United Nations - whipping boy or world saviour?


UN: The upcoming meeting of the General Assembly must show that the United Nations can rise to new challenges or else it will face irrelevance, writes Deaglán de Bréadún, Foreign Affairs Correspondent

As he lay dying in the rubble of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on August 19th last, Sergio Vieira de Mello told the US Army sergeant engaged in frantic but futile efforts to rescue him: "Don't let them pull the UN out of Iraq. Don't let them fail this mission." Sgt William von Zehle did not realise at the time that the dying man was Secretary General Kofi Annan's Special Representative in Iraq, but he remembered the message and passed it on to de Mello's colleagues.

Old diplomatic hands believe the suicide bombing of its Baghdad headquarters was "the UN's 9-11". But his remarkable message in the face of death showed that the Brazilian diplomat knew how important it was for the UN to defy its enemies and detractors and continue its activities on behalf of all humanity.

Torn between the roles of whipping boy and saviour, the UN rarely succeeds in pleasing everybody but even its most vocal detractors generally discover in the end that they cannot do without the world body.

Even the US, the world's sole remaining superpower, found it needed more than token help from the UN to deal with the Iraqi situation. As the Secretary General told Time magazine recently: "I think it has become obvious that the challenge is much larger than anticipated and that one nation cannot tackle it alone." As the UN gears up for the debate at its 58th General Assembly session next week, Mr Annan captured the mood with another statement: "The opening of the General Assembly session in September every year is always a moment of considerable expectation. This year, we approach it with heavy hearts."

The tragic deaths of Vieira de Mello and 21 colleagues and associates in the Baghdad explosion will weigh heavily on the proceedings. In addition, it is only two years since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, which were mainly centred in New York, host city of the UN for six decades.

There is a prominent "pop art" sculpture at UN headquarters, donated by the Luxembourg government, which shows a handgun with its barrel tied into a knot. Another sculpture, donated in 1959 by the Soviet Union, depicts a man using a hammer to beat his sword into a ploughshare.

The Soviet Union and pop art have come and gone, but still there is no peace. In many ways, since 9-11, the world seems more threatened than ever, whether from terrorist attacks or an ill-planned and unfocused response to terrorism.

Set up at the end of the second World War, the UN was intended as a vehicle for the achievement of international peace, security and stability so that we would never again have to go through the trauma and suffering caused by two world conflicts.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall seemed to offer a chance for the UN to reassert itself in this role, now that the threat of war between two superpowers had disappeared. But various disasters during the 1990s, in places as far apart as Rwanda, Serebrenica and Somalia, gravely damaged the organisation's credibility as a genuine force for peace and security. The new millennium saw the UN relegated to a secondary role on the world stage.

Earlier this year, however, the UN was back in the spotlight as the only body through which serious international differences over Iraq might be discussed and even resolved. Every schoolchild knows the saga of the refusal by France and others to back a second resolution giving the seal of legitimacy to the US-led attack on Saddam Hussein's regime.

Some say the failure to achieve consensus at the Security Council was damaging to the UN, but at least the whole affair showed how ordinary people worldwide still looked to the tall building on the East River as their source of validation for a major conflict. For its part, the UN can at least claim that it is not just Washington's rubber stamp.

Whither the UN now? After the conflict, the healing. Mr Annan has written to leaders of all 191 member-states, asking them to make a special effort to attend this crucial General Assembly. George W Bush, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schröder and others have responded to his call, although Tony Blair will not be present.

Ireland's speech would normally be delivered by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, but in response to Mr Annan's appeal, the Taoiseach will instead address the world from the General Assembly podium on September 25th (the formal opening of the new Assembly session is tomorrow but most interest centres on the general debate from September 23rd to October 3rd).

In his speech, Mr Ahern will express Ireland's continuing support for a multilateral approach to international problems, particularly through a revitalised and reformed UN structure. He will also touch on major issues of the day, such as Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the many trials and travails of the African continent, as well as giving renewed backing to the implementation of the development goals agreed at the Millennium Summit in September 2000, which he also attended.

These targets include the reduction of poverty and hunger, the advancement of education and gender equality, halting and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, and preventing further damage to the environment. He will pledge Ireland's continuing support for UN peacekeeping and update the Assembly on the Northern Ireland peace process.

During his US visit, the Taoiseach is due to meet Irish-American groups on the east coast of the US as well as receiving the Thomas J Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights from Connecticut University in recognition of his work on the Good Friday Agreement. The $75,000 (€66,430) award will be shared with Mr Blair, who is being represented at the ceremony by the Deputy British Prime Minister, Mr John Prescott.

Mr Cowen will also, of course, attend the General Assembly and will speak at a special UN meeting on HIV/AIDS in advance of the Assembly's general debate. He will hold numerous bilateral meetings on subjects that are likely to be important during Ireland's forthcoming European presidency.

Meetings are scheduled with the foreign ministers of Israel (who boycotted Cowen during his visit to the Middle East at the end of June because he insisted on meeting President Arafat), Egypt and Iran. There are meetings with other EU foreign ministers and between EU-US and EU-Russian Federation representatives.

The difficulties over Iraq have focused attention once more on the unique structure of the UN Security Council, where five of the 15 members - China, France, Russia, the US and the UK - were given both permanent seats and a veto, in recognition of their status as victorious powers in the second World War.

Six decades later, many would regard this arrangement as anachronistic and a bar to progress. It is argued that other major countries should have at least a permanent place if not a veto as well, among them the likes of Germany, Japan, Brazil, Egypt and Nigeria.

The sceptics argue that Argentina has as good a claim as Brazil; that South Africa should perhaps have precedence over Nigeria; and that Japan is no longer the economic force it once was.

Mr Annan pointed out recently that the UN began with 51 members and now had 191, reflecting what he called "the enfranchisement of the developing world". This had helped to produce a situation where the agenda for the General Assembly was overcrowded and debates were often "repetivite and sterile".

Meanwhile the developing world felt that its views and interests were insufficiently represented on the Security Council. "The composition of the Security Council -- unchanged in its essentials since 1945 -- seems at odds with the geopolitical realities of the 21st century," he wrote.

The Iraqi war had exposed divisions that would not be easily overcome: "Unless the Security Council regains the confidence of Statesand of world public opinion, individual States will increasingly resort exclusively to their own national perceptions of emerging threats and to their own judgment on how best to address them."

Mr Annan says he is retiring to a farm in Africa in about three years' time. It might seem unlikely that the Security Council ground rules will have changed in that time but the issue will have to be tackled sooner or later, if the UN is to retain and enhance its credibility at grassroots level throughout the world.

The Council's powers are enormous, at least on paper. Under the UN Charter, the member-states of the UN "confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that . . . the Security Council acts on their behalf".

The new president of the General Assembly is Mr Julian R Hunte, Minister of External Affairs from the tiny Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, who pointed out that, although he represented the smallest country ever to hold that office, the challenges facing the organisation, such as HIV/AIDS and terrorism, knew no borders and respected no boundaries.

It is a lesson that is brought home with increasing force all the time and the coming General Assembly must provide convincing evidence that the UN is the body to meet these challenges, otherwise it will fade into irrelevance.