Global Policy Forum

Stabbing UN Reform in the Back


By Beatrice Edwards*

January 3, 2007

Of all the reforms waiting for Ban Ki-Moon to bring to the U.N. in 2007, none is more crucial than the establishment of an independent and efficient internal justice system for management and staff. Because the United Nations is an international organization, it enjoys sovereign immunity: its employees have no access to national courts when retaliated against for exposing abuse of authority and malfeasance, either internal or external to the organization.

For many years, U.S. neocons have bleated away about the need to reform the U.N., whining about the resistance to meritorious reform measures, threatening to cut off funding and wailing about their inability to control the crack-brained decision making of the representatives of half-baked Third World Reject Governments and tin-pot dictators disguised as diplomats. But the thing is, when the tin-pot dictators actually endorse serious and substantive reforms that would allow the U.N. greater autonomy by strengthening its internal institutions, the U.S. invariably balks. Ban Ki-Moon was backed by the United States in large part because he is seen as "reform-minded." How will he face his first test of trying to actually reform the institution in the face of U.S. intransigence?

In January 2006, the General Assembly, at the behest of the Group of 77, directed the secretary-general to set up a panel of international jurists to report on the state of the internal justice system at the U.N. Kofi Annan, himself much-slandered by the neocons, established with remarkable speed a panel that included renowned experts on international law from Canada, Egypt, Australia, Nigeria and Peru. In less than six months, the Panel for the Redesign of the Internal Justice System of the United Nations delivered its report to the secretary-general.

The panel concluded that the existing U.N. justice system did not meet the minimum standards of due process established in international law: the right to a speedy hearing in an objective tribunal, and the right to effective remedies for harm suffered. Panel members declared the existing justice system a disgrace, a problem that cripples the organization because, when staff members face illegitimate and unethical political interference in programs, they have no protection if they report it. The panel's recommendations set out clear steps to fix the system. Well, this was not quite what the U.S. neocons had in mind; they're not interested in reforms that strengthen the U.N. and fortify its autonomy in the face of the self-interested machinations of its most powerful member. This panel had slipped the leash.

So the U.S. delegation abruptly changed course. In April, 2006, recess-appointed U.N.-basher-in-chief Ambassador John Bolton had this to say about reforms:

[T]he business-as-usual practices of the U.N. are inadequate and it's time for reform. It's time for reform of management, it's time for a reform of programs. That's why our secretary of state called for a lasting revolution of reform here. That's what we're after and those that stand in the way of it need to understand that our purpose has not changed.

Fast forward to this past November, when the redesign panel's reform recommendations were considered in the legal affairs committee. The U.S. delegate said the reform of the U.N. justice system was complex, and the U.N. must proceed with care and reach conclusions only after due consideration. The U.S. had substantive concerns about the recommendations and was willing "[T]o begin the work of discussing the report but not necessarily of concluding consideration of the item."

In contrast, the Syrian delegation declared that the U.N. justice system had been neglected too long and justice should be ensured for the staff. The Syrians thought the redesign panel's report was "a pillar of the reform of human resources management proposed by the secretary-general" and "[O]ptimum use of the staff depended on a system of administration of justice in accordance with international norms." The Syrian delegate then endorsed an expeditious manner of debating and approving the panel's recommendations.

When speaking of the U.N., the Bush administration (itself, of course, a tragic shambles) is virtually a one-note band about "reform." But just as their statements about democracy, freedom and human rights are frequently hypocritical and deceitful, Bush and his former ambassador, John Bolton, have represented their positions publicly in a way that is exactly the opposite of the real deal. Because they seek to use the U.N. for selective and deceptive purposes, having mostly to do with promoting war rather than peace, any reform that would actually strengthen the organization and its capacity as a force for peace and justice, they secretly and cynically oppose.

About the Author: Beatrice Edwards is the international program director of the Government Accountability Project in Washington, DC.

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