United Nations 'reform,' is an oxymoron

The United Nations spent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of our taxpayer dollars last week on a conference in New York - one of the most expensive cities in the world - to discuss poverty and UN "reform," which sounds like an oxymoron to me. Because despite the flowery rhetoric (a UN specialty) that emanated from this so-called "summit," real, meaningful reform is highly unlikely.

In my opinion, the United Nations is an inefficient, even corrupt, international bureaucracy that freely spends millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars on meaningless conferences on a variety of esoteric topics. The usual result of such meetings is the issuance of a written declaration of principles that isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Too bad about that but it's the reality of the UN, an organization in which the majority of its delegates represent repressive, non-democratic kleptocracies that really aren't interested in reforming a system that helps to keep them in power.

Sorry about this harsh assessment but I want to be clear about how I really feel about an organization I observed closely for many years as an American diplomat. The truth is that my UN counterparts worked much shorter hours and made a lot more money than I did; in fact, U.S. taxpayers contribute 25 percent of their inflated salaries so that they can live the good life in New York and the great capitals of Europe. Nice work if you can get it.

Many UN bureaucrats and officials are either former military officers or failed politicians. Once they outlive their usefulness in their home countries, they're shipped off to the UN, where scarcely anyone pays any attention to what they do or say. This leads to ludicrous situations such as electing Fidel Castro's Cuba or Saddam Hussein's Iraq to seats on the UN Human Rights Commission. That tells us what the organization really thinks about human rights.

Now, do you remember the political furor that greeted President Bush's interim appointment of controversial career diplomat John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the UN a few weeks ago?

Bolton's critics argued he was too confrontational and/or too outspoken for the UN job. Well, think again because Bolton is off to a promising start by insisting on tough language on terrorism, human rights and democracy and UN administrative reform.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, President Bush echoed Bolton by urging delegates to take stronger action against international terrorism, to promote human rights and democracy, to halt the spread of the world's deadliest weapons, and to overhaul the UN's tired old bureaucracy to bring it into the 21st century.

What delegates finally approved on Friday, however, was a watered-down document that bypassed specific steps toward reform in favor of abstract verbiage. So what else is new?

Originally, the Sept. 14-16 conference was scheduled as a follow-up to the 2000 Millennium Summit, which produced commitments by UN members to meet 15-year deadlines aimed at reducing poverty, preventable diseases and other scourges afflicting the Third World - all laudable goals. But more realistically, the Bush administration is campaigning to streamline the UN bureaucracy, establish a democracy fund, strengthen the UN human rights office and halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

I think we have our priorities straight because the UN can't really combat poverty until it reforms itself to do so in a cost-effective way.

The U.S. has insisted that UN members adhere to the 2002 Monterrey (Mexico) Consensus that called for free-market reforms and required Third World governments to fight corruption and improve accountability in order to receive aid and debt relief from developed nations. "There seems to be general agreement that we must now undertake the more difficult process of open and transparent negotiations to reach agreement on those issues," Bolton wrote in a confidential letter to fellow UN envoys. "Time is short (and) I suggest we begin the negotiations immediately." But that hasn't happened.

The New York "summit" followed disclosure of massive corruption in the UN's $64 billion Oil for Food Program. In a scathing report, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker concluded that the UN simply isn't capable of managing multi-billion-dollar programs and never will be unless it adopts meaningful administrative reforms. Volcker's report criticized UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and several of his top aides, including the former director of the Oil for Food Program, who apparently conspired with former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to bilk the program of at least $10 billion. It also revealed that Annan's son, Kojo, profited handsomely from the program when he worked for a Swiss firm that won millions of dollars worth of Oil for Food contracts.

Volcker's report didn't quiet congressional critics of Annan and the UN. Although he stopped short of calling for Annan's resignation, Rep. Henry Hyde (z.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, offered a sobering assessment of the world body's future prospects: "If the UN Secretariat and its member states ignore the profound lessons detailed in the (Volcker) report, the institution itself will be imperiled by the morass of corruption that increasingly undermines its already tattered legitimacy."

I couldn't agree more, but I'm not overly optimistic because at the UN, it's always business as usual.

- Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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