Uniting Nations

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 to 190.

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 Soviet Union.

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 UN coordination.

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 would suggest.

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 them.

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