"The United Nations is only as effective as its members" is one of the arguments you will always find thrown back at you from supporters of the United Nations, whether the subject is the Iraq oil-for-food scandal or the human rights abuses committed by U.N. peacekeepers in Sudan. Faults are never laid at the door of the U.N. leadership, but always at that of the member governments - particularly the United States as the largest donor, of course. As we all know, an offense is the best defense.
Now, this argument has some merit - but only up to a point. Without major external pressure, no reforms or investigations at the United Nations can be truly effective. Yet, it is also the case that the internal bodies of the U.N. very much resist external pressure, a predictable bureaucratic reflex. U.N. member governments may ultimately be responsible, but they do not always have the tools to get at the truth and their efforts are often stymied.
Consider the internal investigation of the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, the biggest in U.N. history. A charge often made is that the United States made no attempt to oversee the program, so who are we to blame Secretary General Kofi Annan? But it is simply not true that the U.S. government made no attempt at oversight.
The reporting body for the Oil-for-Food program, the 661 Committee, was meant to give account to the Security Council of all aspect of the program from oil contracts to humanitarian relief. Unfortunately, as this was a subsidiary body of the Council, in reality, it simply echoed the policy conflicts there.
"The U.S. delegation was an active participant in all such reviews," Grerald C. Anderson, State Department Director of Peacekeeping, Sanctions and Counterterrorism told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce in May.
"The efforts of the U.S. and the United Kingdom to counter or address non-compliance were often negated by other members' desires to ease sanctions on Iraq. The atmosphere in the committee, particularly as the program evolved during the late 1990s, became increasingly contentious.
The fundamental political disagreement between members over the Council's imposition of comprehensive sanctions was often exacerbated by the actions of certain key member states in advancing self-serving national economic objectives."
Furthermore, following Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office which was overseeing some parts of the program, was met by a stonewall of refusals from program U.N. Director Benan Sevon (himself now implicated in the scandal), when it asked for internal U.N. audits. Mr. Sevon further told contractors not to not to share any information with U.S. investigators before checking with him.
Much denigrated as the U.S. Congress is in international circles, it is the one body that has produced the pressure for change. Congress represents the "right wall" of U.S. policy, where budgets and funding meet the demand for accountability and transparency.
And pressure for accountability from Washington is the only way to clean up the mess in New York. Therefore, any U.N. reform bill has to include the possibility of withholding funds in the absence of improvements. The bill proposed by House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde does. Neither the bill proposed by Rep. Tom Lantos, nor the bill sponsored by Senate International Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar and Sen. Norm Coleman do that.
Without the constant digging of the congressional committees we might not even have had the internal U.N. investigation under former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. Mr. Volcker, however, clearly has demonstrated the limits of internal U.N. investigations, pulling his punches in his commission's first two interim reports to avoid directly implicating Secretary General Kofi Annan, who was obviously up to his eye-balls in conflict of interest himself.
At the very least, let's not blame the United States for the obvious failures of Mr. Annan's leadership and judgment. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick memorably said about the Democrats, "They always blame America first." As usual, that is a distraction from the real problem.
Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times