Kofi Annan’s radical plan to reform the UN comes under attack from the US.
Thursday, March 24, 2005
In the history books of the future, the entry on the United Nations in 2005 won’t be about the oil-for-food scandal or lecherous UN peacekeepers. If recent events are any indication, the story will be about how the United States stifled a visionary movement within the UN to confront global poverty, disease, human rights abuses, civil war, terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
On Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan unveiled a plan to overhaul the United Nations with the most dramatic reforms since its inception in 1945. The structural reforms are quite ambitious, but the change in mission is downright inspired. The UN was created in the last days of World War II to save “succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” and that will remain its official goal. But Annan is proposing that the UN usher in an era of humanism by organizing itself around three principles, not one: security, human rights and the relief of poverty.
“Unless all these causes are advanced, none will succeed,” Annan wrote in his report, In Larger Freedom. “In this new millennium, the work of the United Nations must move us closer to the day when all people have the freedom to choose the kind of lives they would like to live, the access to the resources that would make these choices meaningful, and the security to ensure that they can be enjoyedin peace.”
Annan’s proposals include things like drastically increasing the levels of aid given by rich nations to poor; expanding the 15-member Security Council so it is more representative of Africa, Asia and Latin America; initiating a global anti-terrorism treaty; halting the environmental degradation that worsens the plight of the poor; and replacing the Commission on Human Rights—long criticized by the US for letting known rights abusers participate—with a smaller Human Rights Council.
In September, world leaders will gather at UN headquarters in New York to decide which of Annan’s many reforms to adopt. The prospects do not look good.
Anyone who has taken stock of the rift between America and Europe after the Iraq war and the persistent global feud over the Middle East could predict that getting the 191 nations of the UN to agree on such reforms will be difficult. But the ideologues in the Bush Cabinet may pose the biggest hurdle.
The UN, with its semblance of world government and inconvenient commitment to equality among all states, has always inspired paranoia and disdain among certain people in this country. Its fictitious fleet of black helicopters regularly invades the sleep of right-wing conspiracy theorists. More moderate UN-bashers see a Lilliputian gang of nations determined to restrain America’s greatness.
Still others see a global nanny service skilled at women’s work—feeding the hungry and cleaning up messes—but ill-suited to making the important decisions about money and war.
This includes powerful people in Washington. In the 18 months since Annan announced his intention to reform the world organization, the United States has outwardly softened its unilateralist stance, only to reassert it just in time to thwart real change at the world body.
While Annan presses forward with a blueprint for a UN renaissance, Republican hardliners in Congress have seized on the oil-for-food scandal as proof the UN is rotten to its core.
Most telling is the nomination of John Bolton as Washington’s chief envoy to the organization. As the top arms negotiator, the swaggering diplomat has shown a flair for insulting negotiating partners with a particularly odious brand of American arrogance, and as a reliable soldier in the neo-conservative army, he has never bothered to hide his special contempt for the United Nations. His nomination speaks to how little interested Washington is in dealing with the UN as a partner.
The message is clear. The US wants the big ideas out of the UN.
New New World Order
At the signing of the UN charter in San Francisco in June 1945, nuclear weapons had not yet been unleashed, terrorism did not exist, the ozone was intact, the Holocaust was a festering secret and AIDS was inconceivable. The worst thing anyone could think of happening was another cataclysmic war between nations.
The UN charter was above all a security pact for an age of massive national armies equipped with guns, at the heart of which was the credo that an attack against one would be regarded as an attack against all. The promise of unified retaliation, or “collective security,” as it is known in academia, would deter aggression, or so it was hoped.
The UN’s more nurturing side—UNICEF, the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and a host of other bureaus ministering to the downtrodden—was created in recognition of the fact that wars don’t startfor nothing.
For the most part, the arrangement worked. A third world war has not erupted. But numerous other rank weeds have sprung up in its place: nuclear proliferation, terrorist networks, virulent diseases spread via air travel, obscene income disparities within and between nations. The end of the Cold War, which had had a perversely stabilizing effect, witnessed the shattering of the political map and a rise in domestic power struggles in the developing world, with the result that 90 percent of all armed conflicts are now civil wars.
The foulest bloom in this garden of evils has been the human rights atrocities that accompany civil conflict: the mutilations of Sierra Leone, the rape camps of Bosnia, the massacres of Rwanda.
The new problems are contagious, interlinked, looped in causal cycles. AIDS depletes the ranks of civil servants and armies, leaving families impoverished and governments unstable. Poverty leads to fights over scarce resources. Civil conflict leads to more poverty, gross human rights violations—like those in Darfur—and failed states like Afghanistan. Failed states harbor terrorists and are powerless to protect citizens from disease and attack. Human rights abuses give rise to terrorist movements, and so on. Trying to separate the strands is impossible.
The United Nations, as the tent where all nations gather, is the logical place to deal with this tangled mass of borderless problems. It already has the structure and mechanisms in place. It is only as strong, though, as the spirit of cooperation between its members. And this is a time when the member states can reach consensus on very little.
The invasion of Iraq is only the most recent example of the weaknesses Annan wants to remedy. Inaction in the face of mass atrocities has marred the UN’s credibility. Members of the Security Council failed to stop the 1994 Rwanda genocide or the atrocities in Darfur because they were able to hide behind the sacrosanct concept of state sovereignty. The idea of sovereignty—a nation’s right to conduct its own affairs without outside interference—has admirable applications in peacetime, keeping powerful countries from meddling in the politics of smaller neighbors. But it has become a disgraceful cover for the rest of the world to avert its eyes while factions within nations butchereach other.
Other UN weaknesses are of more immediate concern to the West. The collective response to terrorism, the great new security threat of our age, has foundered on the distiction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. The Kyoto Protocol to stop global warming, the International Criminal Court that would try war criminals and even a treaty banning biological weapons—all have fallen victim to deep global divisions.
It was in this context, in September 2003, that Annan reached the conclusion that the UN’s ability to function had become so compromised that he could no longer ignore it. He proposed a two-year reform process, the end of which would see a revitalized UN matched in structure and purpose to the new world and its perils.
UN reform jolted into action three months later, when Annan hand-picked a 16-member panel to rethink the new nature of global security threats, and to find ways to strengthen the world’s collective response to them. The panel included former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Arab League Secretary-General Amre Moussa—eminent people representing radically different ideologies andconcerns.
The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change released its report in December 2004. The first generation of ideas on how to adapt theUN to a new age, it formulates a critical new definition of “security threat” that informs Annan’s own sweeping reform proposals.
Security concerns have historically fallen on one side or the other of global lines separating wealthy nations from poorer ones. Poverty, disease, genocide, repressive governments and civil war—these are nightmares that bedevil poor nations. Rich nations lose sleep over other concerns, like terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The new definition of a “security threat” puts all of these concerns on equal footing, in grim but visionary recognition of their interlinkages: “It’s a Small World After All” in a minor key.
Incredibly, despite the radical differences between them, the members of the High-Level Panel reached consensus on almost everything. The report is as inspiring a piece of public policy as one could ever hope to read. It outlines a vision of collective security that could spell the difference between a global system capable of responding to the new generation of interlinked threats and one that can’t.
Never heard of it? That’s because it was drowned out in the uproar over the oil-for-food scandal.
On Dec. 1, the day before the High-Level Panel’s report was to be released, Sen. Norm Coleman wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal demanding Annan’s resignation over the scandal. In a flawless demonstration of short-sightedness, the US media pursued the story like terriers, as if the secretary-general of the United Nations might actually obey the bidding of the junior senator from Minnesota and step down from his international post.
The day after this fracas began, the High-Level Panel’s report came out, luxuriated in the news for a 24-hour cycle, and winked out of sight like a burst soap bubble.
As the only congressman with a UN flag flying outside his door on Capitol Hill, Rep. Sam Farr knows the hostility the organization can elicit.
In the fall of 2002, as the United States was seeking renewed UN arms inspections in Iraq, Rep. Farr hung the baby blue banner in the darkly varnished hallway of the Longworth Building. Soon thereafter, the office
was flooded with 6,000 mass-mailed postcards proclaiming the act “an outrage and a disgrace.” The conservation-minded Farr had them made up into little notepads.
“There’s a lot of anti-UN sentiment in Congress,” Farr says. “There has always been a small minority that feels that way, but that’s now in the majority. They’ll find every blemish in the United Nations to attack it.
“An organization as big as that, they have a lot of imperfections, but if you look at it, if we were sitting down trying to figure out how to solve the global war on terrorism and problemsof poverty in the world, we would be inventing the UN rather than attacking it.”
The oil-for-food scandal has provided UN detractors with an invaluable opening. Congressional leaders have launched no fewer than five investigations on the matter, even though the scandal itself seems to be overblown.
Kickbacks to Saddam Hussein from rigged oil-for-food contracts set up by corrupt UN officials total an estimated $4.5 billion, according to congressional figures; the other $14 billion came in the form of surreptitious oil sales to Jordan and Turkey—illegal transactions of which the US and other Security Council members were well aware. (Even those numbers are suspect; an official US government investigation has the figures at $1.5 billion and $8 billion, respectively.) Meanwhile, the probes conveniently ignore US accounting lapses. The Coalition Provisional Authority, the US body that ran Iraq before elections, cannot account for the $8.8 billion turned over to it by the oil-for-food office in November 2003.
“The UN does need some internal reforms—more accountability and transparency,” Farr says. “But I think it’s a very necessary institution.”
The furor is being fueled, Farr says, by “some people on the floor of Congress from some rural area, criticizing the United Nations without knowing much about it.”
Larry Levine, a United Nations Association executive board member and chief of its grassroots operation—which includes the Monterey Bay chapter of which he is president—smells opportunism in the relentless pursuit of oil-for-food.
“The allegations of corruption with the UN are tiny, comparatively, and you have to question whether it’s just a way to get Kofi Annan as a way of getting at the UN,” Levine says. “I think it’s very much overdone.”
A new investigation has been launched over charges that UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo sexually exploited local girls. In another scandal, a bureaucrat at the World Meteorological Association who absconded with $3 million inspired even grander plans for sleuthing by House Republicans. House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) and Subcommittee on Investigations Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) informed Annan by letter that they would be expanding their investigation to “all UN operations” and would consider withholding dues as a way of enforcing betterbehavior.
The result of the obsession with these scandals is that on Capitol Hill “UN reform” has been reduced to UN bashing by another name. The contemplated “reforms” are narrowly focused on minutiae like procurement and hiring procedures and transparency measures at the Secretariat (the UN’s internal bureaucracy). Totally ignored are any broader ideas about substantive reform at the organization—changes that could actually enable the world body to meet threats like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction or any of the so-called “soft threats” that lead to them. A radical paradigm shift like the one Annan is proposing is out of the question.
To show that it won’t ignore real UN reform forever, Congress appointed a task force to study the issue and report back this June. The task force’s mandate is telling enough—it is explicitly charged with investigating UN reform through the prism of American interests—but it is the joint leadership of the task force that reveals the most about what Congress hopes to hear. The co-chairs are former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME) and former House of Representatives SpeakerNewt Gingrich (R-GA).
“I think in many ways this is an attempt to bring the UN to heel,” says Stephen Schlesinger, author of Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. “Some of these congressional committees are perfectly legitimately looking at the problems, but many members would like to see a UN that is just an extension of our foreign policy.”
That goes for UN ambassadors-designate as well. John Bolton’s comments about the UN have not all dripped with disdain; some of them recognize that the UN can do good work—as long as its work furthers American goals.
Schlesinger calls Bolton’s nomination a “slap at the UN” and an attempt to keep Annan on the defensive.
“In my view, it’s reminding the world that the US hasn’t dropped its notion of unilateralism,” he says. “Realistically, most countries go into the UN looking out for their own national interests. That’s a given. But in trying to accomplish something with other countries you meld your interests with those around you. That’s not Bolton’s approach. It’s, ‘The UN is only useful for promoting our interest.’ It sounds as if the UN is just another agency to pursue Bush’s foreign policy.”
Jean du Preez, who served five years as a South African diplomat at the United Nations and now teaches at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, says some of his former colleagues at the UN are “dumbfounded” by the choice of Bolton. But he predicts a reality check for the tough-talking nominee.
“The UN is an extremely complicated, very frustrating place to get things done, so no matter who you are, even if you lead the US delegation, you’ll be involved in so many issues that you’ll have to compromise,” du Preez says. “The UN is in for a bit of a shock, but I also think so is the United States, because if it’s going to throw its strongest man on the block into this game and he cannot change it, then there’s a message in there.”Annan’s suggested reforms are based on the 101 recommendations of the High-Level Panel and another UN report on alleviating the worst world poverty by 2015. The best-known of all these recommendations is the expansion of the 15-member SecurityCouncil, the UN’s most powerful body, to 24 members.
The High-Level Panel recommended two options under which a clutch of permanent or semi-permanent seats would be added for Africa, Asia and Latin America (the current permanent five members—Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—would retain exclusive power of veto, and thus most of the Council’s power). Brazil, Germany, India and Japan are campaigning vigorously for permanent membership; Egypt, Nigeria and
South Africa are too. Annan endorsed Council expansion, but no single plan or country.
Security Council expansion is an old topic, a hot topic and one freighted with political baggage, but it is just one of many controversial suggestions in Annan’s report. Another is that in poor countries, development—that is, poverty relief, economic growth and the formation of fair and effective governments—is the indispensable foundation of security, because it prevents so many threats from germinating. To further the development of poorer nations, Annan recommended that donor nations raise foreign aid to .7 percent of Gross National Product (GNP). (The US now spends just .15 percent of GNP on foreign assistance.)
On human rights, Annan urged the world to embrace the “responsibility to protect” civilians from mass atrocities when their own governments cannot, or worse, are the perpetrators, as in Darfur. This is crucial because it breaks the taboo of violating state sovereignty.
He also advocated replacing the Commission on Human Rights, recently chaired by such known rights abusers as Libya, with an elected Human Rights Council, in hopes of restoring the body’s credibility.
On terrorism, Annan followed the High-Level Panel’s lead and endorsed a definition of terrorism that does not excuse it under any circumstances, even a liberation struggle. Annan suggested a comprehensive global anti-terrorism treaty aimed at choking off financing for terrorists, dissuading desperate people from extremism, developing countries’ counterterrorism capacities and defending human rights.
Some of his recommendations, like doing a one-time review and early retirement at the Secretariat to clear out the “dead wood” in the bureaucratic ranks, and introducing greater oversight and accountability measures, will please Washington. State Department leaders are also interested in a Peacebuilding Commission that would identify weak states and shepherd them to stability. They will like his notion of a Democracy Fund for governments striving to improve their democratic credentials.
But many of Annan’s other recommendations—restarting nuclear disarmament, raising foreign aid, tripling global AIDS spending to $10 billion a year and implementing a tough agreement to stop global warming—will be less popular with US officials.
Du Preez says the United States won’t present the only obstacle to reform. Developing nations were already complaining about the changes when the High-Level Panel released its report in December. “It’s very needed, very relevant,” he says of sweeping change. “Achievable? Probably not.”
Annan’s report kicks off a flurry of negotiations in world capitals and in the halls of the UN that will last until September. Soon a special delegation of top-tier UN officials will arrive in Washington to try to win favor for the recommendations among the hardliners there. One of them will be chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown, a dynamic and business-savvy journalist-turned-UN official whose very presence is a sign of changing times at the UN, so long staffed by staid bureaucratic types.
Annan, meanwhile, has already begun his work. Two weeks ago in Madrid at a commemoration of the train bombing that killed 191 people last March, he took a bold step toward positioning the UN at the center of the global struggle against terrorism. He did not single out the US or Britain by name, but his comments were clearly aimed at Draconian new detention policies and other civil rights violations post-9/11.
“The United Nations must continue to insist that, in the fight against terrorism, we cannot compromise on core values,” he said. “In particular, human rights and the rule of law must always be respected. If we sacrifice them in our response, we are handing a victory to the terrorists.”
Annan’s framing of the issue may have been a shrewd bid to co-opt Bush’s high-volume rhetoric about spreading democracy to the “outposts of tyranny,” a move that has cast the United States as the sole defender of human rights in the world. But it is clear that Annan believes the UN, warts and all, is better equipped to assume that heavy responsibility. And he has far more credibility in the rest of the world than Bush does.
Annan is taking a huge risk in undertaking these reforms. Not only is the future of the organization at stake, but humanity itself seems perched ata crossroads.
The interconnectedness of the world in which we live means that dangers multiply like viruses, slipping across borders and appearing on far sides of the globe. It is going to take a strong global network and a firm commitment to multilateral cooperation to keep them at bay.
Annan is trying to pull this network together at a moment when the United States, the giant among giants, is so taken with its own might and the rightness of its convictions that global partnerships are a political nicety, necessary for appearances but ultimately meaningless.
Annan frames the problem best himself.
“At no time in human history have the fates of every woman, man and child been so intertwined across the globe,” he writes In Larger Freedom. “Yet it is for us to decide whether this moment of uncertainty presages wider conflict, deepening inequality and the erosion of the rule of law, or is used to renew our common institutions for peace, prosperity and human rights.
“To make the right choice, leaders will need what United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose vision was so central to the founding of the United Nations, called ‘the courage to fulfill [their] responsibilities in an admittedly imperfect world.’
“I am confident that they can. I am also certain that they must. What I have called for here is possible. It is within reach. From pragmatic beginnings could emerge a visionary change of direction in our world.
“That is our opportunity and our challenge.”