Irrelevant or Indispensable? The United Nations in the 21st Century

by edited by Paul Heinbecker and Patricia Goff
196 pages,
ISBN: 0889204934

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The UN Unquestioned
by Martin Loney

This is a curious collection of essays, emanating from a conference at Wilfrid Laurier University. The title and the setting might suggest a vigorous analytical debate over the future of an organization that has experienced a litany of failures. What is actually on offer is less a debate than a regurgitation of the dominant view of the UN secretariat that while failures have occurred they can be addressed by reform. Those who view the UN as profoundly flawed, a costly and largely ineffective talking shop that has, in the name of a fashionable multilateralism, discouraged unilateral and bilateral action, while being unable to mount effective action of its own, are not represented. Many of those who contributed are not skeptical scholars but senior UN officials, or, like Lloyd Axworthy, are so closely tied to the institution as to lack any critical credibility.
The stage is set by UN Deputy Secretary General, Louise FrTchette, a former Deputy Minister of National Defence in Ottawa, who noted that when she joined the UN in 1997 it was in the midst of "a wave of reform". Unfortunately this didn't succeed: "Today, however, it is difficult not to feel that we have, in some respects at least, slid back down the greasy pole to somewhere near the place where we started eight years ago." The conference might have seemed an opportune moment to ask why this had happened. Instead, after taking time out "to sing the praises of UN staff," FrTchette launches into yet another set of reform promises. FrTchette was at the centre of the UN as it slid down the greasy pole; on the oil-for-food file, the panel headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker, found that she failed "to carry out the responsibilities of her office." However, it appears not to have occurred to FrTchette, in the same way it hadn't occurred to Secretary General Kofi Annan, that this record of failure would in any way disqualify her from leading the next great reform wave. The Volker panel also noted the unusual relationship between Mr. Annan's former special adviser on UN reform, Maurice Strong, and Korean businessman Tongsun Park, who received one million dollars from Iraq deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, to assist in currying favour at the UN. Mr. Park then cut a cheque to Mr. Strong for $988,885 to buy shares in a failing Strong-controlled oil company.
There are obvious questions about the potential of an organization that represents a large number of unelected, corrupt and brutal regimes to engage in effective activity. They are absent from this discussion; instead contributors, lead by economic wunderkind Jeffrey Sachs, prefer to focus on the urgent need for the West to increase its aid to achieve the ambitious Millennium Development Goals (MDG) established by the UN. This would, inter alia, require Canada to triple its overseas aid. If Canadians are to be taxed to provide such assistance it might seem incumbent on those advocating these goals to address the lamentable failure of previous aid efforts, much of which has been stolen by third world kleptocrats. Billions more have been directed into the pockets of Western 'consultants' or directed to projects of no obvious benefit to the poor. Among CIDA's many adventures the funding of an international airport at El Doret, a remote Kenyan village is memorable. The airport may have lacked any economic rationale but El Doret was the President Arap Moi's hometown. More recently CIDA was in the news for its generous aid to an Indian Think Tank run by Karam Pal Singh Gill, previously known less for his interest in democratic development than for his role in the brutal suppression of Sikh militants in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Earlier this year the BBC reported on a three-million-dollar aid project to Malawi that included $700,000 for the costs of meals and hotels for American 'consultants'. This is just beer compared to the 28 million pounds the Department for International Development paid the Thatcherite Adam Smith Institute to propagandize the supposed benefits of privatisation in many of the poorest developing countries between 2001 and 2004. This sum may have been called aid, but it did little to effect the urgent health, educational and nutritional needs of the poor-none of who work at the Institute.
Irrelevant or Indespensable addresses the planned 'responsibility to protect' initiative, intended to prevent the UN neglecting other humanitarian disasters. The problem with the UN, however, lies less in the absence of noble purposes than in the means to deliver. Part of the problem is institutional; the Chinese dictatorship is assured a veto, and with its ruling gerontocracy's widely renowned indifference to human rights, whether at home or abroad, it serves to thwart action whether in Darfur or Zimbabwe. The other problem is the lack of capability and political willingness to create the means for effective action. Lloyd Axworthy makes much of the responsibility to protect commitment and Canada's major role in pushing it onto the UN agenda. Lloyd Axworthy also held senior positions in successive Liberal cabinets as Canada's capacity for military intervention was eviscerated. As General Lewis MacKenzie has observed, Canada fell from being the lead peacekeeper in 1993, with some 5000 souls deployed, to the 36th position, earlier this year, with only 300 deployed.
One contributor who does ask hard questions and recognises aspects of the debate that merit more honest discussion is Edward Luck, who has been for a long time affiliated with the UN and the American United Nations Association. Luck questions the enthusiasm for expanding the size of the Security Council, arguing that this will make it less effective, not more. The principal issue he argues is the Council's "uneasy relations with Washington, DC, and with American power," the tension between the pursuit of multilateralism and the reality of the concentration of military power in the U.S. A not-so-subtle subtext in the debate is the intention of using the UN to reduce American influence both within the organization and more widely. Luck advocates a more thoughtful approach to reconciling the reality of US power to the goals of the UN.
A volume that contained a more disparate range of voices and afforded a platform to skeptics as well as boosters would have provided a more interesting debate.

Martin Loney's books include Rhodesia: White Racism and Imperial Response (Penguin).

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