Thursday, April 24, 2008

a brief UN primer

So, for those who aren't familiar with the UN and how it works, here's a brief primer. (It'll be useful when I make less long-winded posts later on.) There are several main bodies in the UN worth knowing.

1. The General Assembly. The General Assembly is the most democratic of UN bodies. It contains every member state of the UN. Currently, there's 192, not counting Kosovo. Every country has one vote in the UN. The upside of this is that it represents global opinion. The downside is, when Pulau gets the same voting weight as India, and North Korea has the same weight as the US, it's not very geopolitically realistic. Except for matters of determining the United Nations budget, most American officials think that the GA ceased to become relevant in 1974, when the Assembly adopted a resolution equating Zionism with racisim, and our ambassador at the time Daniel Patrick Moynihan stood up and basically informed the GA that they no longer mattered in world affairs. That's pretty much been US policy ever since. As former Amb. John Bolton once told me of a GA resolution on development, "As far as I can tell it will have no impact on the real world whatsoever." Beat. "Which makes it a typical General Assembly resolution."

Sidenote: The GA also has many many committees that I may mention. For example, it has a budget committee. It has a social, humanitarian and cultural committee, which mostly passes resolutions that are directly or indirectly related to Palestine. It has a Human Rights Council (based in Geneva), which almost exclusively passes resolutions about Palestine. It also has many working groups, about two thirds of which relate in some way to Palestine. (The UN is very concerned about Palestine.) It has something called the Open-Ended Working Group on Security Council Reform. Note that by cleverly adding the words "open-ended" to the title, the delegates have ensured that even after 15 straight years of meetings and no result, they do not have to admit defeat. This is a recurring trend. GA committees are the only ones I have heard that voluntarily refer to themselves as "ad hoc." See, for most people that is an insult. Not in the GA. The "Ad Hoc Committee on Such and Such" can often be found meeting in some conference room in the basement, which always gives me a chuckle.

2. The Security Council. The Council has 15 members. Ten of the members are nonpermanent. They serve 2 years terms and rotate. Five are permanent, and can veto anything that comes through the Council. Unlike the GA, Council resolutions are binding. So the GA can declare that everyone has the right to food, but they don't really until the Security Council says so. The five countries with veto power are the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China. The first five to get nuclear weapons, coincidentally enough.

3. The Secretariat. The Secretariat is the UN's bureaucracy who work in the New York headquarters. The top official there is the Secretary-General. The current SG is Ban Ki-moon of South Korea. I mention this because many people think that Kofi Annan is still the SG. This is because Kofi had rockstar charisma and everyone knew who he was, which earned him broad popularity worldwide and widespread loathing here in the United States. Mr. Ban (or "Mr. Ki-moon," as some press accidentally call him, not realizing that for Koreans the family name comes first), keeps a relatively low profile, so he's not especially publicly admired or loathed. But the building keeps working.

4. The agencies. The UN has many aid and development agencies. The biggest and most powerful is the UN Development Program (UNDP) which is mostly known in the US for getting into scandals involving cash transfers to North Korea and similarly evil regimes. If you believe the Wall Street Journal editorial page, they directly financed the North's nuclear weapons program. Other agencies include UNICEF (UN children's agency) UNIFEM (women's agency), WHO (World Health Organization), FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization), and WFP (World Food Programme).

5. The peacekeeping missions. Peacekeeping has grown tremendously in the past few years. There are now almost 20 missions, with some hundred thousand blue-helmeted soldiers, doing peacekeeping, border duty, etc. Virtually all of them are in Africa or Israel's neighbors, though a handful are scattered to such unstable locales as Haiti, East Timor, and Nepal. The upside of peacekeepers is that being blue helmets, they have international credibility and aren't seen as a biased actor in most places. They're also much cheaper than, say, US forces. The downside is, sometimes they become part of the problem, or at least fail to solve the problem. For example, take UNIFIL. That stands for the UN Interim Force In Lebanon. Guess how long that "interim" force has been there? Well, it's been 30 years now and counting.

One more point. I would like to take this point to debunk two very commonly voiced false claims about the UN:

a. It's a world government that impinges US sovereignty. People who claim this apparently fail to realize that first of all, the UN charter specifically says the UN cannot intefere with a nation's sovereign affairs, and second of all, even in the rare instances that it can, bear in mind that the US, China, Russia, the UK, and France can each veto anything of consequence. So it's only a world government to the effect that all five of those nations, plus most of the developing world, are in on the fix. The day that happens... well, Ronald Reagan said it best.

b. The UN fails to solve problems. People who claim this apparently fail to realize that the UN by itself isn't SUPPOSED to be able to do anything. Someone smart, possibly Richard Holbrooke, once said that blaming the UN for fecklessness is like blaming Madison Square Garden for the Knicks doing badly. The UN is just a building, just a tool. If the UN isn't working, it's because the member states can't agree. Which is, um, often.

Got it? That's your UN primer. Have a nice day.

1 comment: said...

Wow that actually helps a lot. Thanks!