Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UN-Enviable Record

Peter Brookes

If you think the American federal government is bloated, inefficient and ineffective, consider the United Nations, a towering bureaucracy with delusions of being a world government.

Its woeful performance makes the bureaucracy and process in Washington look like a model for modern administration. This point is perhaps no better made than in a new book aptly titled, ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives, an edited work by Brett Schaefer, a long-time United Nations-watcher at the Heritage Foundation.

The book exposes the truth that, after a lifetime of effort and gazillions of dollars, the world has reaped precious little for peace, security, human rights and economic development from the UN.

Indeed, despite the fact the United States has been the UN’s major benefactor since the organization’s 1945 founding and even in this post-Cold War era, the international body is a bastion of anti-Americanism and socialism – not freedom and prosperity as intended.

While President Obama has acknowledged that the United Nations is “imperfect,” he has still defended it as “indispensable.” The truth is that it is more than imperfect; it is a deeply flawed organization that despite good intentions has failed to meet even minimal expectations time after time. And too often, it has proved to be more an impediment to resolving international problems than an asset.

This is not the hallmark of an “indispensable” body.

The evidence is perhaps nowhere more evident than on the issue of international peace and security, one of its supposed core competencies.

Security Shortcomings

The maintenance of international security though effective collective action to prevent and remove threats to peace is one of the main purposes of the United Nations, as outlined in its 1945 founding charter.

Yet the UN record is not particularly active when it comes to its mandate of dealing with aggression. Despite hundreds of wars during its three-score year existence, the UN has authorized the use of force to counter aggression only twice: after North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950 and after Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

In the post-Cold War period, many believed the United Nations would be ideally suited to quell conflicts, only to be mugged by the reality that UN peacekeepers are not war fighters. Expectations set far too high have had tragic results.

Too often, as ConUNdrum points out, the UN has taken on security tasks and responsibilities that it was poorly positioned to carry out, with results arguably as bad as if it had done nothing.

For instance, the United Nations failed to stem a civil war in Somalia, prevent genocide in Rwanda and protect civilians from the slaughter at Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia. Tragically, it also largely failed to prevent the still-ongoing genocide and atrocities in the Darfur region of Sudan.

UN peacekeeping has become a growth industry. There are now more than 110,000 “Blue Helmets” deployed around the world in 16 peacekeeping operations, at an annual cost of nearly $8 billion. That is a huge global investment in an organization with such a record of disappointment.

Shamefully, UN peacekeepers have also been involved in sexual misconduct involving innocent civilians they are supposed to protect in such places as the Democratic Republic of Congo – a situation worsened by internal efforts to cover up the crimes.

The United Nations also comes up short on ending the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons – the responsibility of its supposed watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA failed to detect Iraq’s nuclear program before the first Gulf War; uncover Iran’s once-clandestine atomic efforts; or stop North Korea from joining the Mushroom Cloud Club.

But it is not just security that is a problem.

Money Matters

The broader UN system is in reality a mishmash of organizations. What most people think of as the UN is actually its headquarters at “Turtle Bay” in New York City. The regular and peacekeeping budgets together for its headquarters operations total more than $10 billion annually. When you include the budgets of the many other UN-affiliated organizations (such as the World Food Program, the United Nations Development Program, the World Health Organization, and UNESCO), the collective “U.N. budget” swells to more than $20 billion per year. (This would make the UN the world’s 100th largest economy, larger than almost half its members.)

Some of these UN bodies are funded through voluntary contributions, but most charge member states “dues” based on their “capacity to pay” (e.g., the size of their economies, per capita gross income and the like).

The United States, as the world’s largest economy, pays 22 percent of the “regular” UN budget and more than 25 percent of its peacekeeping budget. Other UN technical and specialized agencies charge the U.S. similar amounts. All told, the U.S. pays roughly $5 billion each year to the UN system.

Uncle Sam forks over more than the combined contributions of the other four permanent members of the Security Council (i.e., China, Russia, France and Britain). Only Japan and Germany, who come in second and third in contributions, are in the vicinity. They pay about 17 percent and 9 percent of the U.N. regular budget, respectively.

Even more egregious, some 130 nations of the 192 UN member states collectively pay about 1 percent of the UN regular budget. Some pay as little as 0.001 percent. Yet they get a vote equal to the U.S. when it comes to adopting the UN budget or other matters before the General Assembly. Under UN rules, this group can pass a budget over the objection of the U.S.

In December 2007, the General Assembly did just that, voting 142 to1 (the United States was the only “no” vote) to adopt a 25 percent increase in its budget – and violating for the first time in 20 years the tradition of approving the budget by consensus.

As former UN Ambassador John Bolton points out in the book, this way of doing business has created an “entitlement mentality”: Member states and the Secretariat approve budgets without even considering program efficiency and effectiveness.

This, of course, means a lack of program oversight and accountability, which has led to fraud and mismanagement – massively demonstrated in the now infamous Iraqi Oil-for-Food program, a “humanitarian” effort that instead sent billions of dollars in kickbacks to line the pockets of Saddam Hussein, his family, UN officials and their cronies.

And what about human rights?

Human Rights Hypocrisy

As several authors in ConUNdrum sadly note, the United Nations also fails in another key charter mission: promoting and encouraging respect for fundamental human rights and freedom. It frequently protects human rights abusers more than it defends the rights of the abused they govern. For instance, the Human Rights Council has largely ignored problems in countries where human rights are a major concern like China, Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe.

That should really come as no surprise: The world’s most oppressive governments are UN members in good standing.

Over the years, countries with troubling human rights records have been allowed to play prominent, even leading, roles in the work of UN human rights bodies with the specific intent of ensuring that official criticisms against them never surface. All too often they succeed. Many repressive regimes have been elected to seats on the Human Rights Council and other UN human rights gatherings, such as Libya’s chairmanship of the 2009 follow-up conference to the anti-Semitic 2001 World Conference Against Racism. Even worse, Iran served as vice chair.

Turning Around Turtle Bay

In fairness, much of the work of the UN’s specialized agencies has been well-intentioned even if misguided or ineffective. Some agencies have done quite well, especially in the areas of health care (e.g., immunizations), humanitarian assistance (e.g., food aid) and election monitoring.

The UN also uniquely serves as the world’s largest multilateral forum for discussing global issues of concern. But there is no question that it can certainly do better – if it is willing to amend its ways.

Multilateral cooperation through international organizations can be useful, but it should be employed to address specific challenges, not as a “feel-good” end in itself.

The indisputable fact is that the UN as a multilateral organization, as former Assistant Secretary of State Kim Holmes puts it, usually overpromises and underdelivers. While he and the other authors in ConUNdrum take warranted shots at the UN they also, thankfully, propose ways to reform the 60-plus year old institution.

First and foremost, they argue that Washington must not allow the United Nations to squander taxpayer dollars. They call for a full-court press (including withholding U.S. contributions in some cases) to force change or terminate ineffective programs and to get the UN to focus on activities where it can be most useful.

The United States should seek to curb the UN bureaucracy’s enthusiasm from acting as if it were a world government, while avoiding mission creep in areas where the UN agency or program lacks the expertise, authority or capacity to address a problem effectively. And it should continue to work for greater accountability and oversight.

We should lead an effort to shift more programs and offices that fall under the existing mandatory dues system to voluntary funding. This would allow individual countries to finance the programs they believe most efficiently, effectively and transparently serve their interests.

The UN is certainly not the only way to tackle international problems, either. In fact, as the book suggests, if the UN offers not only a smart analysis of how to think about the UN but also fresh ideas for how to help reform it to better advance peace and security, human rights and prosperity – all core American interests. Contributing Editor Peter Brookes is a Senior Fellow for National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation and is a member of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission

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