The More the U.N. Changes

After three seemingly endless days of talk stoppages, diplomatic sniping, backroom negotiations and still-born proposals sprinkled lightly with real management reform debate, a key United Nations subcommittee agreed to take another short break on the evening of the last Thursday in April.

“I know those 15 minutes,” said U.S. Ambassador John Bolton, referring to the length of the agreed stoppage in the efforts to broker a compromise between the South Africa-led bloc of 132 nations known as the G-77 and China and the more powerful donor nations led by the United States. “We have a bit longer than that, I think.”

Indeed, the break lasted nearly a full hour before the ambassadors took their seats again, agreeing only to delay proceedings until the following morning and prompting a classic Bolton sound bite. “We are at the present moment in the U.N. equivalent of the movie Groundhog Day,” said the U.S. envoy.

In that 1993 film the weatherman played by Bill Murray kept waking up in the same small town on that most meaningless of annual American rites, Groundhog Day. That the disputed G-77 measure putting a halt to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s reform proposals was approved the following morning only put the rich-poor standoff in greater relief against the Byzantine task of achieving legitimate progress at Turtle Bay: however much the United Nations attempts or seems to change, member states and U.N. officials inevitably find themselves experiencing extended bouts of deja vu, raising the same complaints, battling over the same turf, and foisting musty proposals.

“Things that happen here don't reflect the reality in the rest of the world,” Bolton told The (London) Telegraph in early May. “There are practices, attitudes and approaches here that were abandoned 30 years ago in much of the rest of the world. It's like a time warp.”

As various reform efforts have wended their way through the system in the last year and come to a head over the past fortnight, a sea of opinions, decisions, and reports has washed over this most bureaucratic of international bodies, none more meaningful than the vote in the little-known but powerful Fifth Committee, which controls much of the U.N. budget. Not only did that vote leave widely praised and necessary reform proposals in tatters – placing involved parties right back where they started – it will also likely force powerful donor nations to decide next month whether to follow through on a threat to withhold funding, potentially compromising dozens of vital U.N. missions around the world.

After widely denounced failures in the 1990’s – Rwanda and Yugoslavia, to name two – and more recent debacles – the unsanctioned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the $60-billion oil-for-food scandal, and the lead-footed response to the ongoing genocide in Sudan’s western Darfur region – the 191-member organization has been widely attacked. With peacekeeping efforts quadrupled in the last decade and aid and peace-building missions rapidly increasing since the Cold War ended, the problems are unlikely to cease.

“Reform is incredibly important right now,” said Brian D. Schaefer, Jay Kingham Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “The UN is assuming more and broader tasks than ever in its history, yet the scandals that have come out bring up urgent questions about effectiveness, fraud, and abuse.”

When such questions first became a recurring theme over a decade ago, then-Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali told The Washington Post “perhaps half of the UN work force does nothing useful.” As he closes in on his early 2007 departure, current U.N. leader Annan has in the past year pushed strongly for major changes in management, the mandate process, and procurement, with minimal impact.

Last year’s protracted discussions on adding members and eliminating the veto in the Security Council went nowhere. A new Human Rights Council was created in February to replace the 53-member Human Rights Commission, which critics attacked for being unwieldy and offering membership to violator nations. But China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Pakistan were elected to the 47-member council Tuesday, while the U.S., boycotting the group in protest, was not. And late last month the U.S. Government Accountability Office released two reports illuminating widespread internal shortcomings and claiming the body was “vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” One report found procurement training and expertise seriously lacking, while the other denounced an oversight committee that was funded by the U.N. itself.

The current rich-poor dust-up was incited by Annan’s “Investing in the United Nations,” a 30-page March report that proposes to place greater budgetary control and authority over global staffing decisions – both now decided by the General Assembly – in the hands of small representative groups and the Secretary-General. The proposals would likely make the United Nations more efficient, nimble, and modern, experts say, but also decrease the input of less powerful member states. Thus the resolution drawn up by the G-77 and China, which sought to eliminate changes in budgetary decision-making and called for Annan to prepare yet another series of reports by September, including an exhaustive review of U.N. reform efforts to date.

“The G-77 feel as if they are being coerced,” said Ayca Ariyoruk, senior associate for the United Nations Association’s Global Policy Programs, who has been working with the 132-member group to clarify its position. “The status quo favors their power status: if the management reforms take this power away from them they have nothing.”

Yet in presenting and approving this measure, the poorer member states have unwittingly become opponents of U.N. progress, or as political commentator and Turks and Caicos native Anthony L. Hall put it in a Friday editorial: “this move to maintain the status quo is tantamount to cutting off our noses to spite our faces.”

South Africa's U.N. Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo, whose country chairs the G-77, explained their stance.

“We believe in the Group of 77 and China in the right of every member state to have an equal say in the decision-making of this organization,” he said. “This right for us is not dependent on the financial contributions of member states to the budget of this organization.”

That budget now looms larger than ever. By about the same margin as in the Fifth Committee, the General Assembly plenary approved the South-Africa led G-77 resolution May 8, setting up a potentially larger conflict when the United Nations must establish its budget in June. Under U.S. pressure, member nations agreed in December to tie the $950 million budget for the second half of this year to achieving management reform. The U.S., European Union, and Japan are responsible for eighty-two percent of the annual budget and are thus able to essentially enact a U.N. shutdown, although Bolton has said they would not keep the body from functioning. Legislation passed by Congress in June linked U.S. funding for the United Nations to management reform but included a waiver to be approved by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should the cuts undermine U.S. interests.

“The U.S. and its allies have greatly damaged the U.N. by their blackmail,” said James Paul, director of the Global Policy Forum, a U.N. watchdog, who saw a recurring pattern but predicted an unusual outcome.

“Always in the past, other nations gave way to the U.S. threats but this time the others are standing their ground and the U.S. will be forced to give way,” he said. “I expect an agreement that will give the U.N. its second half budget and give the G-77 most of its core demands.”

Schaefer painted a different picture, arguing that more powerful nations “would be unlikely to blithely approve additional funding for a status quo that is not satisfactory.” He also underscored the urgency of the situation. “If we can’t strike now, we might never have such a great opportunity again,” he said.

Don’t be too sure.

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