Celebrating a 60th anniversary should be a cause for quite some celebration. But it is fair to say that there is little to celebrate at the United Nations.
By any reasonable measure, a yawning gap exists between the high ideals on which the UN was founded in San Francisco and today's institution. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan conceded in his annual report to the General Assembly last year, rarely have such dire forecasts been made about the UN. As Annan put it: "We have reached a fork in the road … a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the UN was founded."
While those on the left eagerly point the finger at the US and its decision to invade Iraq (among others) as being responsible for this crisis of legitimacy, the truth is that the UN problems are far more deep-seated. The inability of the UN to deal with the Iraqi dictatorship was symbolic of its broader failure to address the rising global threats posed by international terrorism and rogue states.
Not to mention the scandal of the UN oil-for-food program where billions were siphoned off to prop up Saddam Hussein's regime and the stain of corruption extending to implicate many of Annan's close associates within the UN and even ensnare the secretary-general's son.
As former foreign minister Gareth Evans, an unabashed UN fan, put it recently in The Australian, "the UN is still the piranha pool of diplomats enjoying tearing flesh off each other, to the total exclusion of any enthusiasm for high principle or effectiveness of the organisation".
While many hoped the UN would resemble the sum of its parts, it tends to reflect the lowest common denominator.
As US President George W. Bush has warned, the UN is in danger of fading into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society. Australia and the world need a UN that works. Unfortunately, the UN as it exists today is extremely dysfunctional and ineffective and the reforms necessary to make it a more effective organisation - specifically reforms designed to improve the transparency and accountability of the UN bureaucracy - have foundered, in spite of a constructive role played by countries such as Australia.
As an institution, the UN has proved remarkably impervious to internal reform - a perennial agenda item since its inception - due to a combination of bureaucratic resistance within the UN itself and spoiling by member states (the type of petty spoiling that saw the UN General Assembly unable to agree on a definition of terrorism). Attempts to bring about reforms to tackle corruption, waste, incompetence and even sexual abuse within the UN have been somewhat of a disappointment.
In such an environment, it’s hardly surprising that Prime Minister John Howard in his address to the UN in September observed that we should not think that the UN can solve all the world's problems, nor that it should attempt to do so.
For instance, when the Boxing Day tsunami struck, the Australian, US and several other governments did not wait around for UN bureaucrats to return from holidays so that they could carry out urgent humanitarian work in the tsunami-affected countries under UN leadership. Rather, they got stuck in and helped straight away by sending their military forces in.
Of course, where feasible Australia should work through the UN and its agencies to achieve positive outcomes, but this should not be done slavishly to the exclusion of other multilateral instruments and assembling coalitions of the willing of other like-minded nations where the need arises.
As Howard noted in the same speech, the type of multilateralism embodied in organisations such as the UN can be but one element of comprehensive foreign policy. The challenges and threats facing us today are such that, given the nature of the UN today, it's a brave and or foolish political leader that puts all their trust in the UN. While the UN can afford to continue to fail, Australia can't. Therefore we should continue to look at other options for getting the job done.
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