In prior portions of this running commentary, I argued that there is no longer any reason (as perhaps there once was) to assume that the United Nations is either relevant to or effective in addressing international security matters in the post-Cold War era. The time has come to ask hard questions about the U.N.'s continuing survival, its future role in America's affairs, and America's future participation in the U.N.'s. Four crises over the last few years answer those questions and demonstrate that the United Nations is no longer an effective or reliable participant in international security matters; that a refocused U.N. with a mission directed toward promotion of health, justice, and economic development within and among smaller states neither requires nor benefits from the United States assuming a leading role in its processes; and that the U.S. cannot ensure the continuing success of its own international security, economic, and democratic agendas while remaining entangled with the United Nations. All of these mean, in simplest terms, substantial American disengagement from the current United Nations.
What are these crises and what do they tell us about the current state of the U.N. and its future prospects? The first concerns the ongoing Darfur (Sudan) genocide. Following the horrifying Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s, many within the international diplomatic community fretted publicly over what had occurred on their watch and looked to the United Nations to put in place measures to prevent future genocides; it is a role the U.N. willingly accepted and which Secretary-General Kofi Annan continues to promote, despite acknowledged failures in a new African genocide ("UN seeking to avert a 'new Rwanda'"):
As he has done repeatedly since becoming Secretary-General, Mr. Annan acknowledged in that speech that the UN Secretariat, the Security Council, national governments and the international media had all failed to pay enough attention to the gathering signs of disaster in Rwanda. And as the signs mounted, they failed to act.Annan's "fitting memorial" to the then-ten-years-gone victims of the Rwandan genocide (and of little or no effect for the 2.5 million people affected by the ongoing Sudanese genocide) was to appoint "a special adviser on the prevention of genocide" and to establish a "plan of action" composed of five truisms and platitudes: "Preventing armed conflict"; "Protecting civilians in armed conflict"; "Ending impunity"; "Ensuring early, clear warning"; and "Taking swift and decisive action". The U.N. has relatively little control over the first two points, having (by design) no independent military capability or (by practice) reliable civilian command-and-control structure; to recognize these as two points as among the five defined keys for success is to admit by implication that the United Nations is a fish-out-of-water in this area.
As a result, some 800,000 women, children and men were killed in Rwanda within the space of just 100 days . . . .
While recognizing the reality of genocide is important, Secretary-General Annan said in his Geneva address, he also warned that "we must not be held back by legalistic arguments about whether a particular atrocity meets the definition of genocide or not. By the time we are certain, it may often be too late to act."Therefore, preventing genocide requires moving more quickly and seriously to stem large-scale abuses of human rights, especially when directed against ethnic, racial or religious groups.
The latter two points have all the hallmarks of a bad joke. When faced with the Rwandan genocide, even after it had been identified as such (despite American interference, according to U.N. officials), the U.N., by its own admission, "failed to act". When faced with the ethnic mass-killings by Saddam Hussein in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, the U.N. failed to take decisive action; it was the leadership of the United States in the first Gulf War and its ongoing enforcement of the Northern Iraqi "No-Fly" Zone which ended Hussein's capacity to harm the Kurds.
Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was the first diplomatic leader to call the bloodbath in Darfur what it is -- a genocide; while the United Nations now agrees with his assessment, its lack of coherent action to definitively end the the genocide can only be interpreted as a lack of either will or capacity to do so. Whichever is the case, neither alternative speaks to the U.N.'s preeminence in this crucial international peace and security arena. Nonetheless, as quoted by The Weekly Standard, Annan continued to promote their ongoing role: "Humanity must respond by taking action in its own defense. Humanity's instrument for that purpose must be the United Nations, and specifically the Security Council." Here, however, the disproportionate and disruptive power of the veto within the Security Council (which I discussed earlier) prevents necessary action by the U.N.; in this case, Russia's and China's commercial relationships with the oil-rich Sudanese government have prompted them to oppose both the creation of a modest international military presence in the Darfur region and the imposition of meaningful sanctions against the Sudanese government, which has supported the genocide perpetrators. As The Weekly Standard notes, "we're left with toothless Security Council resolutions and vows of tribunals for those committing war crimes, but nothing to stop the crimes in progress." While many have agreed with Secretary-General Annan's recapitulation of the genocide problem, few seem convinced that the United Nations is the savior needed.
In only one of the five points outlined by Annan has the U.N. displayed a coherent agenda and, more importantly, taken visible and consequential actions. At least as to the genocides in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, the U.N. has shown some ability to establish credible, deliberate (perhaps overly deliberate) tribunals to assess and document ethnic mass crimes and to punish those responsible. While success in this area does not make up for the United Nations' near-complete failures in the other areas of the genocide problem, it does point to a possible future role for the institution, a limited and less powerful role perhaps, but also one more focused and more effective, and ultimately more valuable for all.
Annan has recognized these limitations and yet begs for more patience from America. In a remarkable mea culpa to be published in tomorrow's Wall Street Journal (available from their free online service, OpinionJournal):
Some decry what they see as a lack of principle in U.N. decision-making, pointing to the compromises that inevitably emerge from a body of 191 member states. Anyone who attacks the U.N. for failing to serve the global interest should, as part of that exercise, critically examine the decisions of each nation within the body. They will find that there is plenty of criticism to go round. But they should also remember that the U.N., like the U.S. and other great democracies, is a work in progress--always struggling to lessen the gap between reality and the ideals which gave it birth. That such a gap exists is all the more reason why those who value freedom and peace should work to build the U.N. up, not tear it down.More later . . . .
Of course the U.N. is far from perfect--even if some of the recent allegations made about it have been overblown. The interim report of Paul Volcker's independent inquiry has helped put the Oil For Food program in perspective. Some of the more hyperbolic assertions about it have been proven untrue.
Yet I am the first to admit that real and troubling failures--ethical lapses and lax management--have been brought to light. I am determined, with the help of member states, to carry through the management reforms which are clearly called for by Mr. Volcker's findings.
Even more shocking are widespread cases of sexual exploitation and abuse of minors by peacekeepers and U.N. officials in the Congo and other African countries. Both the U.N. Secretariat and the member states have been too slow to realize the extent of this problem, take effective measures to end it, and punish the culprits. But we are now doing so, and I am determined to see it through.
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The U.N. cannot expect to survive into the 21st century unless ordinary people throughout the world feel that it does something for them--helping to protect them against conflict (both civil and international), but also against poverty, hunger, disease and the erosion of their natural environment. And in recent years, bitter experience has taught us that a world in which whole countries are left prey to misgovernment and destitution is not safe for anyone. We must turn the tide against disease and hunger, as well as against terrorism, the proliferation of deadly weapons and crime--starting, urgently, with decisions from the Security Council to end the abominable crimes in Darfur and bring war criminals to international justice.