International Community Calls for
With the investigation into the U.N. "oil-for-food"
program finding corruption, claims of abusive U.N. peacekeepers
and accusations that the U.N. Security Council has become ineffective,
calls for reform of the United Nations seem to have reached an
some of the problems plaguing the organization originated recently,
many of them have been decades in the making and are intertwined
with the structure and the history of the United Nations itself.
And though the current period may be remembered as one of the
most grave and dramatic in U.N. history, controversy and calls
for reform are not new for the 60-year-old organization. "United
Nations" and "reform" are often "apt to be
mentioned in the same breath," the Economist magazine wrote
almost a decade ago.
At the creation of the United Nations in 1945, the United States,
along with the other World War II victors, consciously sought
to make the institution an instrument of their collective desire
to maintain both peace and control in the post-war world.
In the post-Cold War period, regional and economic factions have
emerged. One major split is between "developed" and
"developing nations." These two sides often disagree
on trade and environmental issues. The ongoing factional disagreements
and internal political maneuvering have sometimes hampered the
institution's ability to reach consensus and to implement change.
Many of the problems facing the United Nations are reflected
in the Security Council, whose five permanent members are the
nations that emerged victorious from the war.
In a 1995 essay for U.S. News & World Report, international
affairs commentator Fouad Ajami wrote that U.S. President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, who coined the name of the organization "thought
that the work of the United Nations would be done by the Security
Council, where the Big Four -- China, Russia, the United States
and Britain (FDR never counted France among the powers) -- would
exercise real power. In his vision, the General Assembly was to
meet once a year to 'blow off steam.'"
In recent years, some General Assembly members have called for
seats to be added to the council in order to reflect more regional
diversity and to acknowledge new economic world powers. An independent
panel appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2004 has laid
out two models for expanding the Security Council by adding nine
new members. Debate over the plans has been fierce, stirring up
regional, political and economic rivalries.
The disagreement over Security Council expansion has underscored
the fact that the nations of the General Assembly often divide
themselves into political, military and economic factions, with
each faction voting and advocating for its own interest.
Military Intervention and Peacekeeping
Disasters involving regional U.N. peacekeeping missions
since the end of the Cold War have led to harsh criticism of the
United Nations and calls for reform of the way it conducts peacekeeping
activities. The criticism reached a peak in the 1990s after U.N.
peacekeeping troops were unable to prevent the slaughter of civilians
in Rwanda and Bosnia.
The United Nations also has been criticized for its role in longer-term
military interventions and peacemaking initiatives dating back
to the Cold War.
The year 1950 marked the beginning of the first major military
operation in support of a U.N. resolution. The Security Council,
minus the Soviet Union, called on all U.N. member states to help
South Korea repel an invasion from the North.
Some critics of the United Nations have said that this first
U.N. military action highlights its ineffectiveness in dealing
with aggression. More than five decades later, the Korean conflict
is largely unresolved and continually threatens to heat up as
North Korea pursues a nuclear weapons program.
Similar long-term standoffs have emerged from other U.N. interventions
and peacekeeping efforts.
Lines drawn as part of the 1967 peace agreement following the
Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors have been continuously
disputed, and multiple U.N. resolutions seeking to end the dispute
between Israelis and Palestinians have been unsuccessful.
"The United Nations has demonstrated in the last 50 years
total impotence when it came to the Arab-Israeli conflict,"
American University professor Amos Perlmutter said in a 1997 Online
NewsHour forum. Perlmutter added that the "U.N. as an instrument
for achieving peace and security is ineffective."
Defending the Organization
Defenders of the United Nations argue that the organization
is only as powerful as its individual members allow it to be.
Some U.N. members have called for a bigger, better trained and
more aggressive U.N. peacekeeping force in order to prevent another
Rwanda or Bosnia. This change has been resisted by the United
States and other nations as a threat to national sovereignty and
a violation of the U.N. charter.
Both critics and defenders of the United Nations have highlighted
the fact that the organization now has little effective enforcement
capability without action by individual member nations or coalitions.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces eventually took over
the Bosnian conflict, enforcing U.N. resolutions by bombing Serb
leader Slobodan Milosovec into submission.
In the first Gulf War a broad international coalition backed
the United States as it expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
"Serious fighting, it is now thought, is better left to
'multinational forces,' a phrase that covers NATO or an ad hoc
coalition led by a major power," the Economist wrote in 1995.
"It is good if the U.N. can authorize action, and then take
over once the way is clear."
The Security Council and the General Assembly, however, aren't
always able to agree on whether to authorize action, in order
to allow a multinational force to operate with the United Nations'
the second Iraq war, U.N. member nations were split on whether
to take military action against Saddam Hussein's regime. Critics
within the Bush administration derided the United Nations for
being ineffective and unwilling to enforce its own decrees --
allowing a ruthless and dangerous dictator to flaunt his defiance
of the institution.
Defenders of the organization claimed the process of international
debate and deliberation was proper. They pointed to the lack of
large caches of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as proof that
the United States acted hastily instead of yielding to international
Since its inception, the United Nations has had an often
contentious relationship with its founder and largest contributor,
the United States. In a 2003 paper, Columbia University professor
of international and public affairs Edward Luck wrote that just
two years after it was founded, the United Nations was the target
of a U.S. congressional investigation that said the international
body was poorly managed.
In 1999, Newsweek wrote that the United States, "the nation
that lovingly fathered the United Nations in the closing days
of World War, now sees it as a prodigal son, and a rather hopeless
one at that."
The organization has long been a target of critical American
politicians, who have claimed it is ineffective in its mission,
a money waster and a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
During the 1990s North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms,
former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led
a successful effort to withhold funding from the United Nations
unless it heeded calls for reform.
During that time, hatred of the United Nations found a place
on the cultural fringe of the United States. Among the conspiracy
theorists and militia movements of the decade, rumors spread about
black U.N. helicopters reconnoitering on U.S. soil in advance
of a takeover by U.N. forces.
In spite of opposition in political and cultural realms in the
1990s, the Economist reported that two thirds of Americans thought
the United States should cooperate with the United Nations.
In 1994, in an effort to bring change, Annan appointed
Karl-Theodor Paschke as inspector general and Joseph Conner, a
former chairman of the Price Waterhouse accounting firm, to be
the institution's administrative chief.
Conner was generally hailed as a breath of fresh air and Annan
was applauded for the appointment of an accountant, which was
unorthodox by U.N. standards.
Annan's and Conner's reforms included instituting an early retirement
program to reduce the organization's top-heavy headquarters contingent,
creating a more accurate employee evaluation system, merging redundant
offices and functions, and outsourcing jobs like printing and
It was hoped that these internal administrative changes would
bring a turnaround in larger U.N. efforts.
Though largely considered a success, the administrative
reforms of the late 1990s have given way to new allegations of
malfeasance, particularly in the U.N. oil-for-food program. The
program was set up to allow Iraq's Saddam Hussein regime to sell
some of its oil to provide food and medical aid to its people.
Selling oil for profit was banned by U.N. sanctions.
After the beginning of the Iraq war, allegations emerged that
U.N. officials, contractors and government officials of nations
that did business with Iraq were given direct payoffs in return
for looking the other way while Saddam cheated the oil-for-food
program to enrich his regime.
As allegations of corruption emerged, including the charge that
Annan's son Kojo benefited from oil-for-food corruption, the secretary-general
ordered an independent committee led by former U.S. Federal Reserve
Chairman Paul Volcker to investigate the scandal.
Volcker's investigation substantiated corruption allegations.
"Our assignment has been to look for mis- or mal-administration
in the oil-for-food program, and for evidence of corruption within
the U.N. organization and by contractors. Unhappily, we found
both," Volcker said in a report to the Security Council on
Sept. 8, 2005.
The investigation found that Saddam Hussein likely raked in some
$12 billion from illegal oil sales during the years the program
was in operation.
The investigation cleared Kofi Annan of direct involvement with
illegal activity but did not absolve him from responsibility.
Annan's Proposal for Reform
As the oil-for-food scandal unfolded, Annan, faced with
an onslaught of criticism, was working on a major reform plan.
Presented in March 2005, Newsweek magazine called the proposal
a prescription for "the most radical reforms in the U.N.'s
60-year history" and a direct response to U.S. criticism.
Among other things, Annan's proposal aimed to expand the Security
Council, reform the Human Rights Commission, revamp the economic
and social council, strengthen peacekeeping missions, reform the
headquarters bureaucracy and strengthen nuclear nonproliferation