The Bad Boys of Global Politics
John Bolton and Robert Mugabe might be the two best things to ever happen to the United Nations.
Will John Bolton, the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Robert Mugabe, the long-standing tyrant of Zimbabwe, do for global governance what Enron's Ken Lay and WorldCom's Bernie Ebbers did for corporate governance? It took high-profile scandals at Enron and WorldCom to shock public opinion and politicians out of their complacency with the abusive practices of corporate chieftains. New laws and a heightened public awareness have created a corporate environment where the abuses and the impunity common in the past are less tolerated. Lay and Ebbers are now symbols of greed, and their conduct sparked major reforms in the way private corporations are governed. Will Bolton's and Mugabe's roles in the United Nations mobilize the needed political energy to change the way it and other international organizations function?
Will John Bolton, the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Robert Mugabe, the long-standing tyrant of Zimbabwe, do for global governance what Enron’s Ken Lay and WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers did for corporate governance? It took high-profile scandals at Enron and WorldCom to shock public opinion and politicians out of their complacency with the abusive practices of corporate chieftains. New laws and a heightened public awareness have created a corporate environment where the abuses and the impunity common in the past are less tolerated. Lay and Ebbers are now symbols of greed, and their conduct sparked major reforms in the way private corporations are governed. Will Bolton’s and Mugabe’s roles in the United Nations mobilize the needed political energy to change the way it and other international organizations function?
Bolton once famously noted that, in his opinion, "There is no such thing as the United Nations," and that "if the U.N. secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference." During his Senate confirmation hearings, a former colleague testified to Bolton’s being a "serial abuser" of subordinates who disagreed with him. They painted an image of an ambassador who was more bully than diplomat. Now Bolton is being sent to New York to reform the very institution whose existence and utility he so frequently and stridently questioned.
As observers were digesting the paradox of having Bolton as the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, the world body announced a more routine but no less incredible decision: Zimbabwe was reelected as a full member of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. Yes, Zimbabwe, the poor nation ruled by the dictator Robert Mugabe, one of the world’s worst human rights offenders. It may sound crazy to have a regime that intimidates its political opposition through violence and starvation sit in judgment of other states’ human rights records. But it is not as crazy as who is responsible for Zimbabwe’s reelection. The answer: No one.
Sure, there was an official election and a formal session in New York on April 27 in which countries cast their votes. But, in practice, these procedures are designed to mask any responsibility for the decisions the organization takes. The governing body of the Human Rights Commission is the U.N. Economic and Social Council. EcoSoc, as this group of 54 nations is called, is in turn divided into regional groups, and each of these blocs is automatically entitled to a certain number of seats on the Human Rights Commission. This year, the 14 African members put forward three newcomers, Botswana, Cameroon, and Morocco, as candidates for membership and proposed that Zimbabwe be reelected. Thus, 14 African ambassadors to the United Nations-or in some cases their EcoSoc representatives — "voted," and the new and reelected member nations were selected to serve three-year terms on the Human Rights Commission. In the same way, Cuba, another human rights exemplar, was reelected in 2003 by Latin American and Caribbean countries, and Asian states have reelected China every three years since 1982. According to Freedom House, 30 percent of the countries now on the Human Rights Commission are themselves serial human rights violators.
If such levels of hypocrisy are considered acceptable, indeed normal, in U.N. circles today, one is tempted to conclude that Bolton and the United Nations deserve each other. In despair, one is also tempted to just forget about the United Nations and the sad and expensive charade played in Geneva each year by the more than 3,000 delegates who attend the sessions of the Human Rights Commission. But to do so would be wrong.
Wrong because, despite the United Nations’ dysfunction, the world’s dependence on such bodies is growing, not shrinking. We need them despite the fact that they are slow, inefficient, often ineffective, a bit ridiculous, and sometimes corrupt. No country acting alone will make a dent in the well-known and rapidly expanding list of problems — air pollution, human trafficking, nuclear proliferation, to name a few — whose nature is as global as their solutions should be. And in a strange alchemy, the foul odors of corruption, waste, and ineptitude that pervade the United Nations may be transmuting into, if not strong winds of change, at least a breeze of reform. The debate over the war in Iraq, the oil-for-food scandal, and the high-profile missteps of several senior U.N. officials (including accusations of nepotism, sexual harassment, and graft) have all created a mood where change may be possible. Kofi Annan, the embattled U.N. secretary-general, has proposed reforms that seek to change many things at the world body, including its shameful Human Rights Commission.
This fall, U.N. members will consider his proposed reforms, offering a good test case of the world’s desire for a better United Nations. But hopefulness must be tempered with skepticism. World leaders have grown accustomed to coexisting with a weak and malfunctioning United Nations. Reform of the organization will not take place as a result of the efforts of any single individual — not those of an infuriatingly diplomatic secretary-general nor those of a vociferous and bullying U.S. ambassador. Change will come only when governments and their publics — that is, you and I — realize that their future is, in part, dependent on how well the United Nations works. If the reputations of Bolton and Mugabe help raise that awareness, then they may be the two best things ever to happen to the United Nations.
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