The United Nations, an organisation with a richly deserved reputation for corruption and ineffectiveness, undoubtedly needs urgent and extensive reforms. But the powers that control it and its mainly corrupt leading staff will not allow any serious changes that might bring to an end their deleterious influence or affect their careers. The fact that these same people are leading the calls, and plans, for reform is strong evidence that the UN is not about to be transformed for the better. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who is formally under investigation for fraud, is tabling a reform programme, while the US, which has strong influence on him and the UN, has its own proposals and guidelines, both backed by undisguised blackmail.
The UN has 191 member-states, compared to the original 51 countries that set it up in 1945, supposedly to preserve peace through international cooperation and collective security. Most of the original member-states were colonies of the leading countries setting up the UN, and are even now seen by them as subordinates expected to toe the line. This partly explains why Kofi Annan, an African from Ghana, is treated with scant respect by the neocons who control the US government and often publicly demand his resignation, if only to secure his compliance with US programmes being considered by the UN. The UN Secretariat, which he heads, carries out the substantive and administrative work of the organisation. It has about 7,500 staff under its regular budget of $1.8 billion and a nearly equal number under special funding.
It is true that the General Assembly – where all 191 member-states have seats, and which is not subject to obstruction through vetoes cast by a few, as the Security Council is – has control over the Secretariat's budget, and the US therefore has no direct control. But the result is still the same, because the General Assembly's supervisory fifth committee, which controls the UN budget, operates by consensus and all its 191 members can block any proposals or directives. So the US can block them, or use its allies and many stooges on the committee to do so instead. In fact secretariat officials complain bitterly that the fifth committee interferes with their work at every turn and that it is unfair to blame them for their failure to operate efficiently. Proposals by the secretary general for reforming the UN include calls to alter the powers of the fifth committee, a controversial step which could lead to the formation of yet another international body controlled by a few powerful members.
But the problem with the secretariat's reform is not merely technical. The very fact that a formal body, set up to enquire into allegations of corruption against the secretary general, is expected to publish its report in the same week as Annan is announcing his proposals for reform, makes the entire project ludicrous. The commission of enquiry revealed on June 14 that it was "urgently reviewing" a newly disclosed document that cast fresh light on his role in the oil-for-food corruption scandal. Annan's son Kojo was awarded contracts when Iraq was allowed to sell oil to buy food. Annan claimed that he had no knowledge of the contracts, but the new documents purport to show otherwise.
Even if the secretary general is innocent, his involvement in the scandal has made him vulnerable to blackmail by the powers that want him to support their interests. He is particularly vulnerable to blackmail by the US government and its supporters. His sudden decision to attend the recent conference on Iraq, called by the US and the European Union to endorseWashington's policy on Iraq and raise funds to finance that policy, speaks for itself. That explains why no one was surprised when he praised the international community's support for the Iraqi people, calling on it to boost its efforts to reconstruct the country and to fight terrorism to re-establish security. This is a clear support for the US-led war on Iraq (which has caused the deaths on tens of thousands of Iraqis) and for Washington's campaign of propaganda that its involvement in Iraq is humanitarian and that other countries should join it and help it to bear the military and financial costs of the occupation. His call for international assistance to Iraq to fight terrorism is also an obvious backing for the US-led "war on terrorism" (i.e. the war on Islam).
Moreover, Annan is not the only senior UN official mired in a corruption scandal. Indeed, his own chief of staff, Mark Malloch Brown, is struggling to resist claims, especially by the American media and politicians, that he too is corrupt. The New York Sun, for instance, revealed recently that Brown was renting his house in Westchester county from George Soros, the billionaire financier and prominent opponent of president Bush, for $120,000 (£66,000) a year, only $8,000 less than his annual take-home pay. The UN chief of staff retorted that the financier had become a friend after they worked together on pro-democracy projects in central Europe and former Soviet states, and that he had been paying a scrupulous "commercial-plus rate" out of his savings. In the past he has owned a private consulting practice.
The US government and its supporters cannot resist exploiting such scandals – even though it is possible that they have invented some of the facts the corruption scandals are based on – to blackmail UN officials into towing their line. Other examples of their blackmail tactics include the withholding of US dues to the UN, and warning UN officials that Washington will oppose the renewal of their appointment contracts once they are over. Before June, for instance, the Administration warned Muhammad al-Baradei, the 62-year-old Egyptian head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – that it would oppose his appointment to a third term as head of the agency unless he became tough on Iran.
But the US government withdrew its opposition and al-Baradei's reappointment for another four-year term was unanimously endorsed by the 35-member board of the IAEA in late June. This had led to speculation that al-Baradei – who must have come under pressure also from Egypt's president, Husni Mubarak – must have privately acceded to the US's demands (particularly in connection with Iran). Some analysts have suggested that Washington climbed down after failing to persuade other members to oppose his reappointment.
However, the threat to withhold US dues to the UN became fact when the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to withhold half of America's payments to the organisation, amounting to $440 million (£241 million), unless anti-corruption measures are instituted and a sterner policy is adopted on human rights. This is a reference to the US programme of reforms. These reforms include a demand that UN bodies dealing with human rights should be reconstituted to exclude members from countries that do not respect human rights. The demand was made ridiculous on June 21 when the UN human rights body complained publicly that the US government has refused to allow UN investigators to inspect the Guantanamo Baydetention centres for the last three years.
But as Mike Pence, the leader of conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives, put it, "the power of the purse is the power of the people", and Washington will not drop this instrument of blackmail to achieve the results it desires.