Special Report

Business as Usual at the U.N.

For the United Nations, relevance may be almost as perilous as irrelevance. In the span of a year, the Bush administration went from taunting the world body to begging for its help. A beefed-up U.N. team will soon arrive in Baghdad to advise the Iraqi government on reconstruction, social services, and human rights and directly ...

For the United Nations, relevance may be almost as perilous as irrelevance. In the span of a year, the Bush administration went from taunting the world body to begging for its help. A beefed-up U.N. team will soon arrive in Baghdad to advise the Iraqi government on reconstruction, social services, and human rights and directly assist with elections. At the same time, U.N. peacekeeping missions are sprouting or expanding in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Ivory Coast. Indeed, by the end of 2004, more blue helmets will likely be in action than at any time in history.

Although some U.N. backers revel in the growing global reliance on the world body, now is no time to get smug. These weighty responsibilities are landing on the shoulders of an organization that national governments have deliberately kept weak. The United Nations’ 60-year-old machinery has never seemed so ill-equipped for its work, and its credibility has plummeted. As the major powers fight terrorism and dwell on homeland security, they will hand the United Nations essential but thankless tasks they might once have tackled themselves (or just ignored). Without major changes, the United Nations may well buckle under the growing strain.

The idea that the United Nations can stumble along in its atrophied condition has powerful appeal in capitals around the world — and even in some offices at U.N. headquarters. But believing that the status quo will suffice is dangerous.

Regrettably, most of those who could change the organization have an interest in resisting reform. None of the permanent Security Council members wants to give up its veto; smaller powers delight in their General Assembly votes, which count as much as those of the major powers; repressive regimes cherish participation in United Nations’ human rights bodies, where they can scuttle embarrassing resolutions; and the Western powers whose troops and treasure are needed to strengthen U.N. peacekeeping have other priorities. Even within the U.N. bureaucracy, many veterans shy away from dramatic reform — it has taken them decades to become masters of the old procedures, and change is risky. And while U.N. officials, including the secretary-general, are quick (and correct) to blame the member states for the constraints they face, they too rarely find the courage to spotlight those specific states whose obstinacy, stinginess, and abuses undermine the principles behind the U.N. Charter.

Much U.N.-bashing is, of course, unfair. The United Nations is in many respects just a building. It is a place for states to butt heads or to negotiate as their national interests dictate. And, on the operational side, the organization performs many indispensable tasks — feeding, sheltering, and immunizing millions, and even disarming the odd Iraqi dictator. But the organization’s reputation rises and falls these days based on the performance and perceived legitimacy of three of its most visible components — the Security Council, the Commission on Human Rights, and the peacekeepers in the field. Each is in dire need of reform or rescue.

Permanent membership on the Security Council — granted to the Second World War victors (plus France) — is woefully anachronistic. Britain and France can’t fairly claim two fifths of the world’s legal authority. The permanent five members once spoke for close to 40 percent of the world’s population. They now account for 29 percent. The world’s largest democracy (India) is excluded; so are regional powerhouses such as Nigeria and Brazil, not to mention the entire Islamic world. It is the permanent members who decide when atrocities warrant humanitarian intervention, but this decision is made by two of the planet’s worst human rights abusers (Russia and China) and one country (the United States) that exempts itself from most international human rights treaties. While still coveted in some cases, the council imprimatur is fast losing its sheen.

The Commission on Human Rights, the 53-state forum based in Geneva, has become a politicized farce. Because the commission takes all comers (seats are allocated on a regional basis), some of the world’s most vicious regimes are members. Libya chaired the 2003 commission, and this year’s commission extended membership to Sudan, which is busy ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of Africans in Darfur. Until membership comes with responsibilities, the commission will shelter too many human rights abusers and condemn too few.

When the states on the Security Council tell the secretary-general to put boots on the ground, his peacekeepers often face impossible assignments. They march into some of the world’s most treacherous conflict zones, but only those where major Western economic and security interests are not at stake. Not coincidentally, the peacekeepers invariably lack the wherewithal to actually keep peace. In the 1990s, peacekeepers who were chained to Serbian lampposts became poster boys for the international community’s impotence, as Western powers dispatched lightly armed troops to Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia without the mandate or means to stop genocide. To accommodate the unexpected surge in demand for peacekeeping in the last year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan (who likes to joke that "S.G." stands for "scapegoat") has appealed for more troops, intelligence resources, and logistical support — and the ability to call upon reinforcements if needed.

Funding for peacekeeping missions has increased somewhat, but another $1 billion is needed. Even more important, the United Nations must be able to recruit soldiers from the major powers, which have coughed up only a few hundred troops in recent years. The countries that do contribute significant forces — including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uruguay, and Nigeria — are often lured by the cash and military hardware they receive just for turning up. No wonder command and control of these forces often melts down. If the major powers continue to deploy peacekeepers on the cheap, the Security Council will again set up the United Nations for failure — and endanger the millions of desperate civilians who have no choice but to rely on the baby blue flag.

To a large extent, the United States and other member states get the United Nations they want and deserve. But proponents of U.N. reform should view the quagmire in Iraq as a moment of opportunity. Rather than regarding the United Nations’ new centrality as evidence of success, the secretary-general must talk some sense into the member states, who stubbornly persist in believing that a hobbled United Nations can meet the 21st century’s deadly transnational challenges.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations’ second secretary-general, liked to say that the United Nations was not created to take humanity to heaven but to save it from hell. Even escaping hell requires an international organization that is up to the job.

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