digestible and would turn the council into an even more cumbersome decision-making body than it is. It might come to resemble the unwieldy 26-member Nato council.

But President Bush has been uncharacteristically coy about whether Brazil, Germany or India would be approved. "We oppose no country's bid for the Security Council," he said on 27 June, immediately after meeting the German chancellor, Gerhard Schrí¶der. Among UN officials in New York, reform is welcome. With the UN's reputation in tatters in the country where it is based, how could it not be? But UN veterans are sceptical about how far reforms can go, given that so many of the problems are the result of fissures that were carved into the UN's foundation in 1945, and also of conscious policy choices by the UN's most powerful member states.

Blame game

Blaming the UN for the Rwandan genocide or for Iran's nuclear weapons programme, as Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, says, "is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the New York Knicks (4) play badly". The UN is a building. It is the behaviour and priorities of the states within it that need to be reformed. Take two notorious examples of the UN in crisis: peacekeeping and mismanagement. The most serious accusations against the UN have been that the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 happened in the presence of UN peacekeepers.

Annan, who then ran the department of peacekeeping operations in New York, was warned by Romeo Dallaire, his field general in Rwanda, of the imminent events. Annan, unforgivably, failed to pass the warning to the Security Council. But who must bear the greatest responsibility for allowing the genocide? Annan, who predicted that the warning would cause member states either to do nothing or to flee Rwanda (a prediction borne out during the genocide, when western powers withdrew UN peacekeepers)? Or Bill Clinton who, fearing that US troops might get drawn in, demanded that the blue helmets be evacuated when the massacres were already happening? Or Franí§ois Mitterrand, who had helped arm and train the murderers, and whose French soldiers parachuted in to rescue leading perpetrators during the last days of the killings?

Has anything changed? Western nations have heeded the lessons of the 1990s, but not by ensuring that peacekeeping is done well. Instead, they have avoided peacekeeping altogether. Armed forces from western nations who serve under the UN flag are now rare. The five main contributors of troops to the UN are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Ghana. The successful military operations of the past decade - the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999, the Australian rescue of the East Timorese in 1999, and the British mission in Sierra Leone in 2000, were carried out by coalitions of the willing. Instead of strengthening collective structures to perform essential humanitarian and peacekeeping tasks, rich countries have decided to go it alone or stay home. The troops of poor countries are managing the hardest cases, such as Congo and Darfur.

In peacekeeping, the UN hardly constitutes what Bolton called a "great rusting hulk of bureaucratic superstructure". The UN lacks the staff to manage the blue helmets it does deploy. After the debacles of the 1990s Annan promised never to allow the UN to be overstretched again. But the Security Council has authorised the deployment of 18 new missions. Because of costcutting, 66,000 peacekeepers are supported in headquarters by only 500 personnel. No western member state would dream of sending its troops in harm's way with so little backing from headquarters. Yet when the troops are to be sent from the developing world, the major powers do not hestitate.

As Kevin Kennedy, an operational wizard at UN headquarters in New York, put it: "The places the UN is sent generally suck. That's not an excuse for incompetence or laziness, but they suck. And if they didn't suck, UN member states would deal with them themselves." If the UN goes mainly to places all others wish to avoid, and with the skimpiest of resources, it is no wonder that the UN's rate of peacekeeping success is not high.

Gifts with strings

The other high-profile target of reform zealotry is the notoriously inefficient UN management. Ronald Reagan once said that accepting a US government grant, with all its rules, was like marrying a girl and finding that her entire family moved in with you before the honeymoon. The strings that member states attach to payment of their UN dues are even more demoralising; they insist that every penny they give the UN be meticulously accounted for, meaning that senior staff working in the most perilous UN missions often spend more time on paperwork than they do on the prevention of HIV, planning elections, or policing the streets. And in personnel decisions, member states insist on pushing their nationals, regardless of their suitability for the job. As Annan said to me recently, "We don't get the best. Governments tend to send us those people they can't place."

But it is too simple to blame the UN member states for the annus horribilis or place the burden of reform on the member states. On the rare occasions that the UN secretariat does attract the best, it rarely keeps them. When De Mello died in the Baghdad blast, Annan, who was obviously shaken, said: "I had only one Sergio." While he was paying tribute to a brave and brilliant public servant, that statement was also an unwitting indictment of the organisation that he runs. When he needed a troubleshooter, he should have been able to call upon somebody other than De Mello or the former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi, who is now 71. The UN eats its young. The quality of its staff will continue to suffer if UN leaders do not stamp out the defeatist culture in which UN officials see themselves only as the objects of member state machinations, not as the shaper of them.

It is unlikely that the member states will change soon, and unlikely that the contradictions built into the UN will be easily overcome. But while the most powerful states have yet to be convinced that a strong UN will advance their interests, all of them can agree that a UN mired in scandal distracts member states and UN agencies from dealing with pressing security and humanitarian challenges. So the secretariat must tidy up its administrative house; recruit, retain and develop young talent; push to appoint the best envoys and senior staff on the basis of merit rather than nationality; and be unashamed to publicise, not internalise, predictable efforts by member states to manipulate, micromanage and under-fund UN programmes.

If there is one reform that the UN secretariat can achieve alone, it is a refusal to allow the UN flag to be used to screen member states' discord and indifference.


(1) Stephen Schlesinger, Act of Creation: The Founding of the UN, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 2003. (2) Ibid.

(3) See Delphine Lecoutre, "Africa's seat in the UN", Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, August 2005.

(4) Basketball team from Madison Square Garden, New York.

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