VIEW: Turning Pages at the United Nations —Saleem H Ali
With a move towards militarism worldwide, it is understandable why Mr. Annan found it difficult to turn pages at the UN. With a relatively modest budget that is only 2% of global military expenditure, the UN has nevertheless achieved some remarkable results
In most developing countries, including Pakistan, the dream job for young professionals of many stripes is working for the United Nations (UN), an organisation that epitomises stability, neutrality and a good pension. Yet these days the ostensible stability and neutrality of the UN are increasingly being questioned from various quarters.
If there is anything Al-Qaeda and America’s neoconservatives appear to share, it is their common antipathy for the United Nations. For radical Islamists, the United Nations symbolises an impotent institution that is manipulated by the Security Council to impose Western values on the world. For the American neo-conservatives, the United Nations is a redundant bureaucracy that falters and dilutes their grand plans for a regimented global order. Leading the UN in such difficult times gives credence to those fateful words uttered by the first Secretary General of the United Nations, Trygve Lie, as he passed the baton to his successor, Dag Hammarskjold, in 1953: “This is the most impossible job on earth”
Unlike Mr. Hammarskjold, who was tragically killed in a sabotaged plane over Congo in 1961, Mr. Annan has physically survived the job, which is in itself an accomplishment. Both men were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, though much remains to be seen about the lasting legacy of peace that their actions have made. For his valedictory speech, Kofi Annan chose the memorial library for one of the founders of the United Nations, President Harry Truman. Mr. Annan’s speech was carefully worded not to offend his American hosts while offering some advice on the changing tenor of American foreign policy. Quoting President Truman, he stated “We must, once and for all, prove by our acts conclusively that Right Has Might.”
Despite his attempt at delicacy, the American conservative media was awash with condemnation of Mr. Annan for chiding the Bush administration and not doing enough to reform the UN. However, Kofi Annan has done more to reform the UN then any of his predecessors, given the constraints of his position. The position of “Secretary Generally” is quite literally secretarial, since the UN’s top diplomat is beholden to all the member states and specially the Security Council for any action. In a recent New York Times article Bob Orr, one of Annan’s senior advisors, states that: “There’s a confusion between the U.N. as a stage and the U.N. as an actor. As an actor, there’s so little we can do, and often the people accusing us are the same ones who prevent us from being able to act.”
Such is the Shakespearean paradox of power that all UN employees must endure, and Pakistanis seem to specially revel in, this ability to suavely negotiate slow-motion diplomacy. Carefully turning pages of those voluminous reports that the United Nations is specially adept at producing seems to be our talent.
Owing perhaps to our gregarious culture and colonial panache, Pakistanis and Indians are happily over-represented in the United Nations system. It is thus not surprising that Mr. Annan chose Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to join a three-member panel on reforming the UN system, along with the leaders of Mozambique and Norway. In an editorial for the International Herald Tribune this troika laid out their vision for “Unifying the UN.” Their core recommendation for the “One UN approach” means “appointing a single leader to coordinate and represent the work of all UN agencies as part of a single overall budget in coordination with national governments.” Furthermore, the reform panel suggested “the establishment of a UN Sustainable Development Board and a development coordinator at headquarters responsible for coordinating, funding and overseeing all activities in individual countries.”
Funding the United Nations is of course the key element of reform efforts, as there continue to be lingering concerns about corruption and inefficiency. There is also considerable name-calling and vilification of country contributions to the UN. In particular, the United States is frequently under attack for not doing enough to fund the UN. However, the facts about the US contributions to the UN system are often not fully understood.
No member state is allowed to contribute more than 22% towards the budget of the United Nations in order to ensure its international texture. Each country is assessed a contribution based on its economic condition. The United States is the only country to be assessed at a cap of 22% for the total budget, thus making it the largest contributor. Even if it wanted to contribute more, the UN charter would prevent it from doing so. However, the problem is that the US Congress has often faltered in releasing these funds because of political disagreements with the United Nations. Nevertheless, the support of the United States for the UN cannot be underestimated.
What is perhaps hard to fathom is the disparity in global expenditure towards the UN and for that matter any oversees development assistance and military expenditure. The UN system has a total annual budget of about $20 billion, which is about a fifth of the annual global overseas development assistance amount of around $110 billion. In comparison, the world spends over a trillion dollars ($1000 billion) on military expenses. On average 48% of this amount over the past five years has been spent annually by the United States. The most sobering sign of it all is that military expenditure since 2000 has been rising all over the world, in particular in China and India.
With such a move towards militarism worldwide, it is understandable why Mr. Annan found it difficult to turn pages at the UN. With a relatively modest budget that is only 2% of global military expenditure, the UN has nevertheless achieved some remarkable results including the eradication of Smallpox, vaccinating 80% of Iraqi children against polio and sending peacekeepers to conflict zones all over the world. While there have been some scandals along the way, the impact of these efforts must also be appreciated. Pakistan should feel specially proud of being the largest contributor to peace-keeping forces in the world, that have thankfully not been embroiled in any major scandals thus far. Perhaps a way forward would be for much of the general military expenditure to go towards peacekeeping forces (which are at present subsumed within the UN budget). This will keep the soldiers employed doing constructive work rather than acrimonious grandstanding.
The new secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, will have quite a task on his hands to sustain and develop an organisation that appears to be under siege. His predecessor, Mr. Annan, deserves our respect and applause for his attempts at reform against all odds. Even his detractors at the White House were unequivocal in their final message to Mr. Annan in which he is praised as “a tireless advocate for the ideals and promise of the United Nations Organisation.”
Dr. Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and a senior fellow at the United Nations mandated University for Peace. He can be reached at email@example.com