Among the “excellencies” attending the 59th session of the UN General Assembly that opened in late September were 64 world presidents, 25 prime ministers, and no fewer than 86 foreign ministers. Such an extraordinary turnout, exulted Secretary General Kofi Annan in his welcoming remarks, attested to the fact “that in these difficult times, the United Nations is . . . the common and indispensable home of the human family.”

The speeches that followed, however, were depressingly typical of the miasma of rhetoric for which this “home of the human family” is famous. The German foreign minister: “We will have no peace without development, nor indeed development without peace.” His French counterpart: “Without justice, there will be no peace. Without peace, there will be no lasting development.” The Brazilian president: “[T]he path to lasting peace must encompass a new political and economic international order.” The Spanish president, adding a wrinkle: “Peace and security will only spread over the world with the strength . . . of education and culture.” “Culture,” he elaborated, “is always peace.”

Above the blather, two contrasting voices stood out. One of them was the Secretary General's. As the theme of his formal statement, Annan chose to focus on the rule of law, especially international law as represented in and laid down by the UN. His sharpest points were aimed, none too obliquely, at the United States. “Those who seek to restore legitimacy must themselves embody it,” he scolded. “And those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it.” That the United States was derelict on this score, Annan had made clear a week earlier when he reiterated a prior accusation that the 2003 invasion of Iraq by America and its allies had been “illegal.”

The second voice was President Bush's. Speaking soon after Annan, he focused on the advancement of democracy and human rights, but his remarks also included a rejoinder to critics like Annan: “The Security Council promised serious consequences for [Saddam Hussein's] defiance. And the commitments we make must have meaning. When we say serious consequences, for the sake of peace there must be serious consequences.”

The subject of the thrust and parry was Iraq. But Iraq is only a single act in a larger drama whose theme is the tangled relationship of the United States with its troubling offspring, the United Nations, at a time when the distribution of global power is so extraordinarily skewed toward a single country. Annan's deputy Shashi Tharoor has suggested that “the exercise of American power may well be the central issue in world politics today.” Conversely, as our presidential campaign has underscored, the degree to which Washington chooses to look to the UN to fulfill its foreign policy objectives is a central issue of American politics.


In 1990, the world body broke free from 45 years of cold-war paralysis to respond to Iraq's absorption of Kuwait. President George H.W. Bush had opted to take the matter to the Security Council even before laying it before the U.S. Congress for a remarkable reason: once he concluded that the liberation of Kuwait would require the use of force, he knew it would be easier to win the assent of the Soviet Union, China, France, and Britain—the other permanent members of the Security Council—than of Democrats in Congress. Only with this endorsement in hand was he able to gain a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate.

It was no doubt as a result of this experience that the first Bush administration left office proclaiming high hopes for the UN, which it said had “been given a new lease on life, emerging as a central instrument for the . . . preservation of peace.” Succeeding Bush, Bill Clinton took a still more hopeful view. Determined as he was to “focus like a laser” on the domestic economy, Clinton declared that, to handle international problems, he would rely more on the world body. His first UN ambassador, Madeleine Albright, envisioned “assertive multilateralism” as a cornerstone of both U.S. policy and world peace. Kofi Annan's predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, saw in this post-cold-war American attitude an “extraordinary opportunity to expand, adapt, and reinvigorate the work of the United Nations.”

But within two years, Clinton's and Boutros-Ghali's hopes were dashed. In Somalia, Clinton had wanted to remove the American troops that were sent there by his predecessor to help stem a famine caused mostly by the depredations of rival warlords. Yielding to Boutros-Ghali's pleas, he left behind a substantial contingent as the backbone of a UN force undertaking to build a nation in that godforsaken land. This well-intentioned gesture turned to debacle in October 1993 when eighteen U.S. Army Rangers, and as many as 1,000 Somalis, died in a ferocious battle in Mogadishu later immortalized in the movie Black Hawk Down.

The American losses, at the hands of Somalis whom we were there only to help, put a lasting chill on this kind of mission and, by extension, others under a UN banner.

Somalia, however, turned out to be the least in a string of disasters for the U.S., the UN, and relations between the two. Hot on the heels of Mogadishu there unfolded the world's first indisputable case of genocide since the Holocaust. In the spring of 1994, even without the benefit of the Nazi technology of murder, Hutus in Rwanda slaughtered their Tutsi countrymen (along with moderate Hutus) at a pace that rivaled Hitler's killing of Jews.

Not only did the UN stand aside as these unspeakable events occurred, but a small UN force that was already on the scene to enforce an earlier peacekeeping agreement was pulled back lest anyone in a blue helmet perish alongside the intended victims. The U.S. government, determined to avoid anything that smacked of a replay of Mogadishu, did more than its share to block any action by the Security Council that could put an American soldier in harm's way. Years later, Bill Clinton offered the most grudging of apologies. “The international community,” he said, “must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy.” He did not bring himself to acknowledge that, in this instance, “the international community” was first and foremost himself.


If the U.S. bore blame for the Rwanda catastrophe, the UN covered itself in shame. Although it is often said that the UN is nothing more than the sum of its member states, this is but a partial truth. Collective or derivative bodies take on lives of their own. The Secretary General of the United Nations is a major world figure, commanding a budget of $3 billion and a staff of some 15,000. Key members of this formidable apparatus, it was eventually revealed, had been forewarned of the Rwanda genocide months before it began.

General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN force stationed there, had relayed reports that Hutu extremists were stockpiling weapons and training for a campaign of “extermination.” Dallaire proposed to seize the weapons in the hope of disrupting the plan. His message was received by the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations with alarm—not at the prospect of genocide, but at the prospect that Dallaire might do something risky to prevent it. Clear orders were dispatched vetoing Dallaire's proposed intervention. “The overriding consideration,” they read, “is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated consequences.”

Even after the killing began, Dallaire “could have easily stopped” it, he claimed, with the forces already at his disposal plus several hundred others who were readily accessible. But his orders remained otherwise. As recounted in a new book by Dore Gold, Israel's former ambassador to the world body, “the UN told Dallaire simply to focus on evacuating foreigners from Rwanda. Dallaire told officers that he had received orders from UN headquarters in New York that no Rwandans were to be rescued: ‘Orders from New York: no locals.’ ”1

Reprehensible as was the UN's part in the Rwanda calamity, it was still worse in the grim events that unfolded in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 through 1995. Both the member states and the secretariat shared in the culpability. The Security Council responded to the first inkling of trouble by imposing an arms embargo. Although the embargo applied to both sides, its consequences were disparate. The Serbian aggressors who were out to “cleanse” Bosnia of its Muslim plurality were hardly affected; they had at their disposal the formidable arsenal of the Yugoslav army. Their victims, however, were short of weapons, and the embargo contributed to their helplessness. Adding insult to injury, Secretary General Boutros-Ghali dismissed their plight as a “rich man's war.”

As the war ground on, the top UN officials on the scene—Yasushi Akashi, the Secretary General's civilian representative, and Generals Michael Rose and Bernard Janvier, successive commanders of the UN peacekeepers—exhibited greater sympathy for the Serb aggressors than for their Muslim quarry. The best construction one can put on this is that they wanted an end to the conflict at any price, and the shortest path they could see to such an outcome was for the weaker party to surrender. At a press conference in April 1994, Akashi and Rose denounced America's moral support for the Muslims because it “emboldens [them] to fight on.” Then Rose added, in reference to Muslims living in the towns of Gorazde, Srebrenica, and Zepa, which had been formally declared “safe areas” by the Security Council: “their only option is to move out or submit to living under Serb rule.”

Rose's chilling words were an almost open invitation to what transpired a year later, when Serbian forces overran Srebrenica and some 5,000 to 10,000 Muslim men were rounded up and exterminated, the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II. The UN forces assigned to guard the Muslims of Srebrenica walked away, abandoning them to the slaughter. While the number of dead was far smaller than in Rwanda, the UN's guilt was in one respect even greater. As Gold points out, many of the Muslim victims had fled to Srebrenica, having been encouraged to take refuge in the six “safe areas” that the UN proclaimed to be under its protection. The organization had, in effect, gathered them for the kill.


The stories of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia have been told before. In Tower of Babble, an exceptionally valuable and timely book, Gold brings them together into a single narrative. His account of Srebrenica is particularly well done, including details of casual fraternization between UN peacekeepers and the Serbian mass murderers whom they failed to deter. But what is especially interesting is that Gold relates these failed peacekeeping missions to an underlying and more comprehensive abdication that he traces back to the UN's earliest years.

By design, the organization, which grew out of the anti-Axis coalition of World War II, was supposed to take sides with victims against aggressors. But from the start, it has inveterately refused to do so.

The first tests came in 1948. One was the openly announced attack by the nations of the Arab League on the infant state of Israel, at whose birth the UN itself had played midwife. Although the aggression and its annihilating intent were undisguised, the UN did not condemn it. Rather, it called on “all persons and organizations in Palestine” to “cease all activities of military or para-military nature.” A similarly painstaking evenhandedness informed the Security Council's response to the second test of 1948: India's complaint to the UN about a Muslim offensive in Kashmir spearheaded, it said, by infiltrated Pakistani troops.

These precedents of strict neutrality between attackers and defenders made nonsense of the principles on which the organization was founded. But it has been the norm of UN behavior ever since, while the 1991 resistance to the occupation of Kuwait—driven by the steely determination of President Bush and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—has been the rare exception.

As Gold shows, moreover, the failures to enforce peace are part and parcel of a wider failure. Even if it proved unable to muster the military strength to become the bulwark of world order that its founders had envisioned, the UN could have stood as an inspiration, a beacon of right and wrong in the behavior of states. It has, alas, been nothing of the sort.

Exhibit A under this heading, as I and others have rehearsed in detail, is the UN's record in the field of human rights.2 The central dynamic is this: those governments that repress and abuse their subjects most viciously are often the most energetic in seeking election to the UN Commission on Human Rights, for the simple reason that membership will make it easier to shield themselves from criticism. Year after year, fully half of the governments that Freedom House cites as “the worst of the worst” human-rights violators secure seats on the body overseeing human-rights abuses. They include China, Cuba, Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, which recently held the chair.

At its annual meeting, the commission adopts resolutions of two types. Some are abstract, affirming every imaginable right for every conceivable demographic group. These pour forth in nearly endless profusion; they cost little and are worth little more. The other resolutions criticize specific countries or governments. Almost never does such criticism extend to any of those countries, no matter how brutal, that have won election to the commission.

This holds true for both Left and Right: neither China nor Saudi Arabia has ever suffered a word of censure. Usually, a dozen or so violators are subjected to admonishments that are in most cases mild. For example, on one of the rare occasions that the dictatorship of Fidel Castro has been mentioned, the commission “invited” the government of Cuba, whose “efforts to give effect to the social rights of the population despite an adverse international environment are to be recognized, to make efforts to achieve similar progress in respect of human, civil, and political rights.”


Exhibit B in the indictment of the UN's moral turpitude is the differential treatment accorded to Israel. The UN, according to its founding Charter, is “based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members.” But, to paraphrase Orwell, some states are less equal than others. Until recently, Israel was excluded from membership in any regional caucus, which has meant (under UN rules) that it has also been uniquely excluded from eligibility for a seat on the Security Council or other committees. Even though the United States has now won admission for Israel to the catch-all Western group to which we, too, belong (the so-called Western Europe and Others Group), its membership is attenuated, valid for UN bodies based in New York but not in Geneva, and its eligibility for the Security Council has been deferred for several years.

At meetings of the Commission on Human Rights, where the world's dictators can expect at most a single limp rebuke, Israel is treated in a class by itself, occupying a special item on the agenda. It is the subject of five to eight separate resolutions each year, which castigate it in harsh terms applied to no one else.

UN hypocrisy on human rights reached a kind of apotheosis at the World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. This brainchild of Mary Robinson, then the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, devolved into a hate fest against Israel and Jews so coarse that not only the Americans but also the West Europeans, who have a high tolerance for such antics, walked out in protest. The groundwork for the travesty was set months earlier, Gold informs us, at a preparatory meeting that Iran had been permitted to host and from which Jewish, Bahai, and Kurdish non-governmental organizations were blocked, with High Commissioner Robinson's acquiescence.

As with the UN's record on human rights, its egregious discrimination against Israel has likewise been richly documented.3 But Gold adds a shocking detail concerning UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, and Terje Roed-Larsen, the Secretary General's personal representative to the Middle East. In 2000, after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, three Israeli soldiers were kidnapped from Shebaa Farms, a small piece of land in the Golan Heights that Israel won from Syria in 1967 but that the terrorist organization Hizballah claims is part of Lebanon. Israeli officials got word that UNIFIL had videotaped the kidnapping. This was denied both by UNIFIL commanders and by Roed-Larsen. Both turned out to be lying. The UN belatedly admitted it had such a tape, which it evidently had not wanted to disclose lest it aid Israel in tracking down the kidnappers. The three soldiers are now believed to have been murdered.

As if this were not bad enough, the tapes were of special significance because, as Gold relates, “there was reason to believe that Hizballah [itself] had posed as UN peacekeepers to kidnap the soldiers”:

Near the area of abduction, UNIFIL found two abandoned vehicles with suspicious contents. The first, a white Nissan Pathfinder that could easily look like a UN vehicle, contained imitation UNIFIL license plates, a UN flag, UNIFIL uniforms from the Irish battalion, and UN stickers. The other was a blue Range Rover, the rear of which was smeared with blood.

Finally, the overweening animus toward Israel has gone hand in hand with still another egregious moral failing—namely, the UN's complicity in legitimizing terrorism, not only against Israel but against the democratic West, especially the United States. Gold cites a 1970 resolution of the General Assembly in which the UN affirmed “its recognition of the legitimacy of the struggle of the colonial peoples and peoples under alien domination to exercise their right to self-determination and independence by all the necessary means at their disposal.” He comments cogently:

This was a historic shift . . . and it occurred at a time when international terrorism was on the rise, with the world facing a new wave of airplane hijackings. The UN's new position could only be understood by those who regarded themselves as “national-liberation movements” as a license to commit murder in the name of the cause of self-determination.

On subsequent occasions, the General Assembly reaffirmed this doctrine, and in recent years it has been endorsed annually by the Commission on Human Rights. Palestinian—and now, it would seem, Iraqi—suicide bombing is thus validated as nothing less than an exercise of human rights. So routine has this macabre affirmation become that an overwhelming majority of the European Union members that sit on the commission vote for it each year. In a like vein, when Kofi Annan managed to propose a new convention against terrorism in the wake of 9/11, his efforts were beaten back by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which insisted it would condemn “terrorism” only if it were defined by the objectives of the perpetrator rather than by the nature of the act.


It was in the light of similarly gross derelictions of reason and decency during the years of the cold war that the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, speaking soon after stepping down as U.S. ambassador to the UN nearly three decades years ago, described the body as a “squalid circus,” and wondered aloud how long we could bear to remain a part of it. Now Gold brings us face to face with the reality that, even with the passing of the Soviet Union, the UN's moral failings have not much diminished.

Are there nevertheless grounds for hope? In December, the UN's own High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change will bring forth its recommendations. In appointing the panel last year, Annan charged it with proposing reforms, even “radical reforms.” But its composition, which includes Brent Scowcroft, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Arab League chief Amr Moussa, and other, similar venerables, makes it an unlikely vehicle for any such mission.

This is, indeed, the fifth major reform initiative since Annan became Secretary General in 1996. It follows by less than a year the appointment of a Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations. This in turn followed the Secretary General's own program of reform in 2002 and the Millennium Summit of September 2000, whose report was similarly concerned largely with reform. All of these were preceded by a 1997 program for reform proposed by Annan and adopted by the General Assembly in December of that year. Setting aside questions about Annan's personal devotion to the task, the reform process under his tenure has proved predictably ineffectual.

Nor did the process begin with Annan. His predecessor, Boutros-Ghali, sponsored at least two major reform panels. Indeed, as Edward Luck has pointed out, even “before the UN could hold its first meeting, a number of states were already calling for its reform.” But then Luck, a leading academic authority on the UN and a former president of the United Nations Association, adds:

Does the déjà-vu nature of UN reform suggest that nothing changes or that reform is bound to fail? Not at all; indeed it could be argued that change is one of the few constants in the UN system. It incessantly has to adapt to an evolving mosaic of demands, priorities, and initiatives. . . . And few institutions are so fond of producing or coopting fresh conceptual and doctrinal approaches to addressing the world's problems.

As against this cheery assessment, one must ask where the tangible gain from all the UN's “fresh conceptual and doctrinal approaches” is to be found. In what ways has the organization improved? Annan himself, however comfortably he may wear the mantle of reform, can legitimately be seen as a symbol of much that is wrong with the institution. He is, after all, the quintessential product of the UN bureaucracy, the first Secretary General to have risen to his post through the ranks rather than winning it for his political standing in his own country.

The UN system is secretive; mechanisms of accountability are few. The officers are beholden to no public constituency, and, thanks to diplomatic immunity, subject to few laws. Hence, advancement need not be predicated on success. Annan acceded to his current eminence from the position of head of the UN's office of peacekeeping during the calamitous 1990's. As Philip Gourevitch has summarized the record:

[M]any of the newer missions were in countries where there was no real peace to keep: Cambodia, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, and . . . Rwanda. With the exception of the mission to Cambodia, which was able to claim a deeply compromised success before it withdrew, all of these operations would meet with catastrophe on Annan's watch, at the end of which he was elevated to Secretary General.

As the avatar of the UN system, Annan embodies its attitudes, including the tilt against Israel. Roed-Larsen, the man who lied about the UNIFIL videotape of the Shebaa Farms abduction, was Annan's personal representative in the area. Roed-Larsen is also the man who declared after the “Jenin massacre” in 2002 that “Israel has lost all moral ground in this conflict”; a later UN investigation acknowledged that there had been no massacre. Annan himself has denounced Israel's “illegal occupation” of Arab territories, although under no reasonable interpretation of the governing Security Council resolutions is Israel obligated to evacuate the territories in the absence of peace agreements with its neighbors, which those neighbors have refused.

As for the legality of America's war in Iraq, this is a subject about which reasonable people may differ; but Annan's own contribution to the events that led to the war ought to disqualify him for judgment. When, in 1998, Saddam Hussein first moved to eviscerate the UN programs inspecting his efforts on weapons of mass destruction, it was Annan who interceded by means of a personal mission to Baghdad to rescue the Iraqi dictator from military strikes that the Clinton administration was preparing. “I can do business with him,” Annan said of Saddam then. At almost the same time, Annan secured a vast expansion of the UN's oil-for-food program, from which it now appears that Saddam skimmed some $10 billion and the UN itself reaped a hefty commission. Had Saddam's intransigence not been encouraged in these ways by Annan, there is at least a chance that war with Iraq might have been avoided.

Annan is also a master of the method of moral equivalence that Gold places at the heart of the UN's failure. His approach was on display in his speech opening the current General Assembly. Warning that “the rule of law is at risk around the world,” Annan made reference first to Iraq, where, on the one hand, “we see civilians massacred in cold blood” and, on the other, “we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused”—as if the two depredations were of equal seriousness and as if the American legal system was not already prosecuting those guilty of the Abu Ghraib abuses. He also equated “civilians, including children, deliberately targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers” with “needless civilian casualties caused by Israel's excessive use of force,” and he denounced “hate propaganda directed at Jews [and] Muslims” as if the current of anti-Semitic filth that fills the pages of the Arab press, and that sometimes seeps into UN functions, had any comparable anti-Islamic analogue.


If Annan himself is an improbable figure to cure what ails the UN, his High-Level Panel is unlikely even to address the subject. The panel will almost certainly focus on a single issue: the composition of the Security Council, which many countries want expanded so that they will have more opportunity to sit on it. Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil are pushing to become permanent members, holding a power of veto like the current “permanent five.” Whatever the merit in these demands, they all center on the wish of countries to gratify their own prestige. None of the formulas currently being discussed even pretends to address the utter failure of the Security Council to play its intended role of defending the peace. To the contrary, all of them, if enacted, are certain to make the problem more acute, since any expansion (especially with veto power added in) will make an already unwieldy body thoroughly paralytic.

Independent observers seeking to cure the UN have focused less on structure than on politics, urging the formation of a caucus of democracies within the UN; the idea boasts some supporters in the American government, including in Congress. Such a caucus might serve to overcome the rank hypocrisy with which the body addresses human rights, and it might conceivably weaken the stranglehold that the retrograde “Non-Aligned Movement” holds on the General Assembly and other bodies. For his part, Gold calls this proposal “only a partial solution.” He urges a more radical step, namely, the creation of a Community of Democracies as a substitute for the UN rather than as a caucus within it.

Perhaps a community of this kind would escape the pitfalls that have dogged the UN, but any move along these lines is a long way off. In any case, although other world democracies have been willing to attend large conferences of democracies, they have shown precious little interest in joining any UN caucus that would take the place of sub-groups in which they already participate to their own parochial advantage.

In the here and now, the world is thus left to face the choice embodied in the two contrasting figures who stood out at the opening of this year's General Assembly. One offers the image of a world in which the United Nations acts as the supreme political arbiter, the other an image of a world shaped by American leadership.

In terms of the prospects for peace, the alternative is stark. For nearly 60 years, the UN has proved an abject failure at safeguarding “international peace and security” (in the words of the Charter). It has in fact scaled back its ambitions to mere “peacekeeping,” a specialized term that refers narrowly to policing internal conflicts. And even this has been diminished to policing such conflicts only after they have already been resolved. As Annan himself has put it: “Peacekeepers must never again be deployed into an environment in which there is no cease-fire or peace agreement.”

Still, the world has known a large degree of peace since 1945, which it owes not to the UN but in large measure to American action. Through NATO, Europe has been at peace. Thanks to America's alliances with Japan, Australia, South Korea, and Taiwan, there has also been a measure of peace in Asia. As for the Middle East, an obvious exception, it would have been even more turbulent had America not deterred aggressors from preying on Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, or the weak but rich sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. In Latin America, which has been mostly calm for reasons having little to do with the U.S., America has suppressed and constrained radical elements that have sought to roil the waters.

Only twice in these six decades has the UN acted to turn back a breach of the peace: Korea in 1950 and Kuwait in 1990-91. On both occasions, the Security Council acted not through the peace-enforcing machinery spelled out in the Charter but by giving the United States a writ of authority to do the job.

The implications of this are clear. A world left to the UN as supreme arbiter would not be the world of law of Kofi Annan's incantation. It would be the opposite: a world of lawlessness. Nor would a United States that had been induced to yield to the superior majesty of the UN be replaced by an equivalent force for good, and certainly not by the UN itself. Instead, the peace we have known since 1945 would crumble.

True, no UN rule or regime could stay America from defending its own territory and citizenry. But numerous weaker nations whose security America has linked to its own would pay dearly for the wistful dream of a parliament of man, a dream that the sordid reality of the UN has turned into a mockery. And for this, in the end, America would surely suffer as well.


1 Tower of Babble: How the United Nations Has Fueled Global Chaos. Crown, 320 pp., $25.95.

2 See, for example, my “The UN on the Loose,” COMMENTARY, July 2002.

3 A recent comprehensive treatment is Anne Bayefsky's “The UN and the Jews” in COMMENTARY, February 2004.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link