On Wednesday, some 170 presidents, kings, prime ministers and other heads of state will gather in New York. Their much-ballyhooed mission is to modernize an ossified and corruption-plagued United Nations for the global challenges of the 21st Century.
The danger, though, is that this week's summit will prove again that the phrase "UN reform" is an oxymoron. Diplomats who negotiated the proposed reform agenda in advance of the gathering have so watered it down that you have to wonder if they diverted the nearby East River into their headquarters building.
The summit comes at a humiliating time. Last week a panel of inquiry led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker issued the latest in a series of damning reports on the UN's discredited oil-for-food program, which for seven sorry years ostensibly allowed Saddam Hussein to sell oil and use the proceeds to purchase humanitarian goods for his starving people.
In truth, oil-for-food put a tremendous amount of money--evidently $100 billion--into play around the world. And some of it did buy food.
But Hussein used every trick in the book--bribes, kickbacks, illicit surcharges, favors to cronies--to profit from the program. Apart from enriching his slaughterhouse regime, he exploited oil-for-food to buy friendships in influential UN member nations. Those nations, in turn, could lobby for the relaxation of international sanctions that were slapped on a dangerous Iraq after the Persian Gulf war. And many of those influential governments (France, Russia and China, to name three) were nicely positioned to keep the UN Security Council from ever enforcing its lip-service ultimatums to Hussein.
Did interference that nefarious really happen? Volcker's new report says the beneficiaries of Hussein's scams included not only Benon Sevan, the high UN official overseeing the program, but also "present and former politicians and diplomats, members of organizations supportive of Iraq, members of influential families in the Middle East, lobbyists and media figures."
A final report next month will be derelict if it doesn't name names. But with each wave of disclosures, the tacit approval that Hussein purchased around the world comes clearer. It's fair to ask whether, had so many people not been on the take at the UN and elsewhere, the Iraq war would have been necessary to enforce the Security Council's demands on a defiant Hussein.
Volcker's latest 847-page report essentially accuses the UN and its top leadership of turning a blind eye to illegality, scandal and corruption, much of which ultimately propped up Hussein. One anguished reaction from within UN headquarters: "[T]he inquiry committee has ripped away the curtain and shone a harsh light into the most unsightly corners of our organization."
Aha! Was that John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, whose critics in Congress say is a hothead out to discredit the noble world body? Well, um, no. That admission came from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan--who was lambasted in Volcker's report for not halting the corruption or correcting the UN's failed oversight. Bolton instead made a constructive pledge: The U.S. will review Volcker's indictment of UN leaders "with one principal purpose in mind: to see how we can use the findings and recommendations ... to reform and improve the United Nations."
Annan talks a good game on reform. But he doesn't have, or doesn't exert, the clout to make it happen. Initial negotiations on a so-called "outcome document" for all those heads of state to ratify came up short. After arriving last month, Bolton proposed revisions that would make the UN more activist in deterring nuclear peril and helping oppressed peoples in places such as Sudan. Among his priorities: closer attention to nuclear proliferation and a replacement for the UN Commission on Human Rights, now a hideout for thugocracies. "Could a new, more accommodating, UN-friendly Mr. Bolton be emerging?" The Economist magazine asks in its Sept. 10 issue. "Although he caused deep irritation with his last-minute amendments, many of them helped improve the document's text."
But too many nations have stakes in the derelict status quo. Late Tuesday, the UN General Assembly agreed to offer the summiteers a weak "outcome document" that abandons many ambitious reforms or leaves them for later. If the heads of state settle for that, Annan, the posturing but failed reformer, will look even weaker.
Bolton, by contrast, now is identified with a priority many Americans support: that the UN no longer be a clubhouse where diplomats dither while, elsewhere, dictators murder their people and genocidal armies exterminate innocents.
Bolton spoke Tuesday of the summit as a first step toward reform. "We have certainly obtained a number of priorities that we felt were very important--on terrorism, on human rights, on management," he said. "There are things we didn't get. This is a negotiation among 191 countries and this is the United Nations as it is, and you know, you judge it as such."
You judge it as such. But you no longer go along just to get along. Americans can be proud of their government's long overdue assault on UN timidity, negligence and corruption.