Reform the United Nations

COMMENTARY Global Politics

Reform the United Nations

Nov 25th, 2003 3 min read
Nile Gardiner, Ph.D.

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow

Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.

Critics have condemned the Bush administration's proposal to close down the U.N. Information Center in Washington, D.C., as yet another example of American "unilateralism."

U.N. bureaucrats are outraged at the thought of excusing U.S. taxpayers from subsidizing a largely redundant $1 million operation -- and insist it would hurt the United Nations.

This is untrue. In fact, the measure would help the United Nations become a more effective organization on the world stage. It's part of a series of budget measures the administration says would cut millions of dollars of wasteful spending by the world's biggest bureaucracy.

President Bush's administration is the first to make a serious attempt at reforming the United Nations (search). Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Kim Holmes has embarked on an ambitious program to make the United Nations a more relevant international body, one that actually helps advance U.S. national interests.

With the latest polls showing that 60 percent of Americans believe the United Nations is doing a "poor job," such efforts are likely to prove popular with the public.

Closing the UNIC would make sound fiscal sense. The United Nations employs 700 officials at the Department of Public Information in New York, and there's no need to duplicate their work in Washington.

Of course, the United Nations is well known for supporting a massive bureaucracy, one that's often cloaked in secrecy. Its more than 56,000 employees are largely shielded from public scrutiny, which is one reason the Bush administration should also call for a thorough external audit of the United Nations (which doesn't even publish an annual report). Taxpayers who fund the salaries of U.N. bureaucrats deserve a far greater level of accountability.

U.S. officials have every right to question the way the United Nations is run. This nation has been its biggest contributor since its creation in 1945 and currently contributes 22 percent of the U.N.'s regular budget. In contrast, France contributes 6.4 percent, Britain 5.54 percent, China 1.53 percent and Russia 1.2 percent.

Total U.S. contributions to the U.N. system in 2001 totaled $3.5 billion, including $612 million to the U.N.'s regular budget, $712 million toward U.N. peacekeeping, and $2.2 billion in voluntary contributions. No other nation comes close.

The Bush administration should call upon other leading member states, such as Russia and China, to assume a larger share of the financial burden. Indeed, future levels of U.S. funding for the U.N. general fund should be linked directly to the pace of U.N. reform.

The State Department is advancing another key reform that Capitol Hill lawmakers should strongly support -- a democracy caucus within the United Nations. It's a bold idea that's likely to attract broad support from allies worldwide.

The need for such a caucus was highlighted by the fall from grace of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Libya's chairmanship of the commission, and its appeasement of brutal dictatorships in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, has seriously undermined the U.N.'s reputation. Under Libya's leadership, the UNCHR has become an absurdity.

If the UNCHR isn't fundamentally reformed, the United States should threaten to withdraw from it and refuse to provide long-term funding until it can prove that it stands for the advancement of human rights. Strict criteria for membership should be introduced. Nations that clearly flout the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be excluded from membership, as should those nations that support international terrorism and/or the development of weapons of mass destruction. Democracies within the UNCHR should band together to act as a bulwark against dictatorships exercising influence.

The United Nations is an organization on life support. It will continue to decline as a force on the world stage and go the way of the League of Nations unless it's radically reformed and restructured. Only by undergoing such a restructuring -- revising its charter, reforming its major commissions and streamlining its bloated bureaucracy -- can it avoid the fate of its predecessor.

It is in U.S. interests to actively engage the United Nations and help shape its future, rather than sit back and watch the organization self-destruct. The world body can and should play an important role in mediating international disputes, advancing human rights, and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Let's give it the help it needs to do so.

Nile Gardiner is the Jay Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs, and Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby research fellow in national security policy, at  The Heritage Foundation.

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