Joe Loconte is a senior fellow at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He served as a human rights expert on the 2005 US Congressional Task Force on the United Nations and as an informal advisor to Andrew Mitchell MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development. His latest book is The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm.
Over two years ago, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the United Nations, world leaders pledged to adopt a “radical” reform agenda at their General Assembly meeting in New York. Most everyone agreed that changes were needed. Financial mismanagement, predatory peacekeepers, failure to stop human rights atrocities—hardly any important U.N. function escaped withering criticism. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, keen to salvage his own tainted legacy, hyped the meeting as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to revitalize the institution. Shashi Tharoor, Annan’s communications director, cast a reformist vision to “significantly alter the international architecture.”
Well, the once-in-a-lifetime results are in: Whatever the actual likelihood of reform, it vanished into the U.N.’s fog of paralysis and prevarication. The organization’s international “architecture”—a labyrinth of corrupt regimes, menacing dictatorships, and boorish bureaucracy—remains fundamentally unchanged. The new Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has inherited an organization that appears impervious to meaningful reform.
Just consider the ongoing problem of transparency and corruption, epitomized by the U.N.’s Oil-for-Food program in Iraq—a perverse fiasco that ranks among the worst in the institution’s history. After the first Gulf War, Iraq was under U.N. sanction for its failure to comply with Security Council resolutions that it fully disarm. From 1996 to 2003, the Oil-for-Food program allowed Saddam Hussein to buy humanitarian aid in exchange for oil. Instead, Saddam generated—through bribes, oil smuggling, and illicit kickbacks—over $21 billion to shore up his sadistic regime. He used oil to buy influence on the Security Council and weaken international sanctions. In the process, millions of ordinary Iraqis faced poverty, malnutrition, disease, and death.