January 3, 2005
by Claudia Rosett
The advance of liberty and its attendant institutions can be a rough business, provoking stiff resistance by those who find their interests most threatened: the dictators, cronies and retinues of career-ocrats who already have made their compromises of conscience. And although specifics vary, there are some broad familiar patterns to the process of genuine reform. Protests break out, criticism once whispered in backrooms is heard on the streets, misrule and corruption are increasingly exposed. The regime tries to smother dissent while announcing reforms: too little, too late. In the best of cases -- the Baltics 15 years ago or, one hopes, Ukraine today -- the old framework gives way, and the democratic revolution has arrived.
In the worst of cases, however, we could just as well be talking about the ruckus of recent times at the United Nations, where the regime is now really beginning to fight back and may yet succeed in smothering progress. Without making a single truly significant reform -- or, for that matter, suffering a single indictment -- the U.N. this past year has weathered its worst spell since the early 1980s. That was the stretch in which the Soviets shot down a South Korean airliner, the U.S. pulled out of a corrupt Unesco, and with certain U.N. member states resenting all the fuss, U.S. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick's deputy, Chuck Lichenstein, told unhappy member states that if they wished to leave America's shores, "the members of the U.S. mission to the United Nations will be down at the dockside waving you a fond farewell as you sail into the sunset."
Of course, the U.N. remained comfortably berthed in Turtle Bay, stoked to this day with U.S. taxpayer money, wrapped in diplomatic immunity, and steeped in secrecy more appropriate to the inner workings of the 18th-century French court than a modern world in which free and open political systems offer the best hope of all that peace and prosperity the U.N. is supposed to promote. But don't take my word for it. The phone number is 212-963-1234; the Web site is www.un.org. Go ahead, try getting a look at the books, or for that matter any serious audits, let alone the full deliberations of a Security Council that purports to represent the world's people while providing rotating seats to the likes of Syria and permanent veto power to the thugs of Beijing and the antidemocrats of the Kremlin.
Not that the U.N.'s top officials make much secret about their opinions of, say, their U.S. sugar daddy. The latest example was the rush by Undersecretary-General Jan Egeland this week to condemn as "stingy" U.S. and European offers of relief for tsunami victims in South Asia. Mr. Egeland opined that taxpayers "want to give more," a notion that somehow equates giving more via the U.N. with getting better results. This from a U.N. that failed to set up an international warning system for catastrophic tidal waves but did manage last year to turn in a report on snow levels in Alpine ski resorts.
Nor has Secretary-General Kofi Annan been particularly secretive about his views on the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq, informing the world not so long ago that he deemed it "illegal" -- a word he has not to my knowledge applied to any aspect of his own supervision of the Oil for Food program, from which Saddam Hussein, while forking over $1.4 billion for Mr. Annan's Secretariat to supervise the process, scammed billions meant for sick and hungry Iraqis. On that subject, Mr. Annan has been most stunningly discreet, refusing in his year-end press conference last week to discuss even his own role. Instead, with a degree of patience the Secretariat has not displayed toward its critics, Mr. Annan seems to be waiting for the U.N.-authorized inquiry, funded at his behest with $30 million in residual Oil for Food money (meant to aid Iraqi citizens, not U.N. investigations), and led by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, to inform the secretary-general, privately, and at stately speed, sometime next year, what his own role actually was. At that stage, Mr. Annan will decide what information he deems appropriate to share with the public.
To this scene in recent months we may add the reports of rape and child molestation committed by U.N. peacekeepers in Africa, allegations of sexual harassment involving the heads of both the U.N. refugee agency and the internal audit division, a revolt against "senior management" by the U.N. staff union, the findings of an internal U.N. integrity survey that a lot of U.N. employees fear retaliation if they speak out, and the statements of a few brave whistle-blowers, fighting for their jobs, to precisely that effect. Plus, if you like, there's the expanding saga of how the secretary-general until confronted by the press allegedly failed to notice that his son had allegedly been doing lucrative business deals with a major U.N. contractor under the Oil for Food program. All of which has been subject to the marvelously circular argument that the press should shut up until the U.N., in between firing off hush letters to its contractors and employing Mr. Annan's U.S.-taxpayer-funded staff to lambaste the U.N.'s critics, can carry out allegedly full and independent investigations of all these troublesome matters.
By now, the debate outside the U.N. walls has expanded from calls for Mr. Annan to resign over Oil for Food to arguments that he really ought to resign over U.N. toleration of genocide, in which he has played a sustained part -- though it's hard to see why one argument should necessarily exclude the other. Meanwhile, for a sample of what's going on inside the U.N. walls (bear with me): According to a Dec. 13 U.N. staff union bulletin expressing "outrage," though the staff committee requested an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and favoritism within the U.N.'s own internal audit department, "no formal investigation was ever conducted. . . . No one was interviewed or questioned about the alleged violations. Rather, the personnel records were checked in a manner similar to a desk audit."
If all this starts to sound a bit dizzying, a bit amorphous, a bit too complicated after a while even to bother about anymore, that is precisely the problem. The Secretariat has had a year of gagging contractors, threatening the jobs of whistle-blowers, and pounding out letters to the editor explaining that the Secretariat should not be blamed for anything because it is in fact responsible for nothing -- though somehow more money, especially from the U.S., is always wanted. A few senior officials are now due to depart. Several thick reports on various fronts are due to be filed, and perhaps here or there a head will roll.
But to suppose that the United Nations will reform itself from within is to miss the eerie unreality of the place. It is not simply changes in some of the staffing that are needed, or U.N. commissioned reports recommending that the U.N. "reform" by way of doing even more of whatever it does already. What's needed is something that among sovereign states we have come to call regime change -- the basic alteration of a system that in its privileges, immunities and practices resembles rather too closely some of the dictatorships that still pack its ranks.
A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal Europe on December 29, 2004.
Claudia Rosett was formerly an adjunct fellow with the Hudson Institute.
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