Tuesday, December 21, 2004

United Nations Operations

Kenneth L. Cain, in the Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal, writes about the performance of the UN and Kofi Annan in peacekeeping missions. Cain, who describes himself as a "liberal multilateralist on the left," states:

A debate currently rages about whether Kofi Annan enjoys the moral authority to lead the United Nations because the Oil for Food scandal happened under his command. That debate is 10 years too late and addresses the wrong subject. The salient indictment of Mr. Annan's leadership is lethal cowardice, not corruption; the evidence is genocide, not oil.

He speaks with authority on the subject, based on recent field research and experience in U.N. peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, and Liberia. This is one of the more realistic assessments I've read recently.

I've worked with UN organizations in the field, including UN military peacekeepers, the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and UN headquarters organizations, to include the Special Representative of the Secretary General in Angola.

There are a lot of positive things that must be said. Generally, the people I've encountered in UN organizations are serious professionals. The peacekeeping contingents I've seen have been a mixed bag, but at least at the leadership level they've tried to do their jobs, even though UN policy and senior management sometimes interfere. In particular, I've worked closely with WFP and UNHCR in numerous difficult circumstances, where their presence and their efforts did a lot of good, at least in terms of short-term relief for people in acute need.

But there are things that aren't so good. The UN system is very bureaucratic and overly politicized, which explains some of the peacekeeping failures that Cain quite reasonably attributes to Kofi Annan. At lower levels, the professional foreign staff is often characterized by life-long UN employees who enjoy status and pay that is the envy of other humanitarian workers doing basically the same things. The UN also doesn't always treat its local staff with the respect they deserve, nor are local employees always paid as well as they might be.

The criticisms of UN operations in the field finally come up against the same logical impasse as discussions of the UN in a larger sense. If not the UN, then what? The UN in diplomatic terms, like its organizations in the field, would leave a serious void if it suddenly didn't exist. Regional alliances and organizations couldn't completely fill that void, in both operational terms and in coordinating global international efforts.

In my view, if we didn't have the UN, we would have to invent something that would look very much like it. The answer is to make it work better, more efficiently, and more honestly. That won't be easy, but it's better than the alternative.


Blogger RomanWanderer said...

That's an interesting review. He makes lots of valid points. He never touched the prejudiced part of the UN though.

1:41 PM, December 21, 2004  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

I know, and particularly regarding Israel. Something like half of all the resolutions ever passed by the General Assembly have involved criticism or condemnation of Israel. I don't know what would make that change, given the make-up of the membership. It's just a good thing that the General Assembly has no power and little influence.

2:06 PM, December 21, 2004  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...


Once again, you're going to the heart of the matter. Please continue. You have first-hand knowledge of what the UN does that works and why. There is far too much rhetoric founded on too little background knowledge flying around.

I've been wondering about the same issue, and my guess has been the UN still has a purpose, because I can't see how many UN missions could be replaced. After reading this article I began to doubt again, although I already knew of both situations. What good are peacekeeping troops that don't keep the peace? What good is an organization that fails so badly to uphold what should be its underlying principles?

Perhaps some more openness would help - surely some of the problem rests squarely in the lap of an ossified bureaucracy. But I haven't read any suggestions that seem like they would really improve the situation, and that's what's needed. Simply expanding the Security Council seems unlikely to accomplish much.

10:09 PM, December 21, 2004  
Blogger howard said...

I have to admit that the workings of the UN are incredibly vague to me, and both the column you referenced and your thoughts are something of an education to me.

I have idly wondered how an organization like the UN can be expected to effectively intervene in certain controversial situations, especially considering the diversity of perspectives represented within the assembly. Even in the Security Council there seems to be quite a bit of disagreement as to which missions are even justified. It seems much like a political convention where worthwhile causes get left out to appease one faction or another. Having no real idea what went into the Rwandan failures (referring to the executive process), I wonder if that type of situation gets affected similarly because certain factions in the UN can't agree on even basic principle.

Much of what I see in the UN is an organization rife with cultural egos grinding meaningful progress to a halt. I am not at all an authority, and I offer this perspective not to say the UN is entirely hopeless, but to ask what you, as someone who is more intimately familiar with the workings of the UN, think could be done to salvage the whole thing.

I suppose, to put it simply, I'd like to hear more about these things. Too many of us, myself included, don't pay enough attention to these issues.

3:36 AM, December 22, 2004  
Blogger carla said...

Odd that conservatives are so critical of the UN..especially on the Oil For Food Program.

The US is a permanent member of the UN Security Council...a group which had complete oversight on Oil for Food. If there was such a concern about corruption...why did no representative from the US speak up?

These same conservatives are strangely quiet about the corruption involving Halliburton...the money they can't account for...the equipment they cant' account for..etc. The same with the Coalition Provisional Authority...who can't seem to account for millions of dollars as well.

7:33 PM, December 22, 2004  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Carla, not only is the UN a big and complex organization, it's a complex concept. There is plenty of room for conservatives and liberals alike to find fault with it or praise it. On the Oil for Food program and peacekeeping, the UN has not done well. In some other areas, to include field operations of UN organizations, it's better. My view is the UN, warts and all, is better than nothing.

Saying that the UN Security Council should have spoken up about Oil for Food corruption earlier is like saying the Clinton and Bush administrations should have stopped the 9/11 conspirators during that long planning and preparation phase they went through. Well, sure, assuming everyone knew everything that was happening before they knew it was happening. Easy to say.

As far as the Halliburton non-sequitur is concerned, my view is that if contractors are cheating the government and breaking the law, they ought to be busted. Nothing like that has been proven against Halliburton. But, this is a topic for another day.

4:28 AM, December 23, 2004  

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