The invasion of Iraq saw the UN in both good and bad lights. Kofi Annan doggedly trod a middle path in an attempt to appease the American desire for conflict, so the eventual condemnation he dished out had real moral authority (something the Americans helped consolidate with Colin Powell’s laughable attempt to present the Iraqi situation in the same uncompromising way as Adlai Stevenson did the Cuban Missile Crisis). However, French gamesmanship with the proposed American resolution and subsequent accusations of corruption against Annan’s family have somewhat besmirched the UN’s record.
And now, at last, to the point: the UN has announced plans for“the most sweeping changes in its history”. This New York Times article puts the motivation for such changes down to “bruising division over the Iraq war” leaving the organisation “feeling ill-equipped to meet modern challenges represented by terrorism, failed states, nuclear proliferation, poverty and violence.” Bruising division is certainly correct but ultimately the “challenges” to the UN remain the same: how to deal with permanent Security Council members who, with their veto and, in the case of the US, Russia and China, impressive military strength, can pretty much ignore any resolution they choose.
The proposed big shake up here is the expansion of the Security Council from 15 to 24, either by introducing a mind-bendingly complicated system of temporary members, or by increasing the number of permanent members – likely candidates are Brazil, Germany, India, Japan, Egypt and Nigeria or South Africa (according to the NY Times). This really boils down to so much PR guff. Though better regional representation is desirable, the back-room politics would remain the same, with stronger nations trying to bribe weaker nations to vote their way or, ultimately, just ignoring the final outcome if it does not suit them. If there is a way around this particular obstacle, this report has not found it.
Of more practical interest is the serious condemnation of the bureaucracy, both in terms of the UN as a sprawling gravy train for diplomats and of the decadence of certain of its bodies (a specifically quoted example is Cuban and Libyan membership of the Human Rights Commission). These subsidiary bodies are where the UN has the potential to do most good but stories of scandal and corruption have left them weakened and under as much attack as the ‘talking shop’ of the General Assembly.
As with the EU, it’s difficult to predict the future of the UN, but while the former is on an upward path to warm and sunny climes, the latter is drifting gradually downward, paid lip-service (if that) in geopolitical terms and constantly sniped at by members for whom its decisions are inconvenient. This would not be altered by any of the ‘big changes’ proposed. However, the noble and optimistic ideal at the heart of the UN remains, and a sweeping set of open institutional reforms could help restore confidence in those areas where it actually does good work.