Commentary and Newsletters

Anne Bayefsky

The UN Budget and UN Reform: Never the Twain Shall Meet

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Today's headline is that the crisis at the UN has been averted. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has made a formal request for the spending cap to be lifted and most observers assume that he has done so with the blessing of Secretary Rice who has assured him that the United States will not vote against a resolution to this effect. At a recent news conference Annan said "The cap on the budget will be lifted. There will be no crisis."

To put the current situation into perspective, therefore, the whole dynamic has changed 180 degrees since the UN September Summit where world leaders committed themselves to UN reform. Ten months later the crisis became the spending cap, not the failure to reform. The crisis was not the inability of an international organization dedicated to protecting threats to international peace and security, to declare Iranian nuclear ambitions a threat and to sanction its government. The crisis was not a human rights Commission which had some of the world's worst human rights abusers deciding what counted as a human rights violation, replaced by a Council with the likes of Cuba, China and Saudi Arabia right back on. The crisis wasn't the Oil-for-Food scandal in which billions was stolen from people in need and used to maintain despotism at its worst. The crisis wasn't the sight of UN peacekeepers that raped their wards. The crisis wasn't the failure to stop genocide in Sudan by an institution founded on "never again." The crisis wasn't a UN renovation plan hundreds of millions of dollars more than independent developers thought was necessary to do the job. The crisis wasn't 9,000 different mandates created by the UN haphazardly over decades which had never been reviewed, consolidated, or rationalized.

No, the crisis, said the G-77 UN majority, the Secretary-General and his Deputy Mark Malloch Brown, was the so-called "artificial leverage" of linking the obligation to pay for the corruption and mismanagement to the corruption and mismanagement itself.

So what happened after the pages of ambiguous promises made in last year's Summit? Faced with the prospect of ending an entrenched culture of blank checks, and entitlements flowing in one direction, the UN majority and its secretariat had a lot to lose. So they took the offensive and have showed not slightest reticence in making their demands plain:

  • Development dollars fully-directed by the recipient
  • No cost-cutting
  • Any dollars saved anywhere to be redirected to developing countries
  • The retention of 97% of UN mandates without a question asked
  • A General Assembly which retains the power to micromanage as it sees fit
  • More representation on UN bodies for developing countries
  • More jobs in the UN secretariat for their nationals, and
  • A guaranteed piece of the action in the multi-billion dollar UN renovation plan.

And yet, it wasn't their audacity that attracted attention. It was the attempt by the American UN Ambassador and members of Congress to say "enough." American taxpayers deserved better. The deluge of UN-hate speech which followed was voluminous: the U.S. was responsible for "non-cooperation," "politicization," "conditionality." Deputy Secretary-General Malloch Brown decided to eschew the UN-eeze he took direct aim at the ignorance of "Middle America" and the Administration's failure to do an adequate selling job.

The Secretary-General and his deputy were worried about a possible paradigm shift. They even spoke of the UN facing a moment of truth. But that moment appears to have come and gone, despite the current state of UN "reform."

  • Management reform has run into a brick wall, with the G-77 majority taking the exceptional measure of using its voting power to tie it up in a never-ending demand for more reports.
  • Not a single one of the 9,000 mandates have been reviewed. The G-77 has mired the issue in a process debate, claiming that only 7% of the mandates (or those which have never been renewed in the last five years) can be discussed at all.
  • Terrorism has yet to be defined. The working group meeting to draft a comprehensive convention against terrorism can't agree on their next meeting date. The lead UN agent, the Counter-Terrorism Committee hasn't yet named a single terrorist, terrorist organization or state sponsor of terrorism. And the Secretary-General's plan for a Counter-Terrorism strategy is now subject to a debate about the legitimacy of armed struggle or killing selected men, women and children.
  • Membership on the so-called reformed Human Rights Council doesn't entail a single criterion other than geography. Asian and African regional groups increased their proportional representation on the Commission, the West's representation decreased, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference took over the African and Asian groups, thereby acquiring the balance of power.
  • The price-tag for the Capital Master Plan continues to go up. Now on the table is an idea for a new building on the north lawn at the astronomical cost of over $1000 a square foot.

From an American perspective, the price of UN-led multilateralism appears to be an affinity for self-flagellation. But rather than some kind of harmless predilection, the hatred the UN fuels for America does real harm. The membership of the UN where democracies are outnumbered and often work against each other dooms its capacity to undertake a number of the major challenges of the 21st century. Until such time as we redefine multilateralism to serve the interests of democracies, we can expect to be undermined and demonized on the world stage. I hope the prospect of another blank check to those who resist reform will serve as a wake-up call. Because the truth is, the crisis of confidence is as real today as it ever was.

This note was delivered as oral testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, June 20, 2006. The full written testimony appears here.