Friday, December 21, 2007

Tragicomedy Central

The tragicomedy of the UN comes in high and low variants.

The latest Press briefing by the President of the General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim (Macedonia) would be high comedy if we didn't hear Wagnerian notes of doom in the background.

Kerim told journalists he had succeeded in making the 192-nation Assembly more “dynamic” during its fall 2007 session. As evidence of the new dynamism he pointed to "crucial negotiations" on such important issues as climate change, development financing and Security Council reform.

“We have made obvious and tangible progress in improving the working methods of the General Assembly, thus making it very dynamic and vital,” Mr. Kerim said. In fact, the "agenda had been so impressive and cooperation among Member States had been so inspired," he even thought it was unnecessary to adopt the traditional draft resolution on “Assembly revitalization.” And what was the evidence of this new vitality? The new spirit delegations had shown in negotiations on climate change, financing for development, the Millennium Development Goals, countering terrorism, and UN reform, including expansion of the Security Council. "Business as usual” was at an end, Mr. Kerim declared. He had also detected progress on the review of the General Assembly's numerous mandates.

Other examples of vitality: a resolution on “social justice” put forward by Kyrgyzstan, and one on “agricultural technology for development” sponsored by Israel. Yet another example of Assembly vitality was the decision to hold a thematic debate in February (11-12) on the outcome of the Bali conference on climate change last week. There would be "two important panel discussions: on creating synergies and support for the post-Bali negotiating process; and on how United Nations agencies would play a role in that process." The Secretary-General had been asked to report on all UN activities touching on climate change by 25 January.

Also in January, the General Assembly would begin substantive discussions of the review of progress since the 2002 Monterrey International Conference on Financing for Development; the process would culminate in a meeting at Doha, Qatar next November. In April, the Assembly had set a thematic debate on UN reform. A newly established Task Force -- Portugal, Chile and Bangladesh along with the President -- was discussing how and when a paper could be produced on Security Council reform that would be the basis for intergovernmental negotiations on expanding the membership of the Council. Mr. Kerim hoped that if the paper was ready in time the negotiations could begin in February.

To appreciate the comic element in all this, one has to keep in mind that the General Assembly has been vastly productive in declaring standards and laws, but with very little effect on the behavior of States. For instance, the 2002 Monterrey Conference heard firm pledges from rich countries to significantly increase aid to the poor and render more equitable the architecture of international financial relations; but nothing much happened: the increased aid went largely to emergency relief or to pay down debt, while poor countries continued their decades-long export of funds to the rich. In 2006 poor countries exported $667 billion (net) to rich countries, up from $500 billion in 2005.

Similarly, talk of Security Council reform has gone in circles for over a decade, as has UN reform. The "negotiations" on climate have been the worst boondoggle of all, for they have seemed to hold out hope of stopping the planet's inexorable slide towards cataclysmic disasters without having any real impact. (More on all this in later posts).

As for low tragicomedy, it comes from The Analyst of Monrovia, which reports that the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has refused to examine the penis of a person under trial for treason. A local court had written to the head of UNMIL asking that two medical officers be delegated to examine the prisoner to verify whether he was telling the truth about torture that had left him unable to have sexual relations. UNMIL declined to comply with the court's request on the grounds that its mandate would not allow it.

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