How to trash a world body

Oil-for-food and Darfur aside, Annan’s legacy will be reserved for unaccomplished reforms.

by Darren Bernard

Secretary-General Kofi Annan can’t retire soon enough. Second-term leaders tend not to be popular anywhere, but Annan’s tenure brings new meaning to the expression “lame duck.”

Annan’s gig as U.N. chief will come to a close in December, ending a decade-long administration beset by scandals (e.g., sexual abuse by U.N. peace keepers), inaction (e.g., Darfur) and gross negligence (e.g., oil-for-food). But for all the administrative bungles, Annan’s legacy will be reserved for the urgent reforms he has left by the wayside, many of which promised to bring the United Nations out of the mid-20th century and into the 21st.

The much-needed organizational reforms at the United Nations have ranged from drearily technical to in-your-face obvious. The United Nations’ biggest agencies suffer from a lack of transparency and accountability and are plagued by obsolete management rules imposed by the General Assembly. The secretary general still lacks the power to end obsolete U.N. missions or make important appointments. Nearly everything done at the United Nations is on a basis of regional quotas, which promote political favoritism over meritocracy. These were the greatest problems when Annan took office in 1997; they still are today.

Apologists for Annan and the secretariat say the purposeful inaction of developed and developing nations has tied the hands of U.N. officials. Admittedly, the argument has a certain legitimacy when it comes to, say, the African AIDS crisis, Kyoto and Security Council reform. But only recently has the secretariat begun urging certain organizational changes, and member-nations’ resistance does not excuse the secretariat from taking the wrong sides on important issues or, as is the case this week, accepting bogus reforms as consolation.

Eliminating the greatest embarrassment to the United Nations – the misnamed, notorious Human Rights Commission – is one of several reforms Annan belatedly has decided to push. The 53-member, Geneva-based commission ironically is known for housing even the most egregious human rights violators, thanks in large part to a flawed regional-bloc voting system. Current members such as Sudan, China, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Cuba are known for using their influence to chastise the United States and Israel and deflect criticism from truly repressive regimes. The U.N.’s scathing report on Guantanamo last week is only the most recent example of this.

The solution Annan espoused last year was a U.S.-backed proposal to scrap the Commission for a more permanent, more serious Human Rights Council. The original proposal called for a smaller panel of countries, each of which must attain a two-thirds vote to sit on the new board. The argument is that a smaller, permanent council would limit the influence of human rights violators and give less hypocritical, liberal democracies greater authority.

That was the bait. Now here’s the switch. The actual U.N. proposal released Feb. 23 allows states under U.N. sanctions for human rights abuses to become members of the Council (let me remind you, on human rights). A total of 47 states would sit on the Council at a given time – a leap from the originally proposed 30. Of those on the Council, more than half of the voting power would be in the hands of African and Asian nations, a majority of whom have anything but a reputation for protecting human rights. Western countries would see the greatest decline in voting power from the current situation, and even countries like Zimbabwe (another current member of the Commission) would need only a simple majority to gain membership.

It’s not too often that we can see more clearly how the United Nations has been hijacked by meek Swedish diplomats and the world’s worst human rights violators. But getting even this far has been shockingly difficult. As U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said last week, “Based on conversations we’ve had with other governments, the strongest argument in favor of this draft is that it’s not as bad as it could be.”

What’s perhaps most unsettling is that the United States is the only major country crying foul. U.N. officials (including Annan) gasped last week when Bolton suggested the United States might seek to reopen talks on the Council. France’s U.N. ambassador dubbed the new text “real progress” and both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called for its adoption. If there ever were proof of how little even the U.N.’s loudest cheerleaders have come to expect from the organization, this is it.

Where the United Nations goes from here depends heavily upon whom the Security Council recommends to take Annan’s job. The tacit understanding that the secretary general position rotates on a regional basis has convinced many Asian diplomats that it is their turn to take the helm. Bolton and other U.S. officials rightfully insist there is no such rotation, and the next secretary general will be one who is adequately qualified for the job.

Then again, on the heels of the Annan administration, that may not be saying much.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected].