Kofi Annan and the U.N.---What’s going on?

By: Alex Redd


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

December 8, 2004

The United Nations has recently come under fire, especially from Americans, many of whom think it is irrelevant and corrupt. Efforts to reform the United Nations have been brought to the forefront by its backers. To rejuvenate this world body, critics as well as supporters of the United Nations have, at times, been divided. Whether it is multilateralist or unilateralist such as American or European, they all would agree that yes indeed this world body is in crisis.

An effort toward reformation kicked off this week with a panel commissioned by the world body’s secretary-general, Kofi Annan. A report was released on what to do about this crisis. The twisting and turning at the United Nations came to light as a result of the Iraq war. War advocates were furious with the UN following decade of Security Council resolutions, particularly the last Resolution 1441 that threatened serious consequences” if Iraq did not prove its disarmament, the UN could not agree to act. At the same time, those against the war were also frustrated that the world body did not do enough to stop the war.

Was Iraq the UN problem? Not certainly so. When it comes to humanitarian disasters, for instance, like the one in Sudan, the UN has been slow to fully act. Another instance is the UN’s weak effort to stop Iran and North Korea clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons. The danger of UN irrelevance caught the attention of Mr. Annan. Last year Mr. Annan called together former government ministers and heads of government to brainstorm on what exactly to do, as a suggestion to bring changes to the organization. The 16-member panel proposed changes were mainly focused on two areas: Institutional and cultural.

Institutional changes in the structure of the Security Council as well as changes in working practices. It is a known fact by many that the Security Council is unrepresentative. For example, the total of its 15 seats, five are occupied by permanent members with enormous veto power. Those veto-wielding members are America, Russia, China, Britain and France, the other ten without veto power rotate every two years on the Security Council. Since the end of the World War II, this structural component of the world body has not changed. Japan and Germany are of the belief that they have the right to permanent seats since they are second and third biggest contributors to the UN budget. India, the world’s most populous country, Brazil, Latin America’s biggest country believe they are entitled to permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Despite numerous efforts to make their case about permanent seating on the UN Security Council, Africans want two seats on the Council to represent the continent.

With striving efforts to press their case, each of these countries has opponents. For example, China mistrusts Japan. Italy opposes a permanent seat for Germany, which would make Italy the only biggish European power without one. It instead proposes a single seat for the European Union, this would require Britain and France to give up theirs. This proposal is not possible under the current UN Charter, as regional institutions cannot be UN members. On the other hand, Spanish-speaking Mexico and Argentina do not think Portuguese-speaking Brazil should represent the entire Latin America while Pakistan strongly opposes its rival India. To compound the problem, Egypt claims one seat as representative of the Muslim and Arab world as part of the two African seats. What’s about Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country as well as South Africa, a richer and stable democratic model?

However, there is a proposal by the panel with two alternatives. The first would give six countries, perhaps Germany, Japan, India, Brazil and two African countries permanent seats without a veto, and create three extra non-permanent seats, bringing the total number of council members to 24. The second, which would expand the council by the same number of seats, creates a new middle tier of members who would serve for four years and could be immediately re-elected, above the current lower tier of two-year members, who cannot be re-elected. The rivals to the would-be permanent members favor this option.

In addition, attention is on the current UN Charter particularly Article 51 that allows force in a clear case of self-defense, and Chapter VII that permits use of force when the Security Council agrees. The UN Charter was written to govern war between countries. The panel also says any decision to use force must pass five tests: the threat must be grave; the primary purpose must be to avert the threat; force must be a last resort; means must be proportional; and there must be a reasonable chance that force will succeed without calamitous consequences. This then raises the quality of debate about any decision to go to war. In the midst of all this is the fight against terrorism.

The report by the panel urges the UN to make better use of its assets in the fight against terrorism. The main argument is that UN members inability to agree on a definition of terrorism. Arab nations may continue to press for exemptions in the case of foreign occupation. Moreover, the panel’s report calls for incentives for countries to stop enriching uranium to build nuclear weapons.

The UN has been dogged by accusations of corruption in the Iraq operation. Before American invasion, the UN spearheaded a $62 billion oil-for-food program that allowed Iraq to sell oil to pay for humanitarian goods. Documents surfaced show that Saddam Hussein embezzled tens of billions of dollars. Money siphoned by Saddam, as rumored, bought political support from well-connected people in western governments and the UN itself.

Appearing on the list are Benon Sevan, former head of the oil-for-food program and Kojo Annan, the UN secretary-general’s son who worked for a Swiss firm, Cotecna. This Swiss firm inspects goods at border-crossings. Kojo left the firm in December 1998, just before the firm got a contract to work for the oil-for-food program. It was reported last week in the New York Sun that Kojo Annan had continued to receive payments from Cotecna, the Swiss firm. The UN secretary-general’s office has repeatedly characterized this latest report as part of a standard non-compete agreement. But the duration of the payments was kept hidden from investigators in the American Congress. Mr Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general claims he did not know the payments had gone on so long, and that his son’s lukewarm delay in disclosing the matter has created a perception problem.

Earlier this year, Mr. Kofi Annan commissioned an investigation into oil-for-food, headed by Paul Voker, a former head of America’s Federal Reserve. In this environment, Conservative commentators and critics of the UN are calling for Mr. Annan to resign. It seems though that the prospects for UN reform are clouded. With America’s fouled perception and mood toward the UN, one would wonder why bother reforming something that is hopelessly ineffective and even corrupt? The case for reform is an uphill struggle.
About the author: Alex Redd is a former Liberian broadcast journalist. Currently, he's a Fellow in counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.