Former UN Assistant Secretary General Gillian Sorensen visits Monterey to talk about Iraq, Sudan, and the future of US-UN relations.
Thursday, December 2, 2004
The United Nations loves its commemorative days. This year there have been at least 50 of them. There are also commemorative weeks—such as World Breastfeeding Week (Aug. 1-7) and World Space Week (Oct. 4-10). And hovering above them all like the Milky Way, there is the International Year of Rice and the Decade of Literacy.
The right comic would find rich material here. But some commemorations really are serious. One of these is Human Rights Day, celebrated Dec. 10 in honor of the UN General Assembly’s 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This simple document—outlining concepts such as the right to freedom from torture and slavery that seem obvious to modern sensibilities—was and remains non-binding, meaning countries that violate it risk disapproval or perhaps ostracization but no real censure from the world community. Yet, in an example of the UN functioning at its best, the declaration has become the constitution of rights movements everywhere, and many repressive governments have grudgingly embraced its precepts under internal and external pressure to do so.
This Saturday (a few days early), the local chapters of the
United Nations Association, Bahá’í Faith, and Amnesty
International are hosting Monterey County’s annual Human
Rights Day luncheon. The guest speaker is someone who knows
all too well the UN’s reputation here in the United States as
a purveyor of useless commemorative days, a body mired in
bureaucracy and paralyzed by the need for consensus. But
Gillian Sorensen, a former assistant secretary general for
external relations and close adviser to both Secretary General
Kofi Annan and his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, also
believes in the unique power of the UN to effect change in the
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“I say it’s imperfect but indispensable,” Sorensen says. She believes the UN is especially indispensable to the United States, one of its biggest detractors, and especially right now.
“The reconstruction [of Iraq] is long and hard and it needs expertise—linguists, health officers. It needs people to go not in the protected Green Zone but into the country,” she says. “Tell me 10 Americans who are willing to do that, 10 Americans that have the skills and language and knowledge of Iraq.”
The UN has only a handful of international staffers in Iraq now because security is so bad. That is a source of resentment in Washington where, according to the New York Times, Sorensen’s old boss is viewed as deliberately unhelpful. Sorensen’s explanation does little to dispel the notion—should one have arrived at it—that the UN is allowing the US to fully absorb a difficult lesson about the perils of unilateral action.
“They made the war, they have to resolve it,” she says. “The UN can do many things, but everything has consequences. And by going to war without the unique legitimacy of the Security Council, [the Bush administration] set back the willingness of countries to wholeheartedly support the war.”
Sorensen acknowledges that this is an especially hard time for US-UN relations, partly because the United States “tends to use the UN as an organization of convenience, not an organization of conviction.”
Unfortunately, UN detractors have plenty to work with. The organization’s recent failure to act on the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan was the latest disappointment in what some see as the organization’s ineffectual history.
Last April, at the 10-year commemoration of the Rwanda massacres that killed at least half a million people, Kofi Annan hinted that military action might be necessary to halt the violence in western Sudan. Eight months later, the Security Council has managed only to threaten sanctions and order an investigation into whether genocide has occurred there.
Sorensen calls the lack of political will to act on Darfur “very distressing.”
“I heard someone talking the other day who said something very stark: ‘We keep saying never again, and yet it looks like again and again,’” she says. “Even this country is unwilling to do more.”
As for the future of the US and the UN, Sorensen says she believes despair over the rocky relationship would be short-sighted.
“This will pass as long as people take a long view and as long as people see that whether we like it or not, we’re connected,” she says.
The environment, terrorism, and human and narcotics trafficking are all global problems, and the United Nations is the logical place to address them, she says.
“Everyone is there,” she says. “They’re looking for US leadership but also an America that listens with respect and doesn’t act like the bully on the block.”