Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Third Try: Can the UN work?, by Alison Broinowski and James Wilkinson

It may surprise the reader to know that a majority of Americans support a stronger United Nations, believe in international co-operation, favour spending money to help out poorer nations and even support the International Criminal Court (ICC). All this despite the current Bush administration’s pronounced displeasure with the UN.
In an effort to undermine the legitimacy of the UN, US Congress has withheld UN dues, rejected multi-lateral treaties and under funded foreign-aid programs. To state the Bush administration’s case most clearly, there was the nomination of John (‘There is no such thing as the United Nations’) Bolton as US permanent representative to the UN, whose antipathy to the organisation is well known.

At home, the UN is in bad odour with the Australian Government. After receiving a bad report card on our treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum-seekers, refugees and Aborigines, John Howard reminded all that ‘Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees.’ Alexander Downer (http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/stories/s115193.htm) went one step further: ‘If a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.’

Alison Broinowski and James Wilkinson are both experienced diplomats, bringing their respective Australian and American perspectives to a broad and complex subject. The authors claim the UN has been through two ‘tries’, or stages, already.

The first try at a world order was the League of Nations, established after World War I in Geneva, Switzerland in 1920. The second was the United Nations, which was given birth on 24 October 1945, when the UN Charter was ratified by a majority of signatory nations. The third try, where we are now, the authors argue is the post-Cold War era. After September 11, can the UN work?

The Third Try doesn’t flinch when discussing the UN’s many failures, some of them horrific. On Rwanda, the authors write ‘There was no excuse for the council’s failure to intervene over a period of about three months while the killings continued apace.’

Then there was the scandals involving peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including sexual abuse of people the UN was supposed to be protecting:

‘The secretary-general in November 2004 publicly acknowledged gross sexual misconduct by MONUC staff and vowed a ‘zero tolerance’ policy with punishment for all found guilty. Over 150 cases of alleged rape and exploitation, involving both military and civilian staff and including abuse of girls as young as 12, were under investigation at the end of 2004.’

Darfur is the latest example of the UN’s inability to respond adequately to an urgent crisis. By the end of 2005 some 1.7 million people were homeless and 70,000 people were estimated to have died from the conflict. The authors write:

‘The Security-Council’s inquiry on Darfur took three months and then delivered an ambivalent report, calling what was happening crimes against humanity and the equal of genocide, but not describing it as genocide in the narrow, post-World War II definition that required proof of intent to destroy a population or group.’

Despite the above, and other examples cited, the authors maintain the UN will continue on. Simply put, it does too much. There are the peacekeeping operations, work to reduce poverty, counter terrorism initiatives, bolstering of international law through the ICC, human rights advocacy, help for refugees and so on and so forth.

It is also worth remembering that, despite the Bush administration’s contempt for the UN, it did not stop them asking the organisation for help to rebuild post-war Iraq.

As the authors state:

‘No serious argument can be made for doing away with the UN entirely. As our review has shown, it serves too many purposes, practical as well as noble. The neo-cons’ black prince, Richard Perle, even while thanking God for the death of the UN, conceded that its ‘good works’ part will continue to endure.’

The problem then is how to improve it and make it work. Broinowski and Wilkinson devote some 40 pages to analysing problems in the UN machinery and bureaucracy, recommending repairs and reforms. At the top of the list is a need for the US to play a more supportive role, rather than that of a wrecking ball.

‘The perpetual disdain of American conservatives for the UN casts a dark shadow over all parts of the UN, and Washington’s aggressive disputation with the UN over policy, resources, and decision-making has become progressively more imperious since the 1980s.’

The Third Try is written for the lay reader and is set out in a clear, straightforward style. The book doesn’t cover everything that the UN does, but rather works as a digest of its key roles. Its accessible manner makes welcome reading when facing such a daunting subject.

For citizens interested in working towards an international system to solve world problems, The Third Try is an excellent primer on the UN. Bonus features include a forward by Morton Abramowitz, a former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and an afterword by Gareth Evans, who now works as the president and chief executive officer of the Brussels-based global conflict prevention organisation International Crisis Group.

No comments: