Global Policy Forum

Politics Trumps Diplomacy in UN Reform Dispute


By Warren Hoge

New York Times
November 21, 2005

A dispute over the future division of authority at the United Nations has prompted showdown talk among diplomats and a warning from John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador, that the United States may look elsewhere to settle international problems. At issue is how management-reform proposals that would broaden the power of the secretary general's office are being pressed assertively by Bolton and aggravating tensions between the 191-member General Assembly, with its entrenched bureaucracy, and the office of the secretary general.

"It looks like it could be a real train wreck," said Edward Luck, a professor of international affairs at Columbia University in New York and a former president of the UN Association of the United States. "It's a basic clash over who's in charge: Is it the General Assembly or is it the secretary general?" The clash is being seen in crisis terms in the offices of Secretary General Kofi Annan. "This is serious stuff," said Mark Malloch Brown, Annan's chief of staff. "I think in many ways it is setting the outcome of whether the United Nations matters or not in 10 years' time." Bolton turned down repeated requests over four days to be interviewed on the subject, which he has identified as the priority of current U.S. policy at the United Nations.

Distrust has deepened in the debate over change because many nations believe that the secretary general's office has been tacking too close to the United States in its effort to repair relations with Washington that were damaged over the war in Iraq and the scandal-ridden oil-for-food program. "One gets the impression that other countries are suspicious that the secretary general and his aides are really puppets being manipulated by Washington," Luck said.

Annan scheduled an emergency meeting for Monday with the coalition of developing nations known as the Group of 77, which now has 132 members and is protesting a series of recommended changes that it believes would usurp the power of the General Assembly. Maged Abdelaziz, Egypt's UN ambassador and a member of the coalition, said: "They want us to be like an advisory board that is sitting looking into the air and giving advice and then the secretary general is going to decide whatever he is going to do." Abdelaziz said that many coalition members also question the motives of Bolton, who has a well-known history of disdain for the United Nations. "When Bolton came, he presented 400 proposals," the Egyptian said. "Let him present 1,700 proposals. We're capable of discussing them."

Among the proposed changes would be the creation of ethics and oversight offices answerable to the secretary general and an insistence that the biennial budget to be approved next month anticipates the costs of new offices proposed as part of the reform package, like a Human Rights Council and a Peace Building Commission. Stafford Neil, the Jamaican ambassador and chairman of the Group of 77, asserted in a letter to Jan Eliasson, president of the General Assembly, that the reform proposals were not being considered "in accordance with existing rules and procedures."

George Mitchell, a former U.S. Senate majority leader and a co-chairman of the Task Force on the United Nations, which was created by the U.S. Congress, said he had encountered objections to American sponsorship of the reforms and had tried to combat them. "It's wrong to think that reform is a favor done for the U.S.," he said. "I make the argument to countries that their long-range interest is served by supporting this. While we have indicated that this is an American priority, that is a conclusion that they ought to be reaching for themselves."

Malloch Brown said politics was trumping serious consideration of needed management changes. "The secretary general really wants to be a real reformer," he said. "It's in our interest to make this place run better. But it's impossible to have that discussion at the moment because instead of talking about what is appropriate reform, everyone is talking about what is the agenda behind the reform." Bolton has raised the stakes in the debate with statements that if thwarted, the United States would snub the United Nations and pursue its interests in other international forums. In a speech last week at Wingate University in North Carolina, Bolton said, "Being practical, Americans say that either we need to fix the institution or we'll turn to some other mechanism to solve international problems." An article from The Sunday Telegraph in Britain, which is in wide circulation among diplomats here, reports that Bolton told guests at a private dinner in New York: "In the bubble on First Avenue, Volcker is just ignored. I talk about it, but it's a solitary conversation." The reference was to the investigation led by Paul Volcker that found a high level of corruption and mismanagement in the Iraqi oil-for-food program during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

The Telegraph also said that when asked by its reporter what he enjoyed most at the United Nations, Bolton replied: "It's a target-rich environment." William Luers, president of the UN Association of the United States, described a "polarization between the U.S. on the one hand and the Group of 77 on the other." "This is a time for diplomacy, and we don't have the diplomatic capacity to do it," he said.

More Information on UN Reform
More General Articles on UN Reform
More Articles on the US, UN and International Law


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.