How Corrupt is the United Nations?
A cascade of abuses, financial, personal, and managerial, raises the question of whether the international body is capable of, or...
by Claudia Rosett, written in 2006 for "The Commentary" magazine
Recent years have brought a cascade of scandals at the United Nations, of which the wholesale corruption of the Oil-for-Food relief program in Iraq has been only the most visible. We still do not know the full extent of these debacles—the more sensational ones include the disappearance of UN funds earmarked for tsunami relief in Indonesia and the exposure of a transnational network of pedophiliac rape by UN peacekeepers in Africa—and we may never know. What we do know is that an assortment of noble-sounding efforts has devolved into enterprises marked chiefly by abuse, self-dealing, and worse.
Seen by many, including many Americans, as the chief arbiter of legitimacy in global politics, the UN is understood by others to be the only institution standing between us and global anarchy. If that is so, the portents are not promising. The free world is grappling with threats from the spread of radical Islam to North Korea's nuclear blackmail and Iran's pursuit of nuclear bombs. The UN, despite its trophy case of Nobel prizes, has failed so far to curb any of these, just as it failed abysmally to run an honest or effective sanctions program in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Currently it is gridlocked over matters as seemingly straightforward as cleaning up its own management department.
In the effort to address the UN's manifold problems, there have been audits, investigations, committees, reports, congressional hearings, action plans, and even a handful of arrests by U.S. federal prosecutors. There have been calls for Secretary-General Kofi Annan to step down before his second term expires at the end of this year. Solutions have been sought by way of better monitoring, whistleblower protection, the accretion of new oversight bodies, and another round of conditions attached to the payment of U.S. dues. On top of the broad reforms of the early 1990's, the sweeping reforms of 1997, the further reforms of 2002, and the world summit for reform in 2005, still more plans for reform are in the works.
1 To its external auditors, internal auditors, joint inspections unit, eminent-persons panels, executive boards, and many special consultants, the UN has recently added an Office of Ethics—now expected to introduce in May what will presumably become an annual event: “UN Ethics Day.”
Is any of this likely to help? Behind the specific scandals lies what one of the UN's own internal auditors has termed a “culture of impunity.” A grand committee that reports to itself alone, the UN operates with great secrecy and is shielded by diplomatic immunity. One of its prime defenses, indeed, is the sheer impenetrability of its operations: after more than 60 years as a global collective, it has become a welter of so many overlapping programs, far-flung projects, quietly vested interests, nepotistic shenanigans, and interlocking directorates as to defy accurate or easy comprehension, let alone responsible supervision.
But let us try.
One clear sign of how badly things have gone with the UN is the difficulty of tallying even so basic a sum as the system's real budget. Nowhere does the UN present a full and clear set of accounts, and statistics vary even within individual agencies and programs.
The UN's current “core” annual budget is $1.9 billion—but the “core” is itself but a fraction of the actual budget. Around it are wrapped billions more in funding provided by “voluntary contributions” from private and corporate donors, foundations, and member states, including, to a large extent, the United States. These sums are shuffled around in various ways, with UN agencies in some instances paying or donating to each other. For instance, the UN Development Program (UNDP) operates with its own “core” budget of about $900 million a year but handles about $3 billion per year—or, depending on whom you ask and what you count, $4.5 billion per year.
According to Mark Malloch Brown, the UN chief of staff who has just been promoted to the post of Deputy Secretary-General, the total budget for all operations under direct control of the Secretariat comes to roughly $8-9 billion per year. Adding in just a few of the larger agencies like UNDP (at, let us say, $4 billion), UNICEF ($2 billion or so), and the World Food Program ($2-3 billion) already brings the grand total to somewhere between $16 and $18 billion, again depending on whom you listen to and what you count. On UN websites devoted to procurement, where the idea is not to minimize the official amount of UN spending but on the contrary to attract suppliers to a large and thriving operation, the estimate of money spent yearly on goods and services by the entire UN system comes to $30 billion, or more than 15 times the core budget of $1.9 billion on which reformers have focused.
Staff numbers are likewise a matter of mystery. The new ethics office proposes to offer its services to 29,000 UN employees worldwide. That number is well short of the total staff of the Secretariat plus the specialized agencies alone, which, according to Malloch Brown, consists of some 40,000 people. And that figure itself does not include local staffs—such as the 20,000 Palestinians who work for the UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA) or the many employees, some long-term, others transient, at hundreds of assorted UN offices, projects, and operations worldwide, or the more than 85,000 peacekeepers sent by member states but carrying out UN orders and eating UN-supplied rations bought via UN purchasing departments. Whereas the number of UN member states has almost quadrupled since 1945 (from 51 to 191), the number of personnel has swollen many times over, from a few thousand into somewhere in the six figures.
Little of this system is open to any real scrutiny even within the UN, and no single authority outside the UN has proved able to compel any genuine accounting. Moreover, even though there can no longer be any doubt that the scale of the rot is large, the UN's top management continues to insist to the contrary. Take the central scandal of recent UN history—namely, Oil-for-Food. Last October, Paul Volcker's UN-authorized probe into Oil-for-Food submitted its fifth and final report on that relief program, which in its seven years of operation had become a vehicle for billions in kickbacks, payoffs, and sanctions-busting arms traffic. By January of this year, after first having declared that he was taking responsibility for the debacle, Kofi Annan was spinning a different story, telling a London audience that “only one staff member was found to maybe have taken some $150,000 out of a $64-billion program.”
This was an artful lie. The staff member in question was Benon Sevan, whom Annan had appointed to run Oil-for-Food for six of its seven years. If indeed Sevan took no more than this relative pittance, then Saddam Hussein scored the biggest bargain in the history of kickbacks. According to Senator Norm Coleman's independent investigation into Oil-for-Food, the real figure for Sevan's take was $1.2 million. Clearing up this discrepancy is difficult, however, because Sevan, who was allowed by Annan to retire to his native Cyprus on full UN pension, is outside the reach of U.S. law and has denied taking anything.
In any case, the corruption hardly ended with Sevan. Instances that appear to have slipped the Secretary-General's mind include another member of his inner circle, the French diplomat Jean-Bernard Merimée, who by his own admission took a payoff from Saddam while serving as Annan's handpicked envoy to the European Union. Within the UN agencies working with Annan's Secretariat on Oil-for-Food, Volcker confirmed “numerous [further] allegations of corrupt behavior and practices,” embracing “bid-rigging, conflicts of interest, bribery, theft, nepotism, and sexual harassment.” He also noted that the UN lacked controls on graft, failed to investigate many cases, and failed to act upon some of those it did explore. Finally, Volcker calculated that UN agencies had kept for themselves at least $50 million earmarked to buy relief for the people of Iraq.
Nor do the sheer monetary amounts even begin to convey the extent of the damage done by UN labors in Iraq. Annan's office had the mandate of the Security Council, plus a $1.4-billion budget, to check oil and relief contracts for price fiddles, to monitor oil exports in order to prevent smuggling, and to audit UN operations. In the event, Oil-for-Food spent far more money renovating its offices in New York than checking the terms of Saddam's contracts, and ignored the smuggling even when Saddam in 2000 opened a pipeline to Syria. The result of what Annan now placidly describes as “instances of mismanagement”—as if someone forgot to reload the office printer—was that Saddam skimmed and smuggled anywhere from $12 billion (according to the incomplete numbers supplied by Volcker) to $17 billion or more (according to the more comprehensive totals provided by Senator Coleman's staff ).
And what did Saddam do with those profits? What Annan describes as “instances of mismanagement” did not simply entail theft, corruption, and waste. They enriched and supported a tyrant and a mass murderer. Saddam used his UN-blessed loot not only to build palaces and buy luxury cars but also to provide patronage to loyal Baathists, reward Palestinian suicide bombers, and restock his arsenal, conventional or otherwise. When CIA chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer went to Iraq in 2004 looking for weapons, the money trail took him straight to the UN relief operation, which, as he would report, had become a shill for an arms and illicit-money network that reached through Syria to Belarus and Russia. The network was buying “milk” from a Chinese weapons manufacturer, contracting for “vehicles” and “detergent” with Sudan, and negotiating for missiles with North Korea.
And that is only Oil-for-Food. Since last summer, the UN has been bedeviled by a bribery scandal centered in its procurement department, which handles the Secretariat's buying of everything from paperclips to peacekeeper rations. In August, a UN staffer named Alexander Yakovlev pleaded guilty in federal court to taking hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of bribes, involving possibly hundreds of millions' worth of tainted contracts—many of them in force to this day. In September, Vladimir Kuznetsov, the head of the UN budget oversight committee, had to step aside under federal indictment as Yakovlev's co-conspirator in wire fraud and money laundering. With the scandal still spreading, a number of other UN employees are now under investigation in cases involving something on the order of $1 billion in UN contracts.
There have also been cases in which, although no corruption has been alleged, clear conflicts of interest have been disclosed. Thus, Volcker found that in 1997, Maurice Strong, a longtime UN Under-Secretary General, accepted a check bankrolled by Saddam in the amount of $988,885. Strong (who has denied knowing where the money came from) was then serving as chief coordinator of UN reform, no less. Another top adviser to Annan, Giandomenico Picco, was discovered to have served in late 1999 and early 2000 as both a UN Under-Secretary General and chairman of the board of a company called IHC Services.
3 The company had close ties to the bribe-taking Yakovlev and signed millions of dollars in contracts with the UN while Picco was running one of Annan's pet projects, the Dialogue of Civilizations.
Then there is the saga of Annan's son, Kojo, who turned out to have received more than $195,000 from a major UN Oil-for-Food contractor, Cotecna Inspection, after he had formally stopped working for it. In investigating Kojo's UN-related ventures, Volcker came across the paper trail of a by-now famous green Mercedes: in 1998, Kojo had saved some $20,000 by buying this car at a diplomatic discount in Germany and shipping it duty-free into Ghana, all under the false use of his father's name and diplomatic privileges and of the UN seal.
Oil-for-Food has been described by Annan and his aides as a mistake in a good cause; such, they suggest, is the occasional if regrettable cost of doing the world's humanitarian business. Structurally, however, Oil-for-Food was not an exception. It was a template of what the UN has become.
A hallmark of Oil-for-Food was that it was funded not by an assembly of UN member states but directly by Saddam as a function of his oil sales. This effectively bypassed the UN's version of the appropriations process, and was hardly the kind of setup envisioned when the organization was founded. As U.S. Ambassador John Bolton has noted, “It is the member states who are supposed to control the money.”
Nevertheless, the UN negotiated terms with Saddam under which the Secretariat would collect 2.2 percent of his oil revenues to cover its costs in running and monitoring the relief program. With oil sales topping $64 billion, that meant $1.4 billion for the Secretary-General's administrative spending over the seven-year life of the program. In other words, the UN Secretariat was being paid big money by Saddam to supervise Saddam—an intrinsic conflict of interest that surely played a part in the expansion and easy corruption of the program. On top of whatever bribery he managed to deploy, Saddam became for a time one of the largest direct contributors to the Secretariat's budget. Publicizing itself as Saddam's probation officer, the UN in effect became his business partner.
But Saddam was only one, if the most virulent, of the many questionable business partners the UN has acquired over the past decade or so. These days, “partnering” at the UN goes far beyond enlisting the help of Angelina Jolie to visit refugees or of Bono to lecture Americans on development policy. Under Annan's management, the UN has been avidly seeking liaisons with foundations, non-governmental organizations, and private business—especially big corporate donors endowed with ready cash. This has been hailed in many quarters, including in Washington, as an innovative way of funding good works. It is rather more alarming than that.
The star example of today's UN partnerships is the Secretariat's cozy arrangement with the media magnate Ted Turner, who in 1997 made a landmark offer to donate $1 billion to the world organization. The pledge reportedly caused Jane Fonda, Turner's wife at the time, to weep with joy; as for Annan, he welcomed the deal as “a model to demonstrate my commitment to engage the private sector in a concrete manner.” Turner said he hoped his example would inspire others—and it has.
Whatever Turner's ultimate aims may have been in undertaking this deed of seemingly astounding generosity, one of its chief beneficiaries has arguably been Ted Turner himself. For the past eight years, in exchange for the rather less than $1 billion disbursed so far, he has enjoyed a seat at the head table of what is supposed to be an impartial public institution, wielding access and influence beyond that of many actual UN member states. Like the UN's 2.2-percent commission under Oil-for-Food, moreover, Turner's funds flow through the administrative channels of the Secretariat without even the minimal checks that might be provided by the budgeting process of the General Assembly.
To dispense his largesse in tax-deductible form, Turner set up a Washington-based non-profit organization, the UN Foundation, stipulating that he would turn over his gift through this foundation at the rate of $100 million per year. (Since then he has halved his annual disbursements, thus stretching out the arrangement even longer than the projected decade or more.) At the same time, and as part of the same gift, he set up a sister organization, the Better World Fund, which describes itself as “a key advocate for the UN on Capitol Hill.” A portion of Turner's gift to the UN thus goes not to the world's poor but to lobbying efforts in Washington to extract more dollars for the UN from U.S. taxpayers. Over the past eight years, according to the UN Foundation, the Better World Fund has devoted more than $110 million to this effort.
Of course, Washington is home to many lobbying groups. But Turner's setup is so intimately linked with the UN Secretariat as to make it hard to distinguish where the one ends and the other begins. Thus, to handle Turner's gift, the UN created a special in-house division dedicated exclusively to interacting with Turner's foundation and reporting directly to the Secretary-General. This division is called the United Nations Fund for International Partnerships, or UNFIP. According to the head of UNFIP, Amir Dossal, the relationship between UN and UN Foundation officials is “pretty much a seamless exercise,” with Turner's Foundation often involved from the inception in shaping UN projects that it then pays for. UNFIP staff, who evaluate these projects as UN insiders for the approval of the Secretary-General, have their salaries and expenses paid not by the UN but by Turner's foundation.
Since the arrangement began, some $600 million of Turner's own money has flowed into UN causes in this way, plus another $350 million from other donors contributing via his UN Foundation. (The total of $950 million includes the $110 million spent by the Better World Fund in lobbying Congress.) This has allowed the Secretary-General to control, through UNFIP alone—and in concert with the wishes of Turner's foundation—what in many ways qualifies as an annual slush fund of more than $100 million.
Many of the projects involve worthy causes like sending malaria medicine and measles vaccines to children in poor countries. But others approved by the Secretary-General have directed millions in Turner money to departments within his own Secretariat, including in some cases his own executive office. Featuring as opaque one-line items in UNFIP's sometimes tardy public reports, these endeavors have included $1 million for “Strengthening the UN Secretariat”; $1.9 million for “UN Dialogue with the Global South”; $994,875 for “Supporting UN Management Reform”; $1.9 million for the Secretariat's department of public information (on which more below); $117,600 for a “Multi-Stakeholder Meeting on Best Practices in Partnerships”; and $319,988 for “Strengthening Public-Private Partnerships”—a somewhat reflexive exercise, one might think, for what is already a highly muscular public-private liaison.
In general, oversight at the UN is conducted by the organization's internal audit department, whose director is named by the Secretary-General and whose reports until this year have not been disclosed even to member states. According to a secret internal audit submitted in 2003, UNFIP appeared to be operating “without legally established functions and organizational structures.” Specific irregularities in the program's conduct included the release of $1.2 million in Turner-foundation money to Annan's executive office in a manner “constitut[ing] a breach of internal controls.” Small stuff, perhaps, when measured against the overall size of Turner's gift, but a significant sum to be sloshing around within the single most influential office at the UN.
In September 2001, Turner intervened even more deeply in UN matters, giving $31 million from his separate, family-run Turner Foundation (devoted to the environmental “totality of the planet”) to the U.S. State Department to cover a portion of U.S. arrears on UN dues. This was greeted by many, including then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte, as a selfless act of philanthropy. But the reason we had fallen behind in our dues was not any lack of resources but the fact that Congress—which is supposed to control U.S. funding for the UN—had been trying to lever better behavior out of it.
Why the State Department accepted the money is a question unto itself. But from the UN's point of view, splicing Turner's millions into the process meant that, as long as the organization could find wealthy private patrons in tune with its policy preferences, it could afford to be that much less answerable to a powerful member state and its democratically elected representatives.
Increasingly, since the Turner pledge of 1997, the UN has been inviting wealthy patrons around the globe to collaborate with it as “partners.” Some of those answering the call have signed on through Turner's foundation. Of these, a number are governmental institutions. They include the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the U.S. (no doubt an instance of Taiwan trying to get a foot in the door at the UN in any way it can), the World Bank (an instance of the UN system paying itself), the U.S. Agency for International Development (an instance of the U.S. government funding the UN via Turner's foundation), the government of Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria (itself a recipient of World Bank aid), and the American Red Cross. Others are private foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which since 1995 has given more than $380 million to the UN, more than $50 million of that through Turner's foundation. And Turner's foundation has also collaborated on some projects with the Open Society Institute of the financier George Soros, whose global network of foundations and institutes has its own roster of projects jointly funded with the UN.
In 1999, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Annan proposed a “Global Compact” between the UN and business leaders. To join, a company is required to write a letter, addressed to the Secretary-General, “expressing support for the Global Compact and its principles.” Thereafter, it is required to publish in its annual report “a description of the ways in which it is supporting the Global Compact.”
According to the UN, the Global Compact has by now amassed more than 2,400 participants in 50 countries. They are invited to host outreach programs involving UN agencies, to promote UN causes, and to contribute in cash or in kind to UN endeavors. No doubt many do so for entirely worthy reasons; but the utter balkanization of UN agencies, offices, operations, budgets, and organizational charts makes it virtually impossible to know for sure. In a 352-page book published in 2002 on “Building Partnerships,” the UN itself acknowledged that there is “inconsistency, both within the United Nations system and more widely, on what constitutes the private sector.” It might be more accurate to say that under the stewardship of Annan, there has been a considerable blurring of the lines.
Characteristic of this is the UN's increasing willingness to franchise out both its name and its official emblem. Back in 1946, as that emblem was about to be approved, the first UN Secretary-General, Trygve Lie, stressed the importance of protecting it from abuse for “commercial purposes.” In 2000, as part of the UN's grand plans for “public-private partnerships” in the new millennium, Annan issued lengthy guidelines in which he stipulated that the UN could in fact authorize use of its emblem by a business engaged in promotion or fund-raising for the UN itself—as long as “generation of profit by the business entity is only incidental.” This raises intriguing questions about who in Annan's graft-ridden UN might be qualified to judge whether commercial profits are “incidental” to humanitarian work—and who could possibly keep track.
And that brings us to a feature of the UN system, mentioned early on, that has helped to shield it from thoroughgoing investigation. Since its founding, the institution has added untold numbers of agencies, funds, commissions, programs, “ad-hoc bodies,” and “other entities,” to the point where most of the UN's own personnel do not know who reports to whom, or how. The Secretary-General himself, when questioned last year by the Volcker commission, professed not to understand his own chain of command.
To anyone seeking to capture fresh turf at the UN, creating one of these new bodies has long been a favored path. The Secretary-General appoints or at least nominates the heads of most of them, but each has its own board, its own agenda, and in many cases its own program for soliciting funds. To name just a few of the better-known ones: UNICEF (founded in 1946); the World Food Program (or WFP, 1961); the UN Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD, 1964); the UN Development Program (UNDP, 1966); the UN Environment Program (UNEP, 1972); the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS, 1994), UN-Habitat (1997); the World Tourism Agency (UNWTO, 2003); and so forth.
Many of these overlap. Most, when probed, open onto ever-receding vistas of regional offices, working groups, and the like. The offices are scattered around the globe, from New York to Rome to Nairobi to Tunis to Madrid to Bangkok and beyond. Periodic efforts to streamline and harmonize the system tend mainly to paint yet another layer on top. Typical of this is one of the Secretary-General's latest initiatives, launched just this past February: the “High-Level Panel on System-Wide Coherence in Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance, Environment.” Among its fifteen “high-level” panelists is a senior fellow from Turner's UN Foundation.
Another example, launched last fall, is Annan's so-called Alliance of Civilizations. This grand-sounding initiative is in fact a rather restricted project of Spain, Turkey, and 20 unelected “eminent persons” picked by the Secretary-General, most of whom (like Nafis Sadik, a special adviser to Annan and a director of Turner's UN Foundation) have already spent years on the same UN conference circuits. Instructed to come up with an “action plan” to “bridge divides,” the Alliance has so far served mainly as a vehicle for Annan to resurrect as a “special adviser” his former chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, who “retired” in early 2005 after Volcker's discovery that he had shredded three years' worth of UN executive-suite documents potentially germane to the Oil-for-Food investigation.
There is almost no way to hold the UN accountable for most of what goes on in this growing empire. No national legal jurisdiction applies to the UN network and no media corps has the resources, or for that matter the interest, to deal with the entire network. Despite a Secretary-General who wields more control than anyone else in the system, accountability ultimately does not reside with him, either. In fact, there is no procedure at the UN for impeaching or firing the Secretary-General.
There is, however, a tremendous machine for glossing over anything that goes wrong. The Secretariat fields a department of public information with an $85-million annual budget and more than 700 employees, about half of whom staff UN public-relations offices in more than 100 countries worldwide. On top of that, a public-relations staff is employed by each of the many agencies, commissions, and so forth. All of this promotional activity is further supplemented by the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), founded in Luxembourg in 1946 and now boasting more than 100 national chapters. The American chapter, UNA-USA, fields more than 175 community-based chapters and organizations, with nearly 20,000 members.
Bringing these various strands together is a dizzying array of interwoven boards, working groups, and staff positions both within and around the UN. To give a few quick examples: Ted Turner, of the UN Foundation, sits on the board of the UNA-USA. Maurice Strong—chief coordinator of the 1997 UN “reforms,” which among other things created the framework for the Turner-dedicated UNFIP—then became a charter member of the board of Turner's UN Foundation while serving as a special adviser to UN Secretary-General Annan, and is also a past president and current honorary president of the WFUNA. Paul Volcker, when tapped by Annan himself to head the Oil-for-Food investigation, was serving not only on the board of directors of UNA-USA but also as a director of its business council—which advertises itself as a networking resource for businesses interested in getting a piece of the billions in UN contracts handed out every year. Only when the media finally discovered and questioned this potential conflict of interest did Volcker resign.
Asked in a recent interview about the dangers of collusion between big business and a public institution like the UN, Mark Malloch Brown declared indignantly that the UN was doing “God's work,” and walked out.
Is it? The question is important because, in the end, the amount of money lost to waste by the UN, or skimmed through graft, or dumped wholesale into agencies, commissions, and alliances that serve mainly themselves, or devoted in the UN's name to select private crusades, arguably counts less than the kind of agenda all this money supports.
The founding purpose of the UN was to bring peace and prosperity to the globe. As to the former, the UN in the age of terror has been in most ways useless and in some ways positively dangerous. The lesson that Saddam Hussein quickly grasped was that the UN lends itself to money-laundering. With its big flows of funds across borders, its many contractors and public-private partnerships, its gigantic bureaucracy and lax controls, its diplomatic immunity, and its culture of impunity, the UN operation is a prime candidate not only for graft but, as Charles Duelfer discovered, for arms deals masked as medicine and soap. Further protecting those arms deals, and the rogues and tyrants making them, is the fact that in its capacity as a deliberative body, the UN has repeatedly urged appeasement in the face of real threats to world peace and just as repeatedly tried to constrain those (like the U.S. and its allies) willing to act to remove them.
If there is any priority that the UN, with its mandate for peace, might be expected to stress, it is preventing rogue regimes from getting nuclear bombs. But as a practical matter, the organization has behaved for the most part as a spectator. Its record with Saddam Hussein is too well known to bear repeating. In the case of North Korea, admitted as a member state in 1991, the UN has responded to Kim Jong Il's nuclear-weapons program mainly by kicking the problem over to the U.S. and making itself irrelevant. On Iran, the UN “debate” has served mainly to buy time for the mullahs while the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Mohamed El Baradei, the head of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, ponders the “uncertainties” of Iran's nuclear program.
On matters involving Israel and the Palestinians—unlike nuclear proliferation, this may be the UN's one genuine obsession—hypocrisy has been outdone only by mischief-making and blatant anti-Semitism. UN programs set up to help the Palestinians over the past half-century have not only failed to produce decent lives but have helped create a culture of entitlement and violence—fueled in large part by the UN's own anti-Israel agenda. The UN condemnation of Zionism as racism in 1975, finally repealed in 1991, was followed by the grotesque transformation of the UN's 2001 Durban conference on racism into an anti-Semitic festival. The UN Security Council invites totalitarian Syria to take the chair, but democratic Israel has never been so much as allowed to hold a seat.
Then there is peacekeeping, which since the end of the cold war has been a boom area for the UN. Here again the expansion of UN missions has brought everything from widespread allegations of corruption to drug-dealing to rape and the sexual exploitation of hungry children—“Sex-for-Food,” as the columnist Mark Steyn has aptly put it. In large parts of the undeveloped world, the appearance of blue-helmeted forces has come to signal a warning: stay away, and keep your children away.
But neither have those blue-helmeted forces been visible when and where they might actually be needed. Provided with manpower plus a budget that ought to qualify the UN itself as a formidable military power, the organization stood passively aside during the massacres in Rwanda and Srebrenica and has yet to act in the case of Sudan. Indeed, it has yet to muster even the integrity to kick Sudan off its Geneva-based human-rights commission, which has doubled as a clubhouse for the world's worst regimes. (Current members include China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe.)
As for disaster relief, the record is similarly deplorable. When the tsunami hit Asia in December 2004, the U.S. and countries like Australia rushed to help the victims. The UN rushed to help itself. Demanding exclusive rights to direct the aid effort (and the money), UN officials warned loudly of a health crisis that never materialized, denounced the U.S. as “stingy,” and promised transparent use of funds. A year later, the Financial Times reported that, from what little could be gleaned of the UN's largely incomplete or secret accounts, the organization's expenditures on overhead (i.e., travel, hotel rooms, lavishly funded international talk-fests, and the like) were triple those of private charities.
If such is the general nature of the UN's contribution to peace and humanitarian assistance, its contribution to global prosperity is a similar story. The simple and true recipe for wealth is liberty framed by the decent rule of law; the great lesson of the last century, learned at horrific cost, is that central planners and state development schemes are a brew that tends not toward prosperity but toward dictatorship and economic immiseration. In 1990, that lesson seemed briefly to have been learned: as the Soviet Union headed for collapse, the global aid profession was atwitter over the newfound virtues of privatization. But in the sixteen years since then, the UN, in the name of “sustainable development,” has fostered a comeback of command-and-control planning, courtesy of the same bureaucracy that cannot even account for its own expenditures.
An enormous amount of UN activity now revolves around the so-called Millennium Goals, which aim to cut world poverty in half by the year 2015. This noble-sounding goal serves as a framework for calculating to the last decimal point a set of targets for which the UN system then decides how resources should be apportioned. UN agencies, agendas, working groups, and a never-ending succession of conferences, declarations, and plans testify to a determination to control the global climate, horn in on the Internet, and—à la Oil-for-Food—impose a UN-supervised income tax on the entire developed world. Where once the Soviet agency Gosplan issued five-year plans for an imprisoned people, the UN now aims to administer and profit from fifteen-year plans for the entire human community. Think of it as planetary socialism, supported and financed in “partnership” with private capital.
The United Nations was founded as a forum of governments. As we had ample occasion to learn over the decades, this arrangement presented quite enough problems of its own. Now the UN, in contravention of its own charter, is rapidly evolving into something larger, more corporate, and more menacing: a predatory, undemocratic, unaccountable, and self-serving vehicle for global government. Like the Soviet Union of old, the UN is unwieldy, gross, inefficient, and incompetent; it is also so configured as to reach deep into the national politics of its member states and, by sheer weight and persistence, to force at least some of the worst of its agenda upon all of us.
There will never be enough John Boltons to counter all of this—not that it was easy to come up with even one. Indeed, with notable exceptions, generations of American officials and policy-makers have been content, sometimes for reasons of state, sometimes for reasons of convenience, to look away from the UN's multiform deficiencies and derelictions while occasionally indulging in minor punitive measures like withholding a proportion of our annual dues—akin to docking a delinquent's bus money while continuing to pay for his liquor and his car. For many others in public life, and for many ordinary citizens as well, the institution itself, as the very embodiment of the multilateralist ideal, is still held in nearly sacred regard.
All the more reason, then, to force ourselves at long last to take a hard, undeceived look at what the institution has in fact become, put aside the lengthy and futile quest for its reform, and begin to think more concretely about how, with or without it, we can best work to advance the interests and values of ourselves and other members of the civilized world.
—March 8, 2006
1 The latest, announced by Annan as this article was going to press, is aimed at cleaning up management; revolutionary though it sounds, there is no guarantee it will be implemented, and in any case it stops well short of what is needed.
2 There is also the mystery still surrounding more than $19 billion's worth of oil revenues supposedly doled out by the UN to victims of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Internal audits released last year under pressure from Congress warned of overpayments of up to $4 billion. Volcker promised to investigate, but never did.
3 The discovery was made by me and George Russell of Fox News.
4 In the words of Mark Malloch Brown, who headed the UN Development Program from 1999 to 2005, Soros and UNDP “collaborate extensively.” In fact, Malloch Brown lives in a house on Soros's estate outside New York City. This potential conflict of interest was never disclosed by the UN or Soros, and even after it was revealed in the press, no documentation has been forthcoming to show that the relationship is at arm's length.
5 The original terms of the compact included some anodyne language about human rights, labor standards, and the environment; in 2004, perhaps inspired by its own mishaps, the UN added a proviso that businesses should work against corruption. This has been a source of bemusement to investigators of graft in the UN's procurement division, not least because one of the major contractors embroiled in the bid-rigging scandal was a member in good standing of Annan's Global Compact.
6 UN promises to “reform” have translated into a plan to replace the Human Rights Commission with a “Human Rights Council,” a largely semantic exercise. Attempts by Washington to hold out for genuine reform of this body central to the United Nations mandate have turned into an occasion for UN officials and others to criticize not the world's worst human-rights offenders but the U.S.