On Point: Can the UN be Saved?

by Austin Bay
March 30, 2005

Secretary-General Kofi Annan wants to reform the United Nations, but the more immediate issue is who will reform Kofi Annan.

Credit former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and his "Independent Inquiry Committee" with delivering a skull-cracking report on the United Nations' Oil For Food (OFF) scandal, albeit one administered with a soft hammer. Investigators argue there is no evidence that Annan knew about an OFF contract bid involving his son, Kojo Annan, and Kojo's employer, Cotecna.

Annan may not be a thief, but we do know he's a floundering bureaucrat responsible for mismanaging a sick organization mired in a multibillion dollar fraud.

That's why Volcker's report is the beginning of a genuine reform process, not a conclusion, and a slew of corrupt officials and businesses must face prosecution, not mere investigation. Corruption at the United Nations has worked hand-in-glove with incompetence to produce institutional paralysis and political irrelevance.

OFF operated behind all of the righteous code words of international good intentions. Implemented while economic sanctions shackled Saddam Hussein, the program supposedly used revenue from controlled oil sales to provide the Iraqi people with food, medicine and relief supplies. However, it had no oversight -- at least, no credible oversight. Annan's OFF chief, Benon Sevan, was in Saddam Hussein's pocket. Saddam "flipped" the program using those old-time tools of political judo: graft and payoff.

The scandal has deeply damaged the United Nations as an institution. For many critics, this doesn't matter. They already argue the United Nations is a facade masking coalitions of the corrupt -- a forum where cynical international elites romp in a champagne sewer greased by the planet's Saddams, mafia thugs and rogue corporations. They point to the United Nations' dismal record in Bosnia, the Congo and Sudan's Darfur.

Why should such an organization continue to suck dollars and dither?

Such an organization shouldn't -- that's why it needs massive reform.

Reform is in America's interest. Winning the War on Terror means not only military victory, but economic and political stability in the hard, chaotic corners where terrorists hide. A credible United Nations would play an extremely useful role in this process.

Pieces of the United Nations meet immediate, on-the-ground humanitarian needs -- and I've seen them work in Africa. If U.N. refugee aid programs didn't exist, the sub-Saharan conflicts of the last three decades would have killed many hundreds of thousands more than they have.

Successful aid operations require more than financing and coordination capabilities, however. They require moral credibility. I am certain that the United Nations' corruption will affect legitimate non-governmental organization aid and development programs crucial to many Third World countries, in the same way honest businesses suffered negative political and media consequences after Enron and Global Crossing's corporate crimes were exposed.

Annan's U.N. reform study (see www.un.org/secureworld ) offers several excellent ideas for organizational change. The study recognizes the current U.N. structure is a relic of World War II.

But the real reform means oversight and accountability. At the moment, it is only the United States -- in its often anarchic manifestations of free press, congressional committees and bouts of taxpayer outrage -- that acts as a check on the United Nations.

Though the Bush administration probably favors keeping a weakened Annan --floundering, continuing to make fool mistakes until his term is up next year -- the first reform is to force Annan to resign, now. His refusal to resign is ego-crat at its worst. The second reform is to prosecute the thieves. The third is to end the ridiculous requirement that jobs be distributed by nationality, a feature that feeds "connected elites" into U.N. staff positions instead of experts hired on merit.

As for real reform: (1) strip France of permanent U.N. Security Council (UNSC) status; (2) keep Russia as a permanent member, but with no veto (all it has are nukes); (3) add India and Japan as permanent UNSC members (though with no veto). Now Britain wields the European veto, China the Asian and America the real veto.

To impose these reforms requires a secretary-general who is a committed democratic leader, someone neither bureaucrat, kleptocrat nor ego-crat. In a Wall Street Journal On-Line article last December, Glenn Reynolds (www.instapundit.com) suggested former Czech president and Cold War dissident Vaclav Havel as Annan's replacement.

I can think of no one better.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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