Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 18 December 2006

The UN has a new chief but will policies change?

The new Secretary General of the United Nations was sworn in last week.
He will have a tough act ahead, particularly on reviving the multilateral principles on which the UN is based.  How to maintain the integrity of the UN from interference of the United States is one of the biggest challenges, as the retiring Secretary General Kofi Annan found out.


Last week the new Secretary General of the United Nations took his oath of office.  He will have a tough job ahead of him.

Ban Ki Moon, the former Foreign Minister of South Korea, will replace Kofi Annan on 1 January.

He told the UN delegates he would “set the highest ethical standard” and was deeply mindful of key words in the oath, loyalty, discretion and conscience.

Ban also swore to conduct himself solely in the interests of the United Nations and to refuse to accept instructions from any government or other authority.

This last promise will be perhaps the hardest to fulfill, given the track record of big powers, especially the United States, that have attempted to make use and manipulate of the UN in their own interests.

An unforgettable image during Kofi Annan’s term of office was that of the then United States Secretary of State Colin Powell at the Security Council making use of a power point presentation complete with satellite photographs and diagrams allegedly proving that Saddam Hussein was producing and hiding weapons of mass destruction.

It was an attempt to get Security Council approval in advance of the United States-United Kingdom invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Fortunately the Security Council was not convinced and the two allies embarked on their Iraqi military adventure without UN authorization.

But the United Nations was severely damaged.  The key principle that a military attack on another country must have the sanction of the United Nations was violated, and multilateralism lay in tatters.

The subsequent discovery that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the admittance by Powell that his Security Council performance was misleading, showed up the correctness of the majority of UN members of not condoning the US-UK action.

But the UN was powerless to stop or even condemn the Iraq invasion.  Now, years later, events on the ground in Iraq, particularly the resistance against the occupying forces and the sectarian conflict, have exposed how horribly wrong the US-UK actions have been.

Kofi Annan, who was conspicuously quiet when the invasion took place, after some time increasingly voiced critical views.  In a famous interview on BBC, he expressed that the invasion of Iraq was against international law.

That got the Bush administration furious with him.  By “coincidence” it kept raking up aspects of the oil-for-food scandal that could implicate Kofi Annan and a contract his son obtained.

Reforms were undertaken that weakened the Secretary-General’s powers, including removing many of his own officials and having a new Deputy Secretary General who took over many of the Secretary General’s roles.

The United States, however, continued its hostile attitude towards the UN, with John Bolton (known for his contempt previously for the world body) taking over as Ambassador.

Now that Bolton has announced he is leaving his post, perhaps the new Secretary General will have a slightly easier day-to-day relation with the U.S.

In one of his last speeches as Secretary General, Kofi Annan, implicitly criticised the U.S. for committing human rights abuses in the name of the war on terror.

Speaking at the Harry Truman Library in Missouri, Annan said:  “Human rights and the rule of law are vital to global security and prosperity. As Truman said, “We must, once and for all, prove by our acts conclusively that Right Has Might.”

“That's why this country has historically been in the vanguard of the global human rights movement. But that lead can only be maintained if America remains true to its principles, including in the struggle against terrorism. When it appears to abandon its own ideals and objectives, its friends abroad are naturally troubled and confused.

“And states need to play by the rules towards each other, as well as towards their own citizens. That can sometimes be inconvenient, but ultimately what matters is not inconvenience. It is doing the right thing.

“No state can make its own actions legitimate in the eyes of others. When power, especially military force, is used, the world will consider it legitimate only when convinced that it is being used for the right purpose – for broadly shared aims – in accordance with broadly accepted norms.”

He added that the Security Council was not a platform to act out national interests, and said it was folly to believe security rested on military strength.  “NO nation can make itself secure by seeking supremacy over all others.”

In his last two weeks of this year, Ban Ki Moon might do well to receive tips from Kofi Annan on how to deal and not to deal with the U.S.

The new Secretary General, to be credible and to be true to his own pledge, must learn to be independent of the world’s super-power, and at the same time not alienate it so much that it will ignore the U.N. and continue with unilateral actions that violate international law, with no punitive action possible against it.

“What can we do about the United States?”  has been the big question that underlies many of the dilemmas of international diplomacy, and it will continue during the term of the new Secretary General.

Handling the United States will thus be one of his biggest jobs, alongside furthering the United Nations’ effectiveness in the areas of security, development and humanitarian affairs.