Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Playing Chicken at the United Nations

It was a game of chicken in which neither side gave way. As the General Assembly raced to finish the work of its fall 2007 session the week before Christmas, it was the United States against the rest of the world on whether to approve the $4.17 billion budget of the United Nations for the 2008-2009 biennium.

Things came to a head before the sun was up on Saturday morning, the 22nd of December. In the 142 to 1 vote all the Western allies of the United States sided with the 132-member Group of 77 (which takes its name from the number of developing countries that founded the caucus in 1964). Of the UN's 192 members, 49 were absent when the predawn vote was taken, including Israel.

The United States opposed the budget ostensibly because it did not want $6.7 million spent on a world conference in 2011 to review implementation of an action plan against racism and racial discrimination adopted in 2001. It had walked out of the 2001 conference, accompanied by Israel, to protest a drive by Arab states to paint the Palestinians as victims of racism; Washington thought any review should be voluntarily funded, not paid from the regular UN budget, to which it is the largest contributor.

American criticism of the UN might seem picayune in monetary terms, but substantively it is much more significant. At a time when international cooperation is not just important but urgent on a broad range of global issues, the United Nations is almost totally dysfunctional. Over the decades the General Assembly has excelled in formulating international laws and norms, and the organization's statistical services perform a vital function; but otherwise the organization has done little good. Peacekeeping and emergency humanitarian aid, often cited as areas of UN success are, in fact, indicative of its core failures. The Security Council is almost pathetically ineffective. Most of its 50+ resolutions in 2007 (down significantly from 86 in 2006), deal with housekeeping matters, and its various "thematic" pronouncements have reached a level of irrelevance equaled only by the General Assembly, which has adopted over 250 resolutions just in the last four months. Most of the Assembly resolutions are on long-standing agenda items and their texts are little changed from those that have been adopted in previous years; as in the past, they are destined to slip into instant obscurity, serving only to provide an annual update of the concerns of the UN membership.

Reform efforts, which were seriously taken in hand only after 1985, when the United States began withholding increasing portions of its share of the UN budget, have gone nowhere in over two decades. The Secretariat has been trimmed dramatically and the intergovernmental structures of the organization have been repeatedly reshaped, but without improved effectiveness. Yet, delegations and senior UN staff often cite those changes as mileposts of change.

Most disappointing has been the lack of progress on human rights after the 1989 end of the Cold War. Although the dissolution of the Soviet Union a decade later was a major advance, its successor States have stumbled badly on the path to democracy. Meanwhile, major Western States have used the "war on terrorism" to justify their own increasingly regressive policies on human rights and liberties. In most developing countries those rights and liberties continue to take a back seat to political and economic survival. It is not surprising that under such circumstances UN human rights machinery has not functioned well. The Human Rights Commission was largely ineffective for over five decades, and its 2006 successor, the supposedly "strengthened" Human Rights Council, has brought little improvement.

Despite this long record of failed reform efforts, there has been no move to consider the reasons why. Reform itself has become a permanent fixture on the UN agenda, as unsolvable a mystery as the Palestinian issue or the distress of Africa. In April 2008 the General Assembly will consider the way forward on management reform and begin consultations on "system-wide coherence," areas on which panels of eminent personalities have spoken with little insight or inspiration. A "full review"is to begin next September on counter-terrorism, with the aim of identifying "gaps in implementation." Expectations from these exercises should be low, for neither the Secretariat nor delegations have yet conducted an honest analysis of why the UN has failed on so broad a front. If they ever do, it will become apparent that reform cannot be achieved structurally. The UN is conceptually out of date. So are key policies and attitudes of governments (including, and perhaps especially, those of the United States). Unless this problem is rigorously addressed, efforts at UN reform will continue to be no more than a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic.

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