Friday, January 16, 2004

UN-haters ask me why I'm such a big fan of the organization. The General Assembly has a lot of autocratic members as does the Security Council and various specialized commissions. This is certainly regrettable, but I'm not sure what can be done. There are a lot of Americans who are despicable twits (racists and homophobes spring to mind) but we don't strip them of the right to vote. The Security Council gives each of members a unilateral veto over decisions (US, France, Britain, China and Russia, not coincidentally the winners of World War II); this is undemocratic but none of the five are rushing to give up that power.

One main difference (of many) is that the UN-haters see the UN as comprising solely its pseudo-legislative organs: the General Assembly (GA), the Security Council (SC) and the commissions. Frankly, there's not a heck of a lot about these organs that makes you want to wave a power blue UN flag.

The GA is run democratically but has no power; given its membership, I'm not sure I'd want it to have power. The SC has some power but is run undemocratically. The commissions are divided up geographically and seats rotate within a region. So we get the farcical spectacle of Libya chairing the Human Rights Commission or the US chairing the Disarmament Commission. Though there is something to be said for states venting their spleen at the talking shop of the General Assembly instead of going to war. It does lead to certain injustices, like the utterly disproportionate targeting of Israel by GA resolutions; the idea of Egypt or Saudi Arabia lecturing anyone on human rights is laughable. This is why I'm glad the GA has no real power. But again, better a talking shop than war.

Still though, the American press treats the UN as the totality of these legislative bodies. Having lived abroad, I see the UN differently. To me, the UN is also the World Health Organization organizing anti-polio vaccination campaigns. It's UNAIDS supporting HIV education. It's the Food and Agriculture Organization offering advice to struggling farmers. It's the UNHCR offering food and sanctuary to tens of millions of refugees around the world. It's UNICEF supporting girls' education programs or supporting efforts to demobilize 12 year old boy soldiers with kalashnakovs.

The UN is hardly perfect. And a great many of its weaknesses were consciously built in by those who wanted it to be weak; others are inherent to any multinational bureaucracy. But if you're going to judge the UN, at least be fair enough to judge it in its totality, not simply because the Security Council refused (one time) to carry water for the administration in Washington. UN agencies help millions of people around the world. And although very few of those helped are Americans, I still think it's a pretty good thing.

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