Why U.N. Stays Mired in Its Defects

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Imagine if U.S. troops were accused of sexually exploiting children in impoverished nations. Imagine if a U.S. Cabinet secretary were accused of groping a female subordinate, whose complaint was then swatted aside by the president. Imagine if the head of a U.S. government agency and the president’s own offspring stood accused of complicity in the biggest embezzlement racket in history.

Those would be pretty big stories, no? Above-the-fold, top-of-the-newscast stories. Yet the United Nations has been mired in all these scandals and until just recently hardly anybody outside the right-wing blogosphere has noticed.

Even now, if you’re not an inveterate U.N.-watcher, you probably don’t know that Ruud Lubbers, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, was accused of sexually harassing a subordinate, only to have the charges dismissed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan despite an internal investigation that supported the woman’s complaint. Or that U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of a variety of sexual offenses involving children for more than a decade, most recently in Congo. Or even that Annan’s son, Kojo, and Benon Savan, the head of the U.N. “oil for food” program in Iraq, are said to have benefited financially while Saddam Hussein stole $21 billion.

Where’s the outrage? It’s easy to find among conservatives, but then they never liked the U.N. to begin with. Why didn’t the mainstream media and the Democrats (pardon the redundancy), not to mention various European governments, devote more attention to these scandals? Far from demanding high-level resignations, they are circling the wagons.


The U.N.'s friends are doing their favorite international institution no favors with this knee-jerk defense. Until it cleans up its act, the U.N. can never be as influential as its boosters would like. Even Annan recognizes this. In fact, he seems to specialize in critiques of his own organization.

In 1997, the secretary-general issued a report on “Renewing the United Nations: A Program for Reform.” In 1999, he issued reports on the U.N.'s failures in Rwanda and Bosnia. In 2000, a commission chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi issued a report on how to overhaul U.N. peacekeeping. In 2002, Annan issued another report on “Strengthening of the United Nations: an Agenda for Further Change.”

Last week came the umpteenth report on reform, this one from the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. Its criticisms are as scathing as anything written by the Heritage Foundation. The report noted that the General Assembly “often fails to focus effectively on the most compelling issues of the day,” that the Commission on Human Rights (which includes among its members gross human-rights violators) suffers from a “legitimacy deficit,” that the Security Council has responded with “glacial speed” to “massive human rights violations in Darfur” and elsewhere, and that the U.N. Secretariat is filled with bureaucrats who have “little or no expertise for tackling many of the new or emerging threats” that confront the world.

All true, but note that these problems have persisted despite all the past reform reports. Like its predecessors, the latest blue-ribbon panel offers a plethora of recommendations. Its major proposal -- enlarging the Security Council from 15 to 24 -- would probably make U.N. paralysis worse, not better, because it would mean having to get the agreement of even more states before taking action. Other steps, such as retiring useless bureaucrats, may be good ideas, but they are unlikely to cure an ailing institution.

All of the reformistas’ efforts founder on the rocks of apathy and inertia. The reality is that most of the U.N.'s 191-member states, to say nothing of its 49,000 employees, aren’t terribly interested in making it work better. They usually have other priorities. Even the Bush administration isn’t making much of a stink over the oil-for-food scandal because it needs U.N. support in Iraq and elsewhere.

Many member states don’t want to rock the boat because they have cozy deals with the current U.N. regime. A French bank, for instance, was the prime repository of the oil-for-food billions. Others are afraid that a stronger U.N. would interfere in their affairs. Russia doesn’t want the U.N. meddling in Chechnya, China doesn’t want it in Tibet, India doesn’t want it in Kashmir, and so on.

Flawed as it is, the U.N. does some useful things, ranging from providing cover for the decision to launch the 1991 Gulf War to issuing an influential 2003 report on the failings of the Arab world. The United States should try to make use of it when possible. Leaving the U.N., as some on the right suggest, is unrealistic. But it will never live up to the grandiose expectations of its starry-eyed supporters unless they get mad enough to demand real change. So far there’s no sign of that happening.