Real Reform at the UN By Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies Few Americans would dispute that the United Nations plays a crucial role in saving lives, protecting children, and improving health of people around the world. Despite years of UN-bashing in Washington, the global organization remains one of the most popular institutions among U.S. voters. At the end of the cold war, the U.S. used the UN to provide a multilateral coalition framework to legitimize the essentially unilateral anti-Iraq mobilization of Desert Storm. As other post-cold war conflicts erupted in the early and mid-1990s, the UN was assigned peacekeeping tasks, in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere–largely in the impoverished global South. The U.S. and its allies refused to provide the financial, military, and strategic backing required to implement these mandates. When these missions failed, the UN, rather than Washington and the other major powers, was blamed. The UN shifted from instrument of U.S. foreign policy to scapegoat for U.S. policy failures. By President Clinton’s second term, in 1997, the largely rhetorical White House support for the UN dropped dramatically. The election of the U.S.-backed Kofi Annan as UN secretary-general, replacing the U.S.-excoriated Boutros Boutros-Ghali, improved only the atmospherics, not the substance of U.S.-UN relations. The Clinton administration, while claiming to support payment of the debt, did little to mobilize popular support for the UN, and Clinton himself never used his presidential persuasiveness to urge popular involvement. Dues continued to be withheld, and the U.S. arrears stayed at about $1.6 billion–well over half the total debt of the severely strapped UN. In Congress, Senator Jesse Helms’ control of the Foreign Relations Committee brought new attacks on the UN and calls for U.S. unilateralism. Helms escalated his calls for UN reform, thinly veiled attacks on the organization itself. By the end of the decade, when the festering Kosovo crisis loomed in the Balkans, Washington openly bypassed the UN altogether, anointing NATO instead as simultaneous legitimator and implementor of war against Yugoslavia. The U.S. sidelining of the Security Council in NATO’s decision to go to war in Yugoslavia in early 1999 was a major blow to the UN’s credibility. Clinton’s multilateralism was history. Peaking with the spring 1999 Kosovo crisis, the UN was largely sidelined from U.S. strategic considerations. In Iraq, the U.S. maintained the fiction that the crippling economic sanctions first imposed in 1990 really represented a UN consensus, but the decisionmaking remained in Washington. New crises–in Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Congo–brought a resumption of UN peacekeeping activity, and new criticisms of the U.S. for its failure to pull its own weight. When the biggest UN Blue Helmet operations in years were fielded in East Timor and Sierra Leone in 1999 and 2000, Washington refused even to consider sending troops and had to be prodded even to provide minimal airlift assistance. The U.S. still opposes creation of the UN Charter-mandated standing force that could provide emergency deployment capacity of UN-accountable Blue Helmets under the control of the secretary-general. And it has refused to provide the strategic, financial, and political backing for creation of a powerful new Department of Preventive Diplomacy at the UN, to provide nonmilitary responses to emerging crises. The growing UN financial crisis and demands by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the UN enlarge its ties with the private sector as a quid pro quo for paying U.S. dues have been met with a growing pool of UN and UN agency “partnerships” with transnational corporations. This trend began with CNN mogul Ted Turner’s gift of $1 billion to UN programs and escalated to Annan’s 1999 call for a “Global Compact” between the UN and transnational corporations. Such UN “partnerships” paralyze the UN’s ability to help galvanize international opposition to corporate ravaging of economies, human rights, and the environment of the global South and threaten to provide a UN imprimatur, or “blue-washing,” of otherwise pariah corporations. International initiatives, fostered by shifting coalitions within the UN and by transnational social movements, are transforming and empowering international law. They include the International Criminal Court, the convention against antipersonnel landmines, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and more. The U.S. has refused to endorse any of them. The role of the UN is virtually absent from the 2000 election campaign. In brief references, Republican George W. Bush said U.S. dues to the UN should be paid “only if the UN’s bureaucracy is reformed” and only if Washington’s “disproportionate share” of UN dues is reduced. Vice-President Al Gore called for full payment of UN dues. The UN faces a serious economic crisis, caused primarily by Washington’s refusal to pay $1.6 billion in back dues. The debt has led to financial uncertainty in important UN program areas (development, health, and human rights) and has stimulated global hostility toward–and loss of diplomatic influence by–the United States. The U.S. is the only nation that conditions its UN Charter-required dues on UN fulfillment of unilaterally determined “reform” demands. There is no question that reform–real reform–is required. The UN has long-standing problems involving lack of transparency in decisionmaking, undemocratic abuses of power, and more. Organizational and bureaucratic problems exist as well. The secretary-general’s 1997 reform program called for dramatic changes in management, human and financial resources, information and outreach, core activities, and more. But the U.S. was not interested in improving the UN’s capacity for poverty alleviation in sub-Saharan Africa as much as it was in cutting costs and slashing personnel. President Clinton, in his September 22, 1997 address to the General Assembly, applied his welfare reform approach to the global poor, calling on the UN to “focus even more on shifting resources from hand-outs to hand-ups.” A May 2000 GAO Report prepared for Senator Jesse Helms identified the UN’s reform goals solely in administrative terms: “restructuring UN leadership … to unify organizational efforts; developing a performance-based human capital system, and programming and budgeting processes focused on managing program performance.” While acknowledging some partial success, the report found the UN efforts insufficient, and U.S. demands escalated. When the U.S. faced the possibility of losing its General Assembly vote because of escalating arrears, a July 1999 compromise was negotiated to pay part of the arrears–but the negotiations were between Jesse Helms and the Democratic leadership within the Congress; the UN was out of the loop. The “compromise” allowed only partial payment after 22 other requirements, many in clear violation of UN regulations, had been implemented. U.S. reform efforts should focus on democratizing the vast disparity of power within the UN system, especially by supporting increased authority for the often-disparaged General Assembly and the virtually-ignored Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). The U.S. should support the strengthening and democratization of the UN’s social and economic policy organs. These agencies–including both those within ECOSOC and the specialized agencies, such as the World Health Organization, Food & Agriculture Organization, World Food Program, the UN Development Program, UN Children’s Fund, and UN Refugee Commission–should be provided with sufficient funding and the political support needed to assure their ability to perform difficult tasks around the globe. Current U.S. efforts to cut personnel and budgets and to eliminate programs and agencies deemed antagonistic toward U.S. or corporate interests should be replaced with support for serious democratization reforms at the UN. Challenges certainly remain regarding the UN’s bureaucratization, duplication of resources, and allocation of funds. But reform efforts for those issues should be led, within the General Assembly, by groups of countries whose commitment to improving, rather than undermining, the United Nations is more credible than that of Washington. The 2000 Millennium Assembly provides a good opportunity to revisit the UN policy of the United States–a policy that has increasingly undermined multilateralism as a framework of resolving international peace and security issues. As long as Washington continues to support the UN only on a tactical, instrumentalist basis, the organization’s true importance as a global entity will continue to erode. (Phyllis Bennis < > is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN .) to receive weekly commentary and expert analysis via our Progressive Response ezine. This page was last modified on Wednesday, March 5, 2003 5:45 PM Contact the IRC’s webmaster with inquiries regarding the functionality of this website. Copyright © 2001 IRC and IPS. All rights reserved.