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Less is More

Article by Alex Bigham

September 15, 2006

20th June 2006

The United Nations has just recently turned 60. Many of its institutions are creaking with age and it may be time for the UN to quietly retire from some of its duties. While 60-somethings may feel too young to give up everything for the pipe and slippers, this is an opportune moment for the UN to effectively work “part-time”.

The UN’s work on development is unparalleled in its reach and ability to pool resources. The UNDP and UNICEF, along with other agencies are by no means perfect, but they must continue their critical activities in famine relief, disaster assistance and longer-term development. At some point in the near future, the majority of the world’s people will live in urban not rural areas, a challenge which the World Urban Forum, which started yesterday, must address with some radical ideas. The conditions in which many live, with no access to water, electricity or sanitation will need a new focus on infrastructure assistance. This shift is one example of why, as Tony Blair said recently in a speech in America, the structures of the UN, are in desperate need of reform. They were established in a totally different era and remain largely unchanged since 1945.

The new Human Rights Council, which was inaugurated yesterday, went some way to ending the anomaly of the old Human Rights Commission, which had glossed over the human rights abuses of its members (this was brought into the spotlight when Libya took the chair despite abuses instigated by the government in Tripoli). It is a step in the right direction, and the US is wrong to say the terms of its membership are not strict enough, when China, Cuba and Pakistan can join. In the end, human rights abuses must be highlighted, and it is only through engagement, not isolation that change can occur. The new council must use its ability to suspend violators if rights abuses continue.

Along with human rights and development, the third pillar of the UN, which Kofi Annan outlined last year, is collective security. In spite of the idealism of the Charter, the UN is fundamentally ineffective when it comes to conflict prevention and peace keeping. The recent examples are all too familiar – the betrayal of Bosnia, the failure to intervene in Kosovo and the despicable lackadaisicalness which let genocide tear the heart out of Rwanda. The common answer is that the UN must intervene more often, and quicker – hence the move to the responsibility to protect and the new peace-building commission.

These are sound principles, but the lessons from Kosovo and East Timor suggest that it is regional powers, not the UN that are most effective at ending conflict, and creating a lasting peace. The UN failed to halt Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing of the Kosovans, thankfully NATO stepped in. At a recent Foreign Policy Centre meeting, Paddy Ashdown explained the need for a magnet to drive change. In the Balkans, membership of the EU, with the lure of greater financial assistance and trading incentives will be the stimulus for the long-term reform needed to end corruption, institute the rule of law and bring stability.

East Timor had been seen as one of the UN’s successes in recent times. But the 1999 massacre of policemen who were told by the UN to lay down their arms; the failure to build up a competent and experienced judicial system; and the worst looting and communal violence since the Indonesian scorched earth policy, put paid to this myth. The failure of the UN to make an effective transition put a massive strain on its humanitarian work in Dili and led to the return of Australian troops to the country. Australia, as the pre-eminent regional power shouldn’t have left in the first place, and must now stay the course – not just with troops holding the ring, but with support to establish the rule of law before any more elections, often the precursor to violence, are held.

There’s no doubt the UN needs reform. But it also needs to accept that it can’t solve all the world’s problems, in all the countries, all of the time. There are better and more effective agencies to do the tasks of peace building and peace keeping, while the UN must act quicker to give those agents a mandate. The United Nations must realise as much when to let go as when to intervene.

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