September 19, 2005

September 19, 2005 | Commentary on

For U.N. to Work, Big Changes are Needed

After two Senate hearings, hundreds of questions and a five-month filibuster, John Bolton finally made it from Washington to the United Nations. Now the difficult work really begins. As the American ambassador to the U.N., Bolton's challenge is to overcome 60 years of bureaucratic growth and inertia and bring some reform to an organization that desperately needs it. Luckily, there's an excellent blueprint to guide him -- the U.N. Reform Act of 2005, which Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., introduced last June.

It's a topic that's familiar to me. I served recently on a congressionally mandated task force that helped develop ideas for reforming the U.N. To sum up our findings in one sentence: The United Nations is broken and can be fixed only if we're willing to make some big changes -- starting with the way the organization gets and spends its money.

The United States is the largest single contributor to the U.N., shelling out some 22 percent of its regular budget (and that amount excludes our generous payments for various humanitarian and peacekeeping missions). Just three nations -- the U.S., Germany and Japan -- kick in more than half of the U.N.'s budget. Yet blocks of nations that contribute next to nothing easily outvote us in the General Assembly.

Sensible reform would include weighted voting on financial matters. The nations that contribute the most would have the most say in how their money is spent. This would give the U.N.'s supporters the power to make sure their money isn't being wasted. It also would encourage other countries to contribute more, eventually leading to a fairer sharing of expenses.

In addition, the U.N. needs to change the way it funds its activities. The Hyde bill names 18 programs that should be shifted from an assessed budget (in which they get a certain amount of money whether they produce results or not) to voluntary funding (with nations contributing money only if the programs are making a difference). Several U.N. agencies already work this way, including UNICEF, the U.N. World Food Program, and the U.N. Development Program.

Of course, spending reforms also will require better oversight. In recent years, the world body has been rocked by the Oil-for-Food scandal, allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers and widespread cases of corruption and mismanagement.

To address these problems, the U.N. should create an independent oversight board to monitor employees.

This new panel must do more than just add to the already bloated bureaucracy at U.N. headquarters. It must have the power to discipline rogue staffers, and it won't be able to do that until the U.N. can figure out who's actually on staff. When our task force started investigating it, no one in the U.N. could provide an organizational chart to explain its complex structure. Determining who's doing what would be an excellent first step.

The U.N. also must stop giving employees lifetime positions. Having a "job for life" takes away employees' incentive to work harder and actually encourages illegal behavior -- after all, if you can't be fired, what's to stop you from bending the rules to line your own pockets?

Finally, there's one thing reform should not do: make the U.N. larger.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan has floated a plan that would expand the Security Council by adding nine new members, bringing the grand total on the Council to 24. Such an expansion would reduce U.S. influence, increase the likelihood of gridlock, and make it even more difficult for the United Nations to do anything meaningful.

In addition, most of the countries mentioned as likely new Security Council members have long anti-American voting records in the General Assembly. India, for example, votes against the United States 80 percent of the time, while Brazil opposes us 70 percent of the time.

The U.N.'s various failures often came about because it is too large and unwieldy. Four years after 9/11, the world body can't even agree on a definition of "terrorism." Making the Security Council even larger would make it, too, more likely to fail in future crises.

This month, the United Nations will celebrate its 60th anniversary. World leaders will give speeches, offer toasts and praise it. But when the party's over, the United Nations will face a stark choice: Reform itself and play a roll in the future or continue down its current path toward irrelevance and scorn.

The Hyde bill provides an excellent roadmap to reform. Let's hope John Bolton can convince his fellow ambassadors to embrace its recommendations.

Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
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First appeared in Investor's Business Daily