Global Policy Forum

A Chance to Improve the United Nations


By Cesar Chalala

Middle East Times
January 8, 2009

The United States is continually failing to pay its U.N. dues, which jeopardizes valuable work, such as U.N. peacekeeping operations it depends on so much. And then it criticizes the United Nations as inefficient. In recent times the United Nations has become the target of criticisms, particularly in the United States. However, the failure of the United States to pay its dues to the organization has considerably hindered its work and reduced its effectiveness. The election of a new U.S. president is a unique chance for improving the United Nations and to make it even more responsive to the needs of people around the world.

Having worked as an independent consultant for several agencies of the United Nations for almost three decades, I have been able to assess its shortcomings, but also to see its achievements. It has been particularly useful for me when I compared the work of the United Nations with that of other international organizations for which I also work. It is true that the organization is inefficient. Inefficiency, however, is not a prerogative of the United Nations. Because of its failure to act more forcefully in several conflicts, the U.N. has been called irrelevant. As the one organization in which all countries can freely voice their opinions, it is now as relevant as ever. Or, to put it more clearly, the United Nations will be as relevant as the member states want it to be.

Totally absent from these pronouncements is any recognition of the organization's accomplishments and the important role it has played in world peace, health and development. A complex group of agencies belong to the United Nations, such as the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) which has a remarkable record of improving children's lives; the World Health Organization (WHO), which has led a sustained effort for better health throughout the world; the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) which has supported the development efforts of poor countries; the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) and UNIFEM (U.N. Development Fund for Women) which have dramatically improved the lives of women worldwide.

Among the criticisms leveled at the organization in the United States is the size of America's financial contribution. The United States is the main contributor to the U.N. system, with close to 25 percent of the total budget (including the regular and peacekeeping budgets.) However, when contributions are considered as a percentage of the industrialized countries' gross national product, the United States is at the bottom of the list. When the U.N. Charter was ratified, all member states agreed to finance the costs of the organization as apportioned by the U.N. General Assembly. In spite of that, the United States has failed to pay its U.N. dues on time and in full for several years. This jeopardizes valuable work, such as U.N. peacekeeping operations. In addition, unilaterally withholding dues – which former president Jimmy Carter has called a disgrace - engenders unnecessary resentment among other member states that struggle to fulfill their obligation.

As of March 2008, the United States owed more than $2.4 billion in longstanding arrears to the United Nations. In addition, the U.S., which habitually is late in paying its dues, is deeply indebted to U.N. peacekeeping operations. This situation not only threatens efforts to stop the violence in Darfur, but also the effectiveness of 16 other U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world, even as the United States votes for new and larger missions. To underscore the fundamental responsibility of the U.S. to fund the United Nations should not deter us from recognizing the shortcomings of this organization. Yes, the U.N. should be more efficient, overlapping tasks should be eliminated and system-wide coordination should be improved. But any streamlining should be preceded by a serious reassessment of priorities and objectives.

The universality of the United Nations as an instrument to preserve peace and security is as valid now as it was at the time of its creation in 1945. No group of nations or "league of democracies" could play such a role. To do that, however, the United States, as the more powerful country in the world, should allow and understand dissent from other member states. The U.N.'s job is not rubber stamping any member country's policies. However, as Tony Blair famously declared during his last visit to the United States as prime minister, "Powerful nations want more effective multilateral institutions – when they think those institutions will do their will. What they fear is effective multilateral institutions that do their own will." Despite its shortcomings, the United Nations is still the best guarantee for world peace. Rather than advocating actions that would precipitate its demise, steps should be taken to strengthen it and facilitate the completion of its complex tasks. The new U.S. leadership has a unique role and responsibility in these efforts.

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