Focus: Reforming the United Nations

Built from the wreckage of the League of Nations after World War II, the United Nations has a historical mission to prevent conflict and respond to disaster.

But its humanitarian mandate has been undermined by politics, corruption and impropriety. Calls for reform are growing louder, and the great powers pushing for change are hardly nonpartisan.

Dogged by scandal

Member nations faulted

Reform calls

Radically pragmatic

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Dogged by scandal


Dogged by its failure to prevent the bloodletting of Bosnia and Rwanda, beset by the still-unfolding oil-for-food scandal, and trying to shake an ongoing sex scandal that includes harassment charges against a high-level official and the abuse of refugee minors by peacekeepers, the United Nations has seen better days.

Now, the world’s largest humanitarian organization faces renewed calls from activists of all stripes for reform, resignations and more radical changes.

American conservatives are targeting Secretary General Kofi Annan and the illicit oil sales as emblematic of an institution that they say is “broken … corrupt … ineffective, and on top of that so unwilling to begin to contemplate the full implications of internal reform.”

A U.N. commission’s decision to not identify massacres in Darfur as genocide was described as “collusion” by one Lord Alton of Liverpool, a member of the British House of Lords.

He complained that China, a member of the U.N. Security Council, owned the “lion’s share” of the Sudanese oil industry, and that “access to the oil fields in the south seemed to matter more to the international community.”

In Washington, the Bush administration is keeping conservatives at heel, and has praised Annan’s actions as the oil-for-food imbroglio unfolds.

“Oil-for-Food: Questions & Answers”
Guardian (U.K.), February 4, 2005

“U.N. scandal back in spotlight after sex grope revelation”
Agence France-Presse, October 28, 2004

“The U.N. Sex Scandal”
The Weekly Standard, January 3-10, 2005

“Critics lash out at U.N., but Annan survives”
Christian Science Monitor, December 13, 2004

“United Nations faulted for ‘impotence’ and ‘collusion’ over Darfur”
Catholic Information Service for Africa (Nairobi), February 1, 2005

“State Department commends Annan”
Associated Press, February 4, 2005

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Member nations faulted


Scott Ritter, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, says the oil-for-food crisis is a “smokescreen” for a “cynical” attack on the U.N.

His words echo an editorial in the Nation that accuses critics of inflating the scandal, and overlooking America’s role in enabling illegal Iraqi oil sales.

This includes permissive enforcement of the Iraqi embargo by the U.S.-managed Maritime Interdiction Force, as reported by the Washington Post.

The Independent (U.K.) reported that the British government had also been implicated in the oil-for-food scandal, in a “damning” report that it had subverted the bidding process for Iraqi-oil trade inspectors in favor of a British company.

Samantha Power, author of “A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide,” has broadly criticized both the U.N. itself and its members for allowing national self-interest to trump the agency’s humanitarian mission.

“The Oil-For-Food ‘scandal’ is a cynical smokescreen”
The Independent (U.K.), December 12, 2004

“U.N. oil for food ‘Scandal'”
The Nation, November 18, 2004

“U.S. reportedly ignored illicit Saddam oil trade”
Washington Post, February 3, 2005

“Britain implicated in oil-for-food scandal, damning report says”
The Independent (U.K.), February 4, 2005

“Pulitzer Prize winner lectures on human rights”
Daily Mississippian, February 4, 2005

“Rwanda’s genocide: Looking back”
Samantha Power, testimony to U.S. House of Representatives, April 22, 2004

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Reform calls


Boosters of the United Nations remain hopeful for positive change.

Several U.S. newspaper editorialists, while criticizing its failings, praised the U.N.’s potential, and called for both reform and reinforcement of its mission.

Annan himself came into office with a reformist agenda, and said that he hopes to dedicate the remains of his term to pushing it through.

Whether he survives the oil-for-food crisis, which may widen to include his son Kojo, is an open question.

Inter Press Service reports that since taking office, Annan has been chipping away at the bureaucracy, hurrying the departure of entrenched — and sometimes scandal-tinged — department heads.

He also has appeased Washington by appointing George W. Bush’s outgoing Secretary of Agriculture to the leadership of UNICEF, the U.N. child-welfare agency.

“U.N. Scandal: Clean up this oily mess”
Philadelphia Inquirer, January 9, 2005

“U.N. enemies distort oil-for-food scandal”
Honolulu Advertiser, December 27, 2004

“U.N. assures no ‘mass firings’ of senior staff”
Inter Press Service, January 31, 2005

“Analysis: who is under suspicion?”
The Times (U.K.), February 4, 2005

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Radically pragmatic


At the extremes of the debate, the rhetoric of U.N. boosters and bashers are at once pragmatic and radical.

Some American exceptionalists are calling for a total American withdrawal from the U.N. — and the expulsion of the agency’s headquarters from New York City.

But others, while remaining bitterly critical, presuppose America’s moral superiority, and maintain that reform is worthwhile so as to preserve a valuable instrument for U.S. policy.

Some reformists fear a drive to unseat Annan will eclipse his efforts and changing the institution.

In France, President Jacque Chirac has proposed a global tax to help fight AIDS and other humanitarian crises.

Challenged by robust exertions of America’s international dominance, and plagued by the failures of earlier its peacekeeping missions, the U.N. is considering adding teeth to its multinational charter by forming a new, stronger military arm for interventions.

“Get the U.N. out of the U.S.A.”

“Of what use is the United Nations?”, January 10, 2005

“Diplomats: U.N. scandal may hinder reforms”
Fox News, December 10, 2004

“How realistic is a global tax?”
CNBC Money, January 29, 2005

“Challenging agenda for U.N. reform”
Asahi Sinbun (Japan), February 4, 2005

Last chance saloon for U.N.?”
BBC, December 1, 2004

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