Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Kristof on the United Nations

First, let me begin today by offering a brief apology for the sparse blogging lately. I'm buried under piles and piles of papers and exams to grade, and am slowly digging myself out.

Next, I want to call attention to Nicholas Kristof's piece in today's New York Times entitled "Dithering Through Death." It is a withering attack on the UN and its role (or lack thereof) in preventing genocide and other egregious crimes against humanity. Some of the best quotes:

The sad fact is that the U.N. is a wimp. It publishes fine reports and is terrific at handing out food and organizing vaccination campaigns, but the General Assembly and the Security Council routinely doze through crimes against humanity.


My guess is that the recent peace deal in Darfur will fall apart. It is fragile on the rebel side, and Sudan is probably lying once again when it promises to disarm the janjaweed militia. All that said, this peace agreement is the best hope we have to end the genocide, and the U.N. needs to back it up by dispatching an international force to Darfur. If the U.N. fails that test in the coming weeks, it will have disgraced itself again.

Frankly, the U.N. has regularly failed abysmally in situations like the one in Darfur, when military intervention is needed but a major power (in this case China) uses the threat of a veto to block action.


But by and large, victims of war and genocide are served about as well by the U.N. as earlier generations were by the Kellogg-Briand pact to outlaw war. Granted, when the U.N. fails, that simply means that its member states fail — but the upshot is still that when genocide alarm bells tinkle, the places to call are Washington, London and Paris, not New York.

Does this mean I buy into the right wing's denunciations of the U.N.?

No, partly because the U.N. agencies do a fine job in humanitarian operations. The World Food Program and Unicef are first-rate; they jointly run the U.N. operation I most admire, the school-feeding program. For 19 cents a day per child, they provide meals in impoverished schools, and those meals hugely increase school attendance (see www.wfp.org).

And without the World Food Program organizing food shipments to Sudan and Chad, hundreds of thousands more people would have died. Those U.N. field workers are heroic — just this month, a 37-year-old Spanish woman working for Unicef was shot and critically injured in Chad. People like her redeem the honor of the U.N.


John Bolton, now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., once suggested it wouldn't matter if the U.N.'s top 10 floors were lopped off. But let's not do that — the U.N. is far better than the alternative of having no such institution. But take it from this disillusioned fan of the U.N. system: let's also be realistic and drop any fantasy that the U.N. is going to save the day as a genocide unfolds. In that mission, the U.N. is failing about as badly as the League of Nations did.

Kristof is a bit more optimistic about the UN in general than I, but his point is well taken. The UN, as with many international institutions, works best when it coordinates the activities of states with commensurate interests. When it tries to work against the interest of states -- actions that typically require force or at least the threat of force -- it is practically useless, and sometimes even deterimental, as it distracts from the task at hand. It would be a great thing if the UN could focus more on what it does well -- peacekeeping, organizing and monitoring elections, providing humanitarian aid, organizing vaccination campaigns, etc. -- and less on what it does not do well, like preventing genocide.

On a related note, the UN Security Council just approved a resolution calling for strict observance of the recent peace deal between the Sudanese government and the main rebel group. However, as the article notes, the deal is already being "widely violated," and it's clear that the African Union peacekeeping force on the ground is incapable of enforcing it or protecting Darfur. Unless Sudan agrees to allow a more robust force of UN peacekeepers into the area (given the recent record of UN troops raping women, however, maybe that's not such a great idea either), as Ethiopa has urged Sudan to do, the deal has no chance. When and if that moment comes, the burden will be on the UN to prove that it puts the protection of innocents above sovereign immunity of murderous regimes. When the UN fails, let's hope the US steps up.

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