Monday, September 12, 2005

So You Say You Want an Evolution: The Stakes of U.N. Reform

It seems like everyone wants the UN to change, to evolve, to reform. The trick is getting consensus on what such reform should look like. World leaders will have their chance this week to hammer something out at the plenary meeting of heads of state marking the 60thanniversary of the UN. (See also the State Department site on the Summit.) This is shaping up to be possibly the most important anniversary week for the U.N. since its founding. Numerous reform measures and initiatives are coming to a head and, coupled with recent scandals (oil-for-food), challenges (the tsunami), and divisiveness (the Iraq War), this will be a crucial time for the organization.

The main issues on the agenda of the UN are (1) Security Council reform; (2) managerial reform; (3) replacing the Human Rights Commission with a more effective body and (4) spurring foreign aid to assist development. What may be expected on these issues has been the subject of much prognostication in recent months. The newest prediction: don’t expect much. (See also this from Reuters and also what the folks at Democracy Arsenal have to say here, here, and here.) Here’s a quick summary of the state of play:

Security Council Reform. This is dead in the water. As the Voice of America reports:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior adviser on reform, Shirin Tahir-Kheli effectively put the issue to rest in a speech to the General Assembly in July.

"Let me be as clear as possible. The United States does not think any proposal to expand the Security Council, including one based on our own ideas, should be voted on at this stage," said Shirin Tahir-Kheli.

This is a topic that will likely start moving again in the near future: too many rising powers (Germany, Japan, India, Brazil) have too much at stake. But whether one of the various reform measures (rotating “semi-permanent” seats, an EU seat, etc.) actually passes is another matter entirely.

Managerial Reform. On this account, the freshly-minted Volcker Committee Report will give the delegates much to discuss. On the one hand, there is a need for the Secretariat to have greater leeway to hire/fire/enact/change to allow for a more rapidly responsive organization. On the other hand, the Secretariat’s record on oversight is not good (see, Oil-for-Food) and it is unlikely that that report will cause many states to want to give more power to the UN bureaucracy. In any case, though, at some point the states will need to come to grips with the fact that in order for the UN to work efficiently, then the chief executive officer of the UN will need to have some ability to actually act like a chief executive. And the UN’s Secretariat will have to realize that, until the dispose of the power that they do have in a responsible fashion, they are unlikely to be given more. For now reform of methods of oversight and a house-cleaning may be the best we can hope for.

The Human Rights Commission. The Commission in mired with politics and hamstrung by having no real power beyond its attempts to shame bad actors. The US, EU, and other states have sought real reform by replacing the Commission, which only sits periodically and has members chosen by region, with a permanent Human Rights Council that sits year-round and would have members chosen by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. The idea is that such a Council would be able to put more constant attention on problems and, due to the new election procedures, would be less likely to have members from states that are bad actors. So Libyan representiative wouldn’t get to be the chairperson (at least for the foreseeable future). But China, Russia, Cuba, Belarus, Egypt, and others that tend not to win best-of-breed awards for human rights protection may be successful in blocking this reform. There are last-minute attempts to save this proposal going on this week….

Development Assistance. The Europeans are trying to set a benchmark for development aid from rich countries at 0.7 % of GDP. The US, which gives about 0.1 %, is not happy with this proposal. Given that nations that are poorer than us are giving more of their GDP to help other countries, we are not winning big public relations points here. Stay tuned on what gets hammered out.

Unless you hate even the idea of the UN, it is hard to see reform faltering as anything but a sad result. There are too many people with too much at stake in the poorest an/or least free parts of the world for this opportunity to be squandered. Moreover, there is too much at stake for the US for us to allow this opportunity to pass: the UN patrols the warzones, builds the infrastructure, and outs the bad-actors in places where we just do not have the time or resources or political will to act directly. Make no mistake, the US gains much more from the UN than any cost—financial or otherwise—levied upon us. For 60 years, we have leveraged our power by using the UN managerial, peacekeeping, and coordination resources of the UN as force multipliers.

On the one hand US is facing the burdens of long-term overseas conflicts and domestic disasters. On the other hand, there are crises in competence and ethics at the UN. The result is that the stakes of UN reform have never been higher. For either of us.

It would be no surprise if this summit ends, as others have, in political gridlock. I think that the chances that a deal will be brokered and that John Bolton and Kofi Annan will get to hug it out before the closing credits are pretty slim. But, sooner rather than later, something will have to change.


Anonymous George Morris said...

Prof. Borgen notes:

"Development Assistance. The Europeans are trying to set a benchmark for development aid from rich countries at 0.7 % of GDP. The US, which gives about 0.1 %, is not happy with this proposal. Given that nations that are poorer than us are giving more of their GDP to help other countries, we are not winning big public relations points here."

This argument is a total red-herring. While these "poorer" countries may, in theory, give more as a percentage of overall GDP, when non-U.S. governmental charitable aid is totaled up the U.S., per capita, winds up giving substantially more than virtually every country year-in and year-out. That we don't want to sign on to the EU's fuzzy-headed method to send vast set amounts of our GDP down the governmental and UN sluiceway is both understandable and hardly a mark of a flinty, cold-hearted cheapskate.

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