The United Nations is essential but deeply flawed. We strongly support the institution, but encourage efforts to make it more effective and efficient.
For much of the world, the UN is the world’s most important international organization. So it is good news that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is prepared to take a leading role in coordinating economic assistance and supporting Libyan democracy. The UN sometimes has international legitimacy that Western diplomacy lacks and is uniquely qualified to take on such a mission. But conflict resolution isn’t the only way the UN helps advance Western interests.
Peacekeeping is another. Almost 120,000 military and civilian UN peacekeepers are now deployed at 16 crisis spots around the world -- at a total cost of less than $8 billion. In places like Sudan, Congo, East Timor and Ivory Coast, the UN is saving lives, providing security for relief organizations and economic development experts, and helping national reconciliation take hold. If the UN didn’t exist, Western countries would be faced with the horrible choice of either becoming involved in those conflicts themselves or letting hundreds of thousands of innocents die. As UN operations draw troops from the entire world (more than 110 countries are currently contributing), they make it easier for the U.S. and Europe to concentrate on more difficult missions such as the one in Afghanistan.
UN Security Council resolutions that tightened sanctions on Iran and North Korea were major accomplishments, for which President Barack Obama and UN Ambassador Susan Rice deserve credit. By showing a willingness to listen to others Rice has improved U.S. relations with senior UN officials and other key delegations. But Obama and Rice have been less successful in explaining to the American people why supporting the UN is in the U.S.’s interest.
American taxpayers spend about $3.35 billion every year on the UN. They have a right to insist that this money be spent well. Ban should do more to show that it is.
Ban seems to have gotten the message. He has strengthened the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, which was established in 1994 to investigate allegations of corruption and evaluate UN programs. For most of the past 16 years, that office floundered under ineffective leadership. Things began to change in September 2010 under Carman Lapointe, a well regarded Canadian who Ban appointed. Ban also deserves credit for mandating a 3 percent across-the-board budget cut for all UN agencies in response to the economic difficulties facing many member states. But he could do more by trimming the UN’s personnel costs and dismissing sub-par performers.
Ban could also use his bully pulpit to support the principles embedded in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For most of his first term as secretary general, which began in 2007, Ban was reluctant to criticize member states. But recently he has begun to speak out. Earlier this month, he said publicly that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters was “totally unacceptable,” that Assad will be held accountable, and that he has “lost all sense of humanity.” Also encouraging was the Aug. 23 vote by the UN Human Rights Council to send an “independent commission of inquiry to investigate” violations of human rights in Syria and its condemnation of “continued grave and systematic human rights violations by Syrian authorities.”
But the UN’s credibility on human rights issues is undermined by the Council’s undue focus on Israel. We accept that Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories merits criticism, but unlike Syria and Libya, Israel isn’t bombarding civilians on a daily basis. Yet Israel is the only country that is targeted with a permanent item on the Council’s agenda. Not North Korea, not Cuba, not Zimbabwe -- only Israel. While Ban lacks the authority to prevent the Council from politicizing human rights, he can and should condemn it.
He should also forcefully address the case of Richard Falk, the Council’s special rapporteur for the Palestinian Territories. Falk has defended Palestinian suicide bombers, compared Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to Nazi treatment of Jews, claimed that there was an “apparent coverup” by the U.S. government of the Sept. 11 attacks, and published a cartoon on his blog depicting a dog wearing a Jewish skullcap and a “USA” sweater urinating on Lady Justice and chewing on human bones.
Over the Line
As an American citizen, Falk has the right to say whatever he wants about Israel, or the U.S. As an international civil servant he has the right to criticize either nation’s policies or actions. But Falk’s statements are so far over the line, he deserves to be removed from his UN position. Falk later apologized and acknowledged that the cartoon was anti-Semitic (though he said he initially thought it was only anti-American). While Ban has called for Falk’s dismissal, that isn’t enough. He needs to push Navanethem Pillay, the high commissioner for human rights, to ask the 47 countries that are members of the Council to remove him.
Ban will begin his second five-year term as secretary general on Jan. 1. A strong relationship between the U.S. and UN is in the interests of both. Building that relationship will depend as much on Ban as on Obama.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org.