Joe Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served as a human rights expert on the 2005 US Congressional Task Force on the United Nations and as an informal advisor to Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.
Over two years ago, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, world leaders pledged to adopt a “radical” reform agenda at their General Assembly meeting in New York. Most everyone agreed that changes were needed. Financial mismanagement, predatory peacekeepers, failure to stop human rights atrocities—hardly any important U.N. function escaped withering criticism. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, keen to salvage his own tainted legacy, hyped the meeting as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to revitalize the institution. Shashi Tharoor, Annan’s communications director, cast a reformist vision to “significantly alter the international architecture.”
Well, the once-in-a-lifetime results are in: Whatever the actual likelihood of reform, it vanished into the U.N.’s fog of paralysis and prevarication. The organization’s international “architecture”—a labyrinth of corrupt regimes, menacing dictatorships, and boorish bureaucracy—remains fundamentally unchanged. The new Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has inherited an organization that appears impervious to meaningful reform.
Just consider the ongoing problem of transparency and corruption, epitomized by the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq—a perverse fiasco that ranks among the worst in the institution’s history. After the first Gulf War, Iraq was under U.N. sanction for its failure to comply with Security Council resolutions that it fully disarm. From 1996 to 2003, the Oil-for-Food program allowed Saddam Hussein to buy humanitarian aid in exchange for oil. Instead, Saddam generated—through bribes, oil smuggling, and illicit kickbacks—over $21 billion to shore up his sadistic regime. He used oil to buy influence on the Security Council and weaken international sanctions. In the process, millions of ordinary Iraqis faced poverty, malnutrition, disease, and death.
An independent U.S. probe, led by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, revealed a staggering deficit of oversight and accountability. “The Secretariat, the Security Council and U.N. contractors,” Volcker said, “failed most grievously in their responsibilities to monitor the integrity of the program.” That’s putting it delicately. Russia, a prime culprit, refused to cooperate with the investigation. Likewise for China, Egypt, Vietnam, and the United Arab Emirates. U.N. officials stonewalled Volcker’s probe and have mostly dismissed his findings. Whatever one’s view of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, reconstruction efforts there have been made more difficult, and the suffering of the Iraqi people more acute, by the U.N.’s bald-faced malfeasance.
Why should any rational person trust the United Nations again to enforce sanctions or run a humanitarian aid program?
Next, consider the U.N.’s track record of defending human rights. The U.N. Charter welcomes all “peace-loving states” that affirm the institution’s “faith in fundamental human rights.” Yet the cosmic distance between the U.N.’s ideals and its day-to-day operations beggars belief.
The Human Rights Council, which replaced the discredited Human Rights Commission, suffers from the same noxious disease as its predecessor: moral equivalency. Human rights abusers—such as China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—sit in judgment on nations that respect the rule of law. They manipulate the system to shield themselves and their plutocratic pals from scrutiny. Other U.N. bodies have been similarly debased. The U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development invited North Korea, a communist kleptocracy that has pushed millions of its own people to the brink of starvation, to become a member in good standing. This Alice-in-Wonderland world, in which dictatorships have veto power over democracies, heartens despots everywhere and prolongs the human misery of their victims.
Nowhere is the U.N.’s degradation more grievous than in its recent failures in Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe. Accused of genocide by the United States, the Islamist regime in Khartoum has helped orchestrate the killings of about 200,000 people and displaced over two million in Sudan’s Darfur region. Burma’s State Peace and Development Council (SPDC)—an Orwellian construction if there ever was one—was named “the worst human rights violator in the world” by the Conservative Party’s Human Rights Commission. Under the thuggish rule of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe launched a campaign of social demolition that left 700,000 people homeless and destitute. In each case, brutal dictators have instigated massive repression and ethnic cleansing against their own populations.
Not only have these governments mostly avoided U.N. censure or sanction: They’ve been rewarded with seats and privileges in U.N. bodies. The Security Council allows Sudan to dictate the terms of any U.N. troop deployment to stop the killing. The General Assembly yawns with indifference over the bloodletting in Burma and Zimbabwe. The Human Rights Council—caught up in the machinations of China, Russia, and the Organization for the Islamic Conference—has essentially ignored all three regimes.
In Complicity With Evil, Adam Lebor, former London Times correspondent, accurately describes the U.N.’s culture of contradictions. “If there is a sense of shame among Secretariat officials for the U.N.’s failures…it is not a career hindrance,” he writes. Instead of confronting regimes for their atrocities, the U.N. system “confers legitimacy and prestige on those perpetrating human rights abuses, providing them with psychological and political succor and the plentiful company of kindred spirits.” By far and away the country most often criticized by U.N. bodies is the democratic state of Israel.
Finally, the United Nations has more or less abandoned its original purpose: the preservation of international peace and security. True, U.N. humanitarian relief can be effective, and U.N. peacekeepers have helped stabilize a handful of post-conflict situations. Yet the ongoing scandal of U.N. peacekeepers who sexually exploit civilians seems to defy reform, or even serious scrutiny. Too often—in Lebanon, Rwanda, Somalia, Yugoslavia, and elsewhere—the blue helmets have stood aside as chaos and killing erupted.
Given the U.N.’s obsession with lofty resolutions and interminable “dialogue,” none of this should be surprising. It’s worth recalling that even the original architects of the United Nations—Great Britain and the United States—soon realized the organization would be useless in checking the rise of Soviet Communism in Europe. That’s why they created NATO, the most effective political-military alliance in the history of the West. (When the United Nations failed to end the Bosnia war or prevent humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, NATO stepped in.) NATO’s member states have mutual security interests and a shared set of moral and political ideals. By contrast, U.N. officials laud their institution’s commitment to universal membership and multiculturalism—the very features that guarantee impotence in the face of genocidal horror.
The United Nations is performing no better in the new security environment: the emergence of radical Islamic terrorism and global jihad. More than six years after the events of 9/11, the General Assembly still cannot agree on a definition of terrorism. Meanwhile, the U.N. offers governments such as Syria—a leading exporter of terrorism around the world—a seat on its Security Council. It grants any member state an “inalienable right” to nuclear technology (just read the fine print in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). And it allows countries such as Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan—all of which have broken their nonproliferation obligations—to shape global arms-control policies.
We need fresh thinking. We need a competitive alternative to the de-moralized status quo. We saw this alternative in action last month in the General Assembly, when a caucus of democratic states—including the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Poland, and Spain—pushed through a resolution condemning Iran for “systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
A coalition of democracies, prepared to work outside the U.N. system when necessary, is the best hope for defending human rights, confronting rogue regimes, and defeating terrorism. Dictatorships, whether military or religious in nature, will always seek to crush the aspirations of free people. Government by the consent of the governed, equal justice under law, the protection of minorities, free speech, freedom of religion—democratic values are promoted best by a coalition of states that actually put them into practice.
U.N. mavens, anxious to preserve their relevance, peevishly denounce the idea. Perhaps out of desperation, Secretary-General Ban last week named actor George Clooney a “messenger of peace” to promote the organization’s globetrotting efforts. Clooney might attract more women to U.N. committee meetings, but he won’t do much to advance the U.N.’s actual mandate: to protect generations from “the scourge of war” and defend “the dignity and worth of the human person.” It’s time for an alliance of democracies—a “coalition of the willing”—to rise up and offer the world a better choice.