Issue 126: Kofi Annan’s “annus horribilis” and proposals for UN reform

As the year 2004 comes to a close, all discussion at the United Nations is overshadowed by two seemingly unrelated events:  a corruption scandal bearing possible connections to Kofi Annan, and the release of an international panel’s proposal for drastic reform of the world body.  Whether or not U.S. conservatives such as Senator Norm Coleman have sufficient grounds to demand the Secretary-General’s resignation, the average person on any continent recognizes that, even if only 1% of the Oil-for-Food accusations are true, the UN is in dire need of reform.  Yet the recommendations of the high level panel not only neglect to consider the plague of UN mismanagement, but they fail to resolve some the most significant problems they set out to fix.

At the root of Annan’s self-described annus horribilis are allegations that Saddam Hussein, with the help of bribed foreign supporters, skimmed some $20 billion from Iraqi oil revenues that the UN was supposed to direct toward the country’s humanitarian needs.  Closer to home, Benon V. Sevan, the man Annan appointed to head the Oil- for-Food program, stands accused of having received millions in oil allocations, while Kojo Annan, the Secretary-General’s son, is alleged to have used his filial connection to secure dubious payments from a Swiss company profiting from the program.

Several major investigations, including five by the U.S. Congress, are now underway.  The inquiry led by Paul A. Volcker, former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, is set to publish an interim report next month.  With nothing proven yet, some patience is in order.

That said, explanations provided by Kofi Annan have been less than convincing, with most information on the affair released hesitantly at best.  And now with the resignation of Iqbal Riza, Annans chief of staff announced just as we go to press many will wonder if this was in anticipation of damning findings from the Volcker report, and also whether more resignations will follow.

Riza, to be sure, may have had other reasons for leaving.  Harsh criticism from the UN staff union accused the former Pakistani diplomat of protecting abusers within the system and targeting the whistleblowers instead.  Riza was also accused of nepotism because of his son’s UN job in Lebanon.  Nor will he be missed by those who recall the events of 1994.  Riza’s reputation will be forever marred by his role, together with Annan, in overseeing the UN’s spectacular failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide.  As Dore Gold’s new book reminds us, when Canadian general Romeo Dallaire begged the peacekeeping department for permission to destroy weapons and avert the massacres, Riza ordered Dallaire not to intervene. In an interview with PBS, Riza dismissed the tragedy. “Look, since the 1960s, there have been cycles of violence Tutsis against Hutus, Hutus against Tutsis. Im sorry to put it so cynically.  Peace cannot succeed where there is an inability to recognize evil.”

Coming back to Annan, pro-democracy forces need to ask:  would his replacement be any better?  As it happens, we now have at least two declared candidates to replace Annan after his full term ends in December 2006.  It’s Asia’s turn under the tradition of geographical rotation, and Thai Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathirathai is competing for the nomination against Jayantha Dhanapala of Sri Lanka, a former ambassador to Washington and former UN undersecretary-general for disarmament affairs.  Neither shows any particular promise of standing up against the alliances of repressive regimes that dominate many UN institutions.

Which brings us to the new 95-page report of the high level panel, envisioning an overhaul on everything from poverty to peacekeeping, chemical weapons to collective security.

The report offers several surprisingly useful recommendations.  Most notably, it urges the UN to finally adopt a definition of terrorism.  If you don’t know what something looks like, you can’t fight it.  To be sure, there is the predictable nod to root causes such as poverty never mind that the worlds terror masterminds, from Osama bin Laden to the Iranian mullahs to Yasser Arafat, were hardly dissuaded by their billions.  On the whole, though, the section on terror is strong.  It certainly puts the lie to the Arab Leagues repeated justification, parroted in various UN resolutions, that violence against Israeli civilians can never constitute terrorism.  Nothing in the fact of occupation, says the report, justifies the targeting and killing of civilians.

But the report’s treatment of other major issues demonstrates a failure to confront the true problems of the UN.  The report envisions an expanded, geographically representative Security Council that would grant the UN greater legitimacy.  Ironically, however, it is precisely in many of the states that stand to join Germany, for example where the UN already enjoys the greatest legitimacy.  The true legitimacy deficit lies in the reality that the UN’s premier human right bodies this year were unable to condemn the world’s worst human rights crime; Sudan’s killings in Darfur; and, a corollary, that repressive regimes, never elected to represent anyone, continue to dominate UN proceedings.

Thus when it comes to confronting the glaring failures of the Commission on Human Rights, the report while frank in recognizing the Commissions eroding credibility and professionalism, and that States have sought membership to protect themselves against criticism ultimately offers up a remedy that is a demonstrable failure.  Expanding membership from the current 53 to all 191 states would be clearly damaging to the cause of human rights.

First, we know exactly what a 191-member UN human rights body looks like; its called the Third Committee of the General Assembly, and its the one that voted only last month to take no action for the victims of Darfur.  Second, universalizing membership would rob the human rights lobby of one of its sole powers:  embarrassing the worst violators.  Every time a Sudan, Libya or Syria obscenely wins election to the Commission, the moral outcry from around the world sheds a vital spotlight on their shameful records.  Trivial as it may sound, this rhetorical device is one of the few tools available to human rights advocates.  Why the high level panel would do away with it is a mystery.  On the contrary, we should consider how membership might be further limited, to exclude states that fail to meet basic human rights commitments.

Will Kofi Annan’s legacy be a disgraced exit due to evidence of corruption, or will he go down in history as the UN’s great reformer?  The next year will decide.

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