Socialist Worker

Can the UN be reformed?

Issue No. 1713

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Can the UN be reformed?

By Kevin Ovenden

THE MILLENNIUM summit of the United Nations (UN) was to take place in New York this week against a backdrop of protests and counter-conferences. These are now as much a feature of gatherings of world leaders as champagne and caviar.

For most of the protesters, the UN was not the target. Rather, it offered a possible solution to global suffering. It is easy to understand why.

The world is out of control. Wars and brutal repression rage. Half the world's population live on under $2 a day. Surely the UN can provide some restraint?

Its founding charter, written at the end of the Second World War, talks of ridding the world of war. It has a democratic veneer. Each of the 184 member states has a seat on its general assembly.

It funds offshoots, such as the High Commission on Refugees and the World Health Organisation, which have sometimes embarrassed powerful states. One of the main concerns of the protesters in New York is the way these organisations and UN officials have become enmeshed with corporations.

The secretary general of the UN, Kofi Annan, wrote earlier this year, "In a world of common challenges, the UN and business are finding common ground." He called for UN agencies to team up with multinationals. Favoured firms are notorious for labour, environmental and human rights violations. They include Nike, Shell, Rio Tinto, Novartis, BP, McDonald's, Unocal, Bayer and DuPont.

This comes seven years after Annan's predecessor scrapped the UN body which helped developing countries monitor and negotiate with large companies. The UN's flaws, however, run far deeper than this latest capitulation to the sweatshop employers and polluters.

It has always been little more than a plaything of the Great Powers. The victorious Allied powers shaped its birth in 1945. The US, Britain, France, Russia and China were given permanent seats on the UN's Security Council.

They have the power to veto resolutions and can authorise the use of military force when they agree. Throughout the Cold War the US and Russia intervened militarily in their own spheres-for example, Vietnam and Czechoslovakia-without interference from the UN.

Weaker countries could protest but could not bring the imperial powers to heel. The US in particular used its diplomatic and economic clout to silence critics. It stymied UN condemnation of its ally Indonesian dictator General Suharto when he invaded East Timor in 1975.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, US ambassador to the UN, later wrote, "The State Department desired that the UN prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. "This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

On the rare occasions when the UN criticised the major powers and their allies, nothing happened. Israel continues to ignore UN resolutions condemning its occupation of Arab land. The balance of power in the world has shifted since the collapse of the USSR's empire in 1991.

The US, often through NATO, has intervened more aggressively across the world. It has sought UN backing, for example, giving Russia $1 billion of aid in 1990 in return for its support in the war against Iraq. It organised the UN's military intervention in the Somali civil war in 1993. The escapade cost 10,000 Somali casualties.

Warmonger Madeleine Albright summed up the US's attitude when she was its ambassador to the UN, saying, "We will behave multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must."

So the US bombed Serbia last year, and before that Sudan and Afghanistan, without UN support. The US government used the hundreds of millions of dollars it owes the UN to demand US-friendly policies.

Talk of reforming the UN is misplaced. The only likely reforms are of the kind proposed by Britain's foreign secretary Robin Cook, which are designed to give greater legitimacy to US-led wars against so called rogue states.

International agreements have never stopped wars. There was a flurry of peace conferences before the First and Second World Wars. Of course, imperialist states stand even more exposed when they have to break their own hypocritical and self serving "international laws" to get their own way.

But the fiction of an independent UN is no defence to their aggression. That lies with the victims of the imperialist world order-the world's poor and oppressed, who are excluded from diplomatic conferences.


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Sat 9 Sep 2000, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1713
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