excerpted from the book
Deliver Us From Evil
by William Shawcross
Touchstone Books, 2000, paper
By early 1996 the UN was, in a real sense, fighting for its
political and economic life. It was an organization with a split
public profile- one in which hundreds of millions of people reposed
inordinate hopes, but also one which many governments either exploited
or treated with cynicism. Its central secretariat had around ten
thousand employees, many of them placed by their governments on
the basis of favor rather than merit. Its fiftieth anniversary
celebrations in October 1995 had been much more a moment of self-congratulation
and platitude than analysis.
Of course, disillusion with the UN was always inevitable.
Richard Gardner, the U.S. ambassador to Spain in the mid-nineties,
recalled that at the founding of the UN an American banker, Beardsley
Ruml, had prophesied: 'At the end of five years you will consider
the United Nations is the greatest vision ever realized by man.
At the end of ten years you will find doubts within yourself and
all through the world. At the end of fifty years you will believe
the United Nations cannot succeed. You will be certain that all
the odds are against its ultimate life and success. It will only
be when the United Nations is 100 years old that we will know
that the United Nations is the only alternative to the demolition
of the world."
Now, after half a century, some congratulation was due. The
UN had survived already twice as long as the League of Nations.
If the faults of the league and the UN were similar, that was
perhaps because they were both based upon a utopian ideal which
could never be realized. Woodrow Wilson had believed that if only
"power politics" were abolished, "peoples, not
governments, would run things"- and run them much better,
in the interests of cooperation and peace. That is not the way
of the world.
The paradox, considering the current chill between the two,
was that America had always been crucial to the development of
the UN. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had not only been present at
its creation, he was also in a real sense its creator. Having
served under Woodrow Wilson, Roosevelt knew how the failed peace
after World War I contributed to the Great Depression and the
age of the tyrants. With great skill, during World War II he had
constructed a consensus among the Allies that another attempt
at international security should be made. Without Roosevelt there
would have been no UN, no Bretton Woods institutions, no General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, no World Health Organization,
Food and Agriculture Organization, UN Educational, Scientific
and Cultural Organization, or any of the other permanent international
organizations. When the UN Charter was adopted by unanimous vote
at the San Francisco Conference in June 1945, the new president,
Harry Truman, exulted: "Between the victory in Europe and
the final victory in Japan, in this most destructive of all wars,
you have won a victory against war itself."
Would that it had been so. As the New York Times put it a
half century later, the UN has all too often been oversold and
has therefore disappointed. The General Assembly is not a global
parliament; the Security Council (like the pope) has no divisions
to call its own; UN peacekeepers are usually vulnerable monitors;
and the secretary general is the servant of his masters. There
is often absurd pomp, self-righteousness and cronyism-national,
political and financial-above all because the bureaucracy is still
too much governed by national quotas which no nation will even
modify, let alone relinquish. Its debts and the disdain in which
some hold the UN discolor its reputation and its real successes.
There has never before been a world body to which almost all the
nations of the world have had uninterrupted access to air grievances
for over fifty years. It began with 50 members; now it has close
The UN Charter commits nations for the first time in history
to collective action in the fields of peace and security, economic
and social development, and human rights. In the early years,
the UN oversaw the process of decolonization with some success.
The Cold War paralyzed the organization in a real sense, but at
the same time the organization helped paralyze the Cold War. During
such critical moments as the Cuban missile crisis, it had been
an essential talking shop, helping defuse the strains. It helped
liberalize world trade; it provided technical and financial assistance
for economic development and recently for the transformation of
communist economies into market economies. Beyond politics, the
UN has done an enormous amount in helping eradicate diseases like
smallpox, taken care of thirty million refugees (at least), immunized
children, provided for the victims of both man-made and natural
disasters, pushed for development (not always with clear success),
reduced global illiteracy, helped save millions of lives. Now
one of its greatest tasks is probably to confront the reality
of globalization and the dash into the marketplace of three billion
more people, including those of China and the states of the former
Human rights had been a revolutionary concept when the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights was launched in 1948. The declaration
expresses better than any other document the universal rights
of man. Frequently (perhaps usually) ignored or flouted, it provides
everyone with a benchmark against which both progress and tyranny
can be measured. It has since led to such extraordinary developments
of international law that by the mid-nineties the way in which
governments treat their own citizens is often no longer regarded
merely as an internal matter. By now human rights has become an
integral part of international politics and the foreign policy
of the United States, ahead of most other nations.
The UN, the American writer William Pfaff argued, is a human
institution embodied in contemporary political history, sometimes
useful, sometimes not. Its failures are human failures. It failed
in Bosnia because its members were unwilling to make it succeed.
It succeeded, up to a point, in Cambodia because they mostly agreed
and conditions were favorable.
Annan thought it was all very well for governments like the
United States to talk about reform, but to be significant it must
include reform of governments' attitudes-like paying bills on
time, not using the UN as a scapegoat, not writing absurd mandates,
not sending troops into danger where governments would not send
their own men under their own command. He thought that a lot of
time had been lost in the last decade. In the eighties, the West
had become interested in such issues as drugs, terrorism, the
environment and human rights. All of these are important, but
necessary debates over how to combat poverty and create sustainable
development have gone by the board.
There are several United Nations. There is the international
body of nations which does so many tasks-from vaccinating children
to distributing food-with considerable success. It is less happily
engaged when it sends lightly armed men to try to keep a nonexistent
peace between ferocious warlords, or (at the opposite extreme)
when it sends myriad delegates to interminable international conferences
where too many words are rehearsed and too much money is spent.
Another United Nations, perhaps the most intractable, was
made up of the vast and largely autonomous baronies constituted
by the various agencies which carry out the UN's development and
relief work. Among them were the Food and Agriculture Program,
the World Food Program, the High Commissioner for Refugees, the
UN Development Program, UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
Undoubtedly they contained time-servers, like the central secretariat
itself-perhaps more than did nongovernmental organizations working
in the same areas-because of the quotas insisted upon by governments.
Moreover, the agencies guarded their sovereignty as fiercely as
any member state and fought any attempts to diminish their autonomy
through coordination. Directors would not hesitate to call upon
their own national governments to fight any attempt by the secretary
general to dismiss incompetent senior staff or to rationalize
missions, as both Boutros-Ghali and later Kofi Annan found to
their cost. Thus UNHCR, for example, strenuously resisted the
attempt by Boutros-Ghali to place much of its work under the umbrella
of the newly created department of humanitarian affairs, which
was established after the Persian Gulf crisis in order to improve
Then, lurking behind the bureaucracies, was what the Washington
Post called the "demonic United Nations," much beloved
of conspiracy theorists on the further marches of the right. This
is the grimly efficient international plot known as the UN, which
has slipped control of its members and is bent on taking over
the United States, secretly training forces equipped with black
helicopters deep in the American desert in anticipation of that
day. Conspiracy theorists denounced Boutros-Ghali, whose nonexistent
helicopter was the biggest and blackest of them all, as the head
of an organization secretly dedicated to world domination.
By the mid-nineties, the mutterings of the paranoid dark were
echoed in the light. Senator Jesse Helms called the UN "the
nemesis of millions of Americans." Bob Dole, the Republican
candidate for president in 1996, made UN bashing into a favored
pastime. In speech after speech he declared that if he were ever
to send American troops abroad, "I will be in charge of that
decision, not Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He almost always got a laugh.
But how far the American people actually saw the UN as an important
issue was moot; indeed, many polls showed that Americans viewed
the UN much more favorably than the rhetoric of its populist critics
Both sides of Congress constantly depicted Boutros-Ghali now
as a man who had failed to reform the world organization. He had
actually done some things. He had already proposed to cut a thousand
from the ten thousand staff posts of the central secretariat;
to undertake further economies to save some $140 million a year;
and, under U.S. pressure, to create a new UN "watchdog"
post, under secretary general for internal oversight services.
But White House and State Department officials insisted that
along with almost every other large institution facing the challenge
of globalization, the UN had to embark on real downsizing. The
problem, often pointed out, was that the stockholders of the UN
were the nearly 190 member countries, and to many if not most
of them downsizing meant the loss of cherished positions.
By the spring of 1996, administrative officials were arguing
that whatever the strength of feeling in the country, the feeling
in the Congress was such that if Boutros-Ghali stayed for a second
term, the Republicans would never agree to fund the UN. Therefore
even for those who supported the UN (or perhaps especially for
them) his removal was essential.
The U.S. refusal to pay its contributions was the most important
cause of the financial crisis. Half the UN's total expenses were
now being paid by European Union members, and Japan had become
the largest single contributor. The accumulated arrears were now
standing at $2.3 billion, and the Secretariat only just managed
to keep functioning by skillful financial subterfuge: it stole
from the peacekeeping account to finance its general budget. This
was possible only because the UN was always so far in arrears
in its payments to troop-contributing countries. In the case of
poor Third World countries such delays really could hurt-and usually
meant that the soldiers who had served in Bosnia or Somalia were
not getting paid at all.
With less cash expected in peacekeeping in 1996 the financial
straits were likely to become more desperate.
By international standards the sums were pretty tiny. The
General Assembly's Portuguese president pointed out that the Secretariat's
budget, at $1.3 billion, was only about one fifth of his own country's
education budget. But if the organization as a whole was relatively
cheap, its organization was not always wise. Some parts were ludicrously
overmanned; others, like peacekeeping, were inadequately staffed.
The peacekeeping staff of some three hundred people had found
it impossible to supervise some seventy thousand soldiers properly
in up to twenty operations at a time. Yet other, near-moribund
agencies such as the Committee on Missing Persons in Cyprus continued,
thanks to Greece's friends in the US. Congress. (It had not found
a missing Cypriot in twenty-two years.) The Committee on Decolonization
remained even though almost no colonies exist. In summer 1996,
twenty-four members of this committee made a trip to Papua New
Guinea at a cost to the UN of $150,000. Equally ludicrous was
the Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, originally set
up for just one year, 1955. It was easy but not quite fair to
blame the Secretariat for such anachronisms. The General Assembly
was responsible and so, in fact, was the United States itself,
if only because in the 1980s the U.S. had insisted that the budget
must be adopted by consensus, which gave every member state a
veto on deletions as well as additions. Thus, in 1996 the US.
supported the voting of new mandates for a UN political presence
in Guatemala and for human rights monitoring in Haiti. Boutros-Ghali
said he would need more money for these activities, but the US.
had insisted that they be financed within the agreed budget and
that old or out-of-date activities be scrapped to make room for
Us From Evil
International War Crimes