September 2005 began with great expectations from U.N. friends and foes alike. As the month draws to a close, however, it is likely to leave both dissatisfied.

Champions of an empowered world body were looking to the World Summit in New York, the largest assemblage of world leaders in history, as a moment of opportunity to increase the U.N.’s prestige and extend its writ. Yet perhaps the sole distinction of the much-hyped gathering, which barely averted complete failure, was that it managed to produce 16,739 words while saying little of actual import.

Skeptics, meanwhile, were looking elsewhere: to the awaited release of the 800-page definitive report into the U.N.’s Iraqi oil for food program. But they, too, tasted disappointment, when the Independent Inquiry Committee headed by Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, found no evidence of intervention by Secretary-General Kofi Annan to benefit a company associated with his son, Kojo Annan.

The clashing stories — “the U.N. is corrupt” vs. “the U.N. is at the forefront of international progress” — have dominated discussion of the institution for at least the past year, and came to a head with the oil for food reports release on September 7th, exactly one week before the Summit, threatening to burst its bubble.

Indeed, many have speculated that a principal motivation behind the Secretary-General’s initiation of a grand reform process was the hope that this would reframe the debate, moving it away from the gathering storm of the corruption scandal. This effort was made express when, on the day Volcker released his report, Annan’s under-secretary general for communications, Shashi Tharoor, issued U.N. officials alist of talking points on how to change the subject from U.N. corruption to the brighter topic of the upcoming Summit.

Although Annan himself was not found guilty of corruption, the report is a thoroughly damning document which, in the words of The Economist, “paints a grim picture of corruption both inside and outside the UN system, with evidence of bribes, kickbacks, smuggling and other illicit deals going on throughout most of the seven years of the vast $100 billion program.”

In general, the authors of the Volcker report were overly cautious and lenient in their conclusions, though not in the main text. Here, the details are alive with obfuscation, obstruction of justice and blatant bribery of key U.N. officials.

We learn, for example, how in 1997 Maurice Strong, then Secretary-General Annan’s newly-appointed Executive Coordinator for U.N. Reform, received a check worth one million dollars from his friend, Tongsun Park. Park had been given the money in Iraq, in bundles of cash, by Saddam Husseins former deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.

At first, Strong told investigators he could not recall ever receiving the check. Yeah, sure. Most of us can recall the time we found five dollars in a pants pocket, let alone the time your friend met you for lunch one day after returning via Jordan from a trip to Saddam’s deputy, the details of which he shared with you both before and after, and then handed over a million dollar check drawn on a Jordanian bank. (See a copy of the check here, at page 110.)

But Strong somehow just couldn’t recall.  Not, that is, until Volcker’s investigators showed him a copy of the check, with his signature on the endorsement. Suddenly the Canadian mandarin’s memory was refreshed. In a word, the report provides a devastating indictment of numerous senior officials within the U.N.

It also includes strong words on the failures of the Secretary-General and his deputy, Louise Frechette. According to the investigators, Annan and Frechette showed “a reluctance to recognize their own responsibility for the Program’s shortcomings, their failure to ensure that critical evidence was brought to the attention of the Security Council, and their minimal efforts to address sanctions violations with Iraqi officials.”

Altogether, says the report, “there was a lack of oversight concerning [the] administration of the $100 billion Oil-for-Food Program, and, above all a failure shared by them both to provide oversight of the Program’s Executive Director, Benon Sevan.” The report concludes that “the cumulative management performance of the Secretary-General and the Deputy Secretary-General fell short of the standards that the United Nations Organization should strive to maintain.” There is no doubt but that the information in the report threatens to seriously harm the morale of U.N. employees worldwide.

Fortunately for the U.N., though, the World Summit did manage to steal most of the thunder, and the oil for food corruption story quickly subsided, making way for headlines on the last-minute Summit negotiations and their results.

The Summit’s final Outcome Document covered dozens of subjects, including development aid to the Third World, terrorism and human rights.           

On development aid, the U.S. resisted signing onto compulsory annual contributions of 0.7% of GNP, but allowed a reference to the commitments of other states toward this goal.

On terrorism, the U.N. did manage to condemn terrorism “in all its forms”, except it refused to say what terrorism is. Given that the term is hotly contested, the Summit document effectively succeeded in issuing a strong condemnation of all forms of X, with the variable left undefined.

As it happens, nearly all of the earlier drafts did include a simple but good definition of terrorism. In the end, though, agreement was stalled, as it has been on every previous U.N. attempt to define terrorism, because the Arab and Islamic states insisted on an exemption for the killing of Israeli civilians.  In U.N. code, this was phrased as “the legitimate right of peoples under foreign occupation to struggle for their independence and in defense of their rights to self-determination.” In practice, they are quite clear that they mean that the killing of women and children in pizza shops, cafs and clubs in Israel is always justified, and never considered terrorism.

A particularly notable part of the document was its recognition, for the first time, that “Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Where states fail in this responsibility, the international community, through the United Nations, will have the responsibility to use diplomatic and peaceful means to protect the populations. Failing that, the use of force is contemplated, under the guidelines of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.

On human rights, the Summit failed to adopt most of the bold proposals set forth by Kofi Annan, nor those proposed by others, which, most significantly, would have instituted mechanisms for excluding some of the worst human rights abusers from membership on a new Human Rights Council. In the end, all that was agreed was to create a new Council, the details to be worked out later.

With Security Council reform long stalled, it seems that the coming negotiations over the composition, mandate and functioning of the new Human Rights Council will gradually assume center stage. With the momentum from Annan’s proposal now lost, the democratic forces in the U.N. need to be vigilant. Otherwise, it is far from clear that we will be left with anything new, other than a one-word aesthetic change, from “Human Rights Commission” to “Human Rights Council.”

UN Watch