United Nations Summit a Failure
Online chat with Pascal Boniface, Director of IRIS (English: Institute for International and Strategic Relations) He is editor of "L'année stratégique 2006" (English: 2006 Strategic Yearbook)(Publisher: Dalloz, September 2005).
Le Monde, Thursday 15 September.
Is the UN useless?
No reforms were adopted during the recent summit. Who is responsible for the failure?
When failure occurs inside a global organization, the responsibility is inescapably collective. In this case, we know that the fault is shared by a number of countries and that several countries had one or many objections to the recommended reforms and moved to block them. There was opposition concerning the enlargement of the Security Council, mainly from the USA and China. As to the reform of the Human Rights Commission, the principal obstructionists were Russia, China and countries from the southern hemisphere. One cannot help but be struck by the gap between the number of heads of state present and the results attained.
What responsibility does the United State bear for the failure to reform the UN?
The world’s most powerful nation necessarily bears more responsibility than other countries. Specifically, it was known in advance that the United States was hostile to the enlargement of the Security Council because they are unwilling to confer more powers and legitimacy on it. Moreover, the fact that the new US Ambassador, John Bolton, whose hostility to the UN is well-known, put forward 750 amendments to Kofi Annan’s proposed reforms just a few days before the summit demonstrated that there was little willingness to make it a success.
Is the UN still able prevent wars, given the bad example set by the United States?
The UN is unable to prevent all wars. We witnessed that in Iraq and in other parts of the world. Indeed, the fact that the world’s Number One power is setting a bad example is a problem. But it must be recalled that during the war in Kosovo in 1999, the countries which went to war did so without the green light from the United Nations. One could say that the UN does not have the political, legal or military means to prevent all wars. Neverthless, the UN is able to stop some wars by starting negotiations or by moving to prevent them.
Is the UN on the way to becoming a tool of the United States? Does it risk going out of existence?
Neither one nor the other. The UN will not disappear because it is indispensable and that in spite of its shortcomings or imperfections, it plays essential role and many countries count on it. It will not become an American tool because as we saw that in 2003, the United States was unable to impose its agenda on the world body. Although the world is not multipolar--because the United States is more powerful than any other nation--but neither is it unipolar--because Washington cannot impose its will on the rest of the international community.
Should we continue to have permanent seats on the Security Council?
Yes, because some countries objectively have greater ability to contribute to collective security than others. Permanent membership should imply a guarantee of effectiveness. What needs to be done is to reform the Security Council and increase the number of permanent members so that the Council is more representative of today’s world and not that of 1945. This was the idea behind Kofi Annan’s reform program, which unfortunately was not implemented.
Wasn’t the UN destined for failure at the outside since countries like Brazil were not permanents members of the Security Council?
No, the UN was never destined for failure. The countries which founded the UN--those which assisted at its birth—went separate ways due to the Cold War. As to Brazil, as much as it is justified to make it a permanent member of the Security Council today, this was not the case in 1945. It did not have the weight it has now.
Isn’t it high time that Germany became a permanent member of the Security Council?
Yes, of course, because we’re not in 1945 any more. German is a democratic country which has learned all its lessons from the past—better than Japan. Today Germany is a “normal” country, whose weight justifies a permanent seat on the Security Council.
Do budget cuts threaten the actions and efficiency of the United Nations?
The United Nations runs on a relatively small budget. On Monday, Le Monde cited the figure of $1.3 billion for its current budget and $4.5 billion for its peacekeeping operations. Despite talk from the Americans about waste within the organization, we see from its limited budget that the accusation of waste is inaccurate. When one compares its budget to what is accomplishes, one realizes that the UN is, at the end of the day, a bargain. Compare that to the $87 billion per year required to keep US troops in Iraq. As to the UN’s peacekeeping operations, they would be more effective if the political decisions behind them were more clear-cut and if a true permanent international force would be created.
Would an increase in the number of permanent members on the Security Council lead to obstructionism, temporary alliances and instability? As in a republic where the legislature is strong but the executive weak?
There is some risk of dilution but it is not significant. First, new permanent members wouldn’t have the right of veto and that would limit obstructionism. With an increase in members, majorities would be formed and those majorities would have more legitimacy that the current ones.
What powers does the investigation team in Lebanon have?
Significant powers, because it is assisted by the Lebanese government and it works in cooperation with that government. The team is not working in a hostile milieu. There is the feeling that the investigation is making progress.
How do you account for the Oil-for-Food scandal? Are UN officials naieve?
They are not naieve but they are not equipped to handle a program of that size. There were serious failings which must be exposed and punished but the legitimacy of the UN shouldn’t be questioned. They should learn from the scandal and institute reforms to prevent a reoccurrence.
The UN Charter originally provided for an army at the disposal of the Security Council but too many nations opposed it. I’ve had numerous occasions to evaluate the work of the UN but I noted that in Yugoslavia it was impotent. Reform won’t help if the UN’s members can’t decide if they want an efficient force. What do you think?
I perfectly agree with you. There is egotism and fear among member states over losing their prerogatives which has prevented the creation of a permanent force, which could have intervened more rapidly and more efficiently and been composed of better-trained troops with superior equipment. As to Yugoslavia, it wasn’t so much the troops as the mandate which was weak. An army is never more efficient than its orders.
You'd think that following the Cold War the United Nations could have played an even greater role in a multipolar world. What happened?
This is the hope and even the conviction of the great majority of world leaders and observers. Not only after the Cold War—but after the first Gulf War in 1991. For once, the UN functioned as its creators had planned. It should be recalled that before the 1991 Gulf War, George Bush Sr. announced that we were about to enter into an age where the UN would have responsibility for world peace. This hope evaporated in large part –but not solely— because of the actions of his son.
This isn’t the first crisis for the United Nations. What are the specifics on the current crisis?
The United Nations has been in crisis since its founding but this testifies to both its weakness and its strength. The current crisis is due mainly to the shock created by the general acknowledgement that the body was in need of a major reform—which everyone agrees on—and by realization that even implementing the most minor of reforms is impossible due to opposition from some nations.
Today Bill Clinton launched his Clinton Global Initiative designed to combat poverty and prevent conflicts. Are private initiatives more efficient than a global organization like the United Nations?
No, such initiatives cannot be more efficient because at the end of the day, it is up to member nations to make decisions-- especially on questions of security. But we’ve seen on several occasions that private initiatives can give impetus to movements which are later adopted by nations. Two examples come immediately to mind: The first is the convention on anti-personnel mines adopted a few years ago thanks to an initiative on the part of NGOs. The second is the principle of introducing a tax on air travel which has been accepted by several nations, including France, thanks to a Social Forum initiative calling for the implementation of Tobin taxes. [Proposed from James Tobin, Ph.D., a Nobel laureate economist at Yale--Nur]. Private, individual or collective initiatives are not enough on their own, but they are necessary.
You seem to be a strong believer in the United Nations. What can we do to remove the doubts that the rest of us have?
I’m not a believer but I am pragmatic person. I’ve observed that the UN is necessary. I don’t deny its failings, many of which are its own fault. To sweep away doubt, the organization has to be made more efficient. It’s the only way. And to make it more efficient, all nations must accept the idea of reform and citizens have to put pressure on their governments so that the reforms are implemented.
What are the most urgent reforms?
Overall reforms are necessary in managerial efficiency, credibility in human rights, economic development and collective security. It is hard to make any advances in one area without progress in the others. That’s the problem. Everything is at a standstill. That said, if there is a single issue that is more urgent than the others, it’s war and peace. It sets the climate for everything else. There can be no economic development in times of war and countries involved in wars are the first to violate human rights.
Do you think the UN is primarily a place for lobbying and a bully pulpit for which the media serves as an echo chamber instead of a real decision-making body?
Decisions are also made due to the influence of public opinion. Communication is an instrument of power. Making use of the bully pulpit is a way of intervening, as we saw during the 1960's anti-colonial movement or the 1980's anti-apartheid movement.