issue 262 - December 1994
Winds of change
Can the UN change enough to win renewed credibility and respect?
Or will it be blown away? Chris Brazier investigates.
High up in the UN building in New York you get a fine view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers one way and a rather less spectacular outlook over the East River into Brooklyn the other. But the offices themselves are really rather ordinary – bland décor, standardized office equipment, ubiquitous computers. Not much sign here of the lavish bureaucratic excess attacked by conservative critics. The sense of being in a special place does not come here on the upper floors or even in the General Assembly hall which sits idle for eight months of the year. It is in the staff canteen at lunchtime. Here you see at every table a convincing cross-section of the world’s people, endlessly diverse in colour and language – a downhome testament to the working reality of the United Nations.
As I sat there listening to the panoply of different accents it threw me back to my teens. While I was still at school and idly considering what my glorious future career might be, the pinnacle of my aspirations was a job with the UN. I suspect I was not alone in those ambitions. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the UN commanded respect and faith as an embodiment of international concern. Whatever its problems during the Cold War, there was always the idea that the world’s well-being was being looked after by an institution that would one day, when we were all adult enough to accept that nationalism was a thing of the past, become a world government.
I doubt that many teenagers would share these aspirations now. Public disillusion with the UN is growing as fast as cynicism about Western politicians. Why? After all, we’re now five years into the post-Cold War period when the UN gained a new freedom of action, liberated from the tiresome game of superpower veto pingpong.
In a way what went wrong was that the Cold War ended at all. As long as that continued, its ice covered the cracks in the institution erected by a war-weary world on 26 June 1945.1 As long as Washington and Moscow eyeballed it out over the Security Council table we could dream – if only the UN was liberated from this straitjacket! And we could concentrate on the positive achievements – the eradication of smallpox by the World Health Organization or the immunization of children worldwide by UNICEF.
But then the Soviet bloc imploded. Our hopes soared for both a peace dividend and a UN with a new lease of life. The NI’s last issue on The Arms Trade detailed how the peace dividend has been wasted. And much of this issue shows how inadequately the UN has used its new freedom of manoeuvre over the last five years.
The Gulf War was the start. This was represented as a great triumph – a despot’s invasion of a defenceless little country was rolled back by the sheer collective will of the international community. But the military campaign was so transparently a US action – mainly US soldiers, commanded by US generals, using state-of-the-art US hardware – that it severely damaged the credibility of the United Nations as an independent force. Smaller states were whipped into line. Egypt went along meekly and had its debts to the US cancelled; Yemen stood out against and lost its US aid.
But at least the UN operation in the Gulf was successful in its own terms – it expelled the invading forces from Kuwait and blitzed Iraq back into ‘a pre-industrial age’.2 The UN’s performance as an international peacekeeper since then has been shockingly inept, as this magazine’s articles on Somalia and Rwanda make clear.
Are we expecting too much? Whenever a crisis crops up now in the world our first instinct is to call for the UN. Yet we find fault with whatever action they take. The same people who advocated armed intervention to defend the Bosnian Muslims will deplore the intervention in Somalia. The same people who opposed all-out war on Saddam Hussein will call for all-out war on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Blaming the parent
In a way we want to blame the parent. Parents are routinely blamed for all the problems of their children – ‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad’ is probably the poet Philip Larkin’s most quoted line. Doubtless because I am a parent it seems rather too easy a let-out. The UN may suffer from the same syndrome. When trouble flares up we can satisfy our desperation that something should be done by calling for the UN to deal with it. And when things inevitably go wrong we can pour scorn on it – for not intervening quickly or early enough, or for riding roughshod over local political and cultural conditions.
Even so, the UN’s independence is severely compromised by its subservience to Washington DC. What is the major factor which determines whether or with what vigour the UN launches a peacekeeping operation? The principle? The appalling nature of the problem? Neither. It is the mood of the US. If the White House decides for its own reasons to wade into Somalia – because President Bush wants to give a humanitarian gloss to his term of office – then that is what the UN will do. If the US decides it doesn’t want to get involved in Bosnia – ‘we have no strategic interest in the Balkans’, said the State Department’s Lawrence Eagleburger – then the UN ends up wringing its hands over ‘ethnic cleansing’. If Washington is licking its wounds after the fiasco in Somalia then some of the worst massacres in recent history can be more or less ignored in Rwanda.
Unfortunately US influence over the world body is harder and harder for the South to challenge. Back in the late 1960s and 1970s the UN was seen as a forum in which the newly independent developing nations might win meaningful changes in the world order. They could not compete in global trade, in wealth or in military firepower. Yet here at least they could be heard. There was genuine hope that through the UN the South could successfully challenge the existing world order.
Those days are long gone. It is shocking to realize now how much those hopes depended on the support of the Soviet Union. For all its faults, Moscow was prepared to champion the cause of the Third World – not least because it was scoring points off Washington and Western capitalism. The Soviet bloc’s collapse left developing countries bereft. The non-aligned movement, once a focus for creative ideas if not for global muscle, is now more or less non-existent. In a bipolar world there was the space between to be non-aligned; in today’s unipolar world everyone is sucked towards the magnetic centre of power. Countries that once demanded things as their moral right now go cap in hand to the global financiers.
There it was. I missed it again. It happens time and again. I’m sitting in a mega-significant international meeting doing my darnedest to concentrate on these weighty matters and I drift off into the ether, missing the key exchange or sentence. I guess in any job you tune in and out of meetings. But it hasn’t happened to me so much since I was in eighth grade and being humiliated by my drone of a math teacher for the risible quality of my extra-curricular drawings. Take a look at this room, though: bland, functional, stultifyingly dull – it’s as if it’s been designed to make you wish you were elsewhere. In my more paranoid moments I could see it as a conspiracy to ensure that the powers-that-be get an easy ride. These meetings are a bit like a game of baseball or cricket where you spend hours peering into the distance waiting for something to happen and then are distracted by a passing seagull – only to find that you’ve missed the one moment when the ball was hit out of the park.
(Based on the words of a former employee in New York)
Everyone is cutting a deal
One insightful UN employee from the South lamented this trend. It was a sad picture he painted for me, in which China’s defence of its own independent view of human rights (send in the tanks and lock up the students) was welcomed by Southern governments of all political colours simply because it showed a developing country standing up to the West for a change.
‘For the most part,’ he said, ‘there is no real notion of a Third World with a collective agenda any more – everyone is simply trying to cut a deal with the US and the West... I am committed to the UN,’ he continued, ‘without it there would be chaos out there. But what I want from it is not what the major powers want. They don’t want the UN to address social and economic development. All they want is a UN that keeps the lid on – and they only really want that in regions where they have a direct strategic interest.’
This Western lack of interest in the UN’s promotion of development is increasingly evident. Michel Camdessus, who heads the IMF, went so far as to say in 1992 that the UN was just one of the four pillars of the world system. He relegated it to social affairs while the other three pillars – his own organization, the World Bank and the new World Trade Organization (the successor to GATT) – handled the serious economic business. The idiocy of seeing social affairs as separable from economic forces apparently did not strike him. Neither did the arrogance of setting his own unaccountable fiefdom on a par with the United Nations.
Yet you can almost understand his arrogance when you see with what compliance the UN has tossed its responsibility for economic affairs into his lap. So now when the UN wants to talk about issues like the widening gap between rich and poor in the run-up to the vital World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in March, the US and its key allies will say that any debate about economic issues ‘will be best handled by the appropriate institutions’ – meaning the IMF and the World Bank.
Ah, ‘the appropriate institutions’ – what a weasel term. The idea of the UN becoming a global government now seems absurd. Yet in one way it has already come about as the IMF and the World Bank have ranged the world cowing national governments into submission. Both these institutions are part of the UN system, though they have become a law unto themselves – not least in their own pay and perks, which far exceed those of their UN counterparts (see table below). But theirs is the efficiency of the tunnel-visioned accountant, aware of the bottom line but not caring about the hardship their ‘adjustment’ programmes cause. Still less are they capable of standing back far enough to see that their policies – a decade now in the testing – have failed even on their own terms.
In the light of all this should we tear down the UN? The traditional defence against this has been the worthwhile work done by the diverse UN agencies. Some of their achievements, notably in health, have been spectacular. But the development work is no longer sufficient defence since, as our survey on 'schools out' shows, as many agencies are performing badly as are doing well. And three decades of ‘development’ have done nothing to combat the core problem of global inequality. In 1960 the richest fifth of the world’s population earned 30 times the income of the poorest fifth; today it earns 60 times more.3
Yet ironically the worst aspect of the UN’s record provides the main reason for trying to retain and reform it. If it were abolished tomorrow it is probable that the best agencies, like UNICEF, could retain an independent existence. But it is absolutely certain that the World Bank and the IMF would gain even more unchallenged sway. And if the UN were to be demolished there would be not a hope in hell of a new organization rising phoenix-like from the ashes to challenge them. The will and idealism to create a new institution has only ever existed after a major cataclysm – as the First World War spawned the League of Nations and the Second World War the UN. And while we may lament the fact that the UN’s rhetoric too seldom translates into action, even the limited prick to conscience that rhetoric and peer-group pressure provide may be preferable to no acknowledgement of responsibility for the poor at all.
Crying out for reform
It is, then, worth at least trying to reform the UN. The natural first impulse is to make it more democratically accountable. Despite the opening to the Charter which reads ‘We the peoples of the United Nations...’ (significantly echoing the constitution of the United States), the peoples are notable by their absence. Yet this would not be easy to correct.
We could demand that delegates to the General Assembly were elected. But the whole point of the UN is that governments should implement the policies collectively arrived at there – and taking the General Assembly out of their hands would make this much less likely. The more urgent need is to reform the existing institution so that it functions with more efficiency and independence. Since the US is forever screaming about how much money it has to pay into the UN system (even though it has to be cajoled and crawled to for the dues to be paid, usually a year or 18 months in arrears), its contribution should be reduced from 25 per cent of the regular budget to nearer 10 per cent. Other wealthy countries should share the burden more evenly. This would automatically slacken the American stranglehold somewhat.
The game article suggests how difficult it will be to reform the archaic power structure of the Security Council. The pre-eminence there of the Second World War’s victors – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – with their veto over changes in the UN Charter as well as everyday policies, is an absurdity. They are unlikely to give up their privileged position – particularly the ex-colonial powers of Britain and France who cling on to their places at the top table like children desperate to stay up late with the grown-ups. But by clinging on by their fingertips they are putting the whole existence of the UN in danger. A new Security Council which had as many permanent members from the South as from the North – ideally with no-one holding a veto – would do much to transform the world’s sense of the UN.
Choosing a leader
At the very least the UN must be transparently accountable. The permanent members also control the appointment of the Secretary-General and their method of selection is about as open and systematic as King Henry VIII’s appointment of advisers. Did the current incumbent, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, formally apply for the job? Was he interviewed? Was an exhaustive trawl done of the most able candidates? No. Boutros-Ghali was appointed the same way all his predecessors were, after a secret process of horse-trading between the veto-holding powers to find the least offensive candidate. It is hardly a system designed to provide the organization with an energetic, visionary leader. That is no coincidence since the major powers decided nearly 25 years ago that they much preferred someone who would not rock the boat.
The appointment of the Secretary-General – and of all the directors of UN agencies, whose recruitment is just as much of a lottery – must be taken out of the hands of the major powers. The General Assembly should instead launch an accountable recruitment process. Perhaps if this were so the Assembly would be sensible enough to choose a first female Secretary-General. Sadako Ogata, the current High Commissioner for Refugees, has been tipped as a possibility – she has already regenerated one moribund agency, after all. What is more she is prepared to tread on toes to support what is right. She is making Boutros-Ghali squeal at the moment, publicizing a report from Rwanda which claims there are organized killings of Hutus by the new government’s army; he wants the report suppressed because it makes the UN’s peacekeeping forces in the country look bad.
The first test of whether the UN can regenerate itself as a force for global change will come soon. At the vital Social Summit in March the UN must recognize that its vision of human development is being fatally undermined by the policies of its own institutions. The fiftieth anniversary year would be a suitable moment to create an Economic Security Council – and to begin the process of bringing the IMF and the World Bank to heel.
The UN edifice cannot be insulated from the winds of change for much longer. If it is not prepared to take on a new role, more representative of the needs of that vast majority of the world’s population which lives in the South, then it must prepare to be blown away in a cloud of dust and dreams.
1 The 50 representatives at the founding Conference signed the UN Charter on 26 June. The UN’s anniversary is, however, celebrated on 24 October, by which time the Charter had been ratified by a majority of signatories.
2 A quote from Under-Secretary-General Martti Ahtisaari, who visited Iraq in April 1991.
3 Erskine Childers, in London Review of Books, 18 August 1994.
This special report appeared in the the united nations: winds of change issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.