Commentary Magazine

The UN Fix

To the Editor:

Claudia Rosett is deeply opposed to the United Nations, as she makes crystal clear in “How Corrupt Is the United Nations?” [April]. She is, of course, entitled to her opinion, but in arguing her case, she makes a series of errors and false assumptions about the UN and its work.

Contrary to what she writes, the size of the UN’s budget and staff are matters of public record, and while there is a multitude of different ways to count the numbers, there is no “mystery.” The Secretary-General’s report on management reform (posted on the UN’s website) provides the facts: the UN’s biennial budget for 2004-05 was roughly $18.5 billion. This sum includes the UN’s regular and peacekeeping costs, as well as the costs of war-crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

The number of staff members assigned to the Secretariat and serving in field missions or at the New York headquarters is roughly 29,000. Obviously, adding the budgets and employees of other parts of the UN family would increase the overall totals. Costs have grown to keep pace with the volume and complexity of the UN’s work, which has increased exponentially since the body’s founding in 1945. Nonetheless, the Secretariat’s staff under the regular budget has been reduced by more than 25 percent since 1986.

Claudia Rosett’s conclusions and observations about the Oil-for-Food program repeat her by-now familiar views, errors, and gaps in understanding its workings, despite information already provided by the UN to correct the record. An example is her assertion that UN officials ignored oil smuggling by Saddam Hussein. In fact, the Security Council mandated a multinational interception force—provided by member states and under U.S. command—to prevent such smuggling. It was explicitly not the UN staff’s job to do so; they had neither the authority nor the resources.

As the U.S. Government Accountability Office noted, “Under Security Council resolutions, all member states were responsible for enforcing the sanctions, and the United Nations depended on states bordering Iraq to deter smuggling.” Paul Volcker’s report on the program noted that UN staff raised issues of sanctions-busting with some of the Security Council permanent members, including the U.S., and elicited no response.

As Volcker recorded, Saddam made far more money smuggling oil outside the Oil-for-Food program than through surcharges and kickbacks from companies that signed contracts within it. Claudia Rosett also disregards Volcker’s conclusion that “responsibility for what went wrong with the program cannot be laid exclusively at the door of the Secretariat. Members of the Security Council and its 661 committee must shoulder their share of the blame in providing uneven and wavering direction in the implementation of the program.”

Claudia Rosett refers to charges of corruption within the UN’s procurement activities. This entire area is undergoing an intensive overhaul, and specific allegations of wrongdoing are being investigated. Individuals guilty of criminal activity are being brought to justice. It is not true that “no national legal jurisdiction applies to the UN network.” UN staff members enjoy “functional immunity” while carrying out their official duties in order to be protected from capricious prosecution by member states. But this can be—and generally is—waived when there is reason to believe that crimes have been committed. The Secretary-General has explicitly promised to lift the immunity of any staff member charged with a crime in the Oil-for-Food scandal. He has already done so in the case of Alexander Yakovlev, who was found by the UN to have embezzled a large sum of money as part of an unrelated kickback scheme, and is now facing the American courts.

Claudia Rosett rightly condemns the shocking instances of sexual abuse and exploitation that have come to light involving peacekeepers, particularly in the Congo. But she neglects to record that the Secretary-General has responded with a policy of “zero tolerance” or that both the UN and its member states are taking remedial measures to prevent such acts in the future. Likewise, in her comments about an alleged lack of transparency in the handling of tsunami relief she ignores the accountability system put in place by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, which enables the public to track online how funds have been received and allocated. Moreover, the UN system manages a minority—about $1.2 billion—of humanitarian monies for tsunami victims, the rest being administered by other agencies. NGO’s alone handle $5 billion.

Although Claudia Rosett shows disdain for the broad sweep of management reforms being put in place at the UN, many of them address the shortcomings pointed to by Volcker and the increasingly complex responsibilities that the UN has been asked to undertake. She refuses to acknowledge that the Secretary-General acted immediately on the failings revealed by Oil-for-Food, implementing reforms in rules of ethical conduct, strengthening oversight and accountability, and increasing transparency. Moreover, the process of reform continues—the search for excellence is a constant effort.

Claudia Rosett finds it difficult to concede anything positive in the UN’s actions—so much so that, while she derides the UN for being a state-centric organization, she views with jaundiced eyes Kofi Annan’s efforts to expand contacts between the UN and civil society and the private sector—which she reduces to “collusion with big business.” In one respect we are in agreement—the UN should be accountable to its member states and to those it serves. That is why the Secretary-General has sought to engage member states in efforts to improve systems and reach the high standards that the world’s peoples have the right to expect.

Perhaps it is too much to expect Claudia Rosett to acknowledge the many accomplishments of the UN—such as promoting development, security, and human rights. The readers of COMMENTARY would benefit from other sources of information (including, perhaps, the UN’s own website) about what the UN actually stands for and, whatever its imperfections, strives to achieve.

Shashi Tharoor

Undersecretary-General for Communications and Public Information

United Nations

New York City


To the Editor: 

I found little to dispute in Claudia Rosett’s jeremiad against the United Nations—or at least little that I was equipped to dispute—until the article’s last section. There, it departs from a methodical dissection of the organization’s motley scandals and hypocrisies and begins sputtering about its menacing global agenda. The indictment thankfully stops short of analogies to Nazi Germany, but only just. The organization is apparently “predatory, undemocratic, unaccountable,” and aiming for world domination. And “like the Soviet Union of old, the UN is unwieldy, gross, inefficient, and incompetent.”

Thus, Claudia Rosett sees the UN as both laughably incompetent and deeply dangerous. At the root of the schizophrenia is a melding of the body’s two identities: it is part sprawling, international bureaucracy and part clubhouse for national governments. I myself have no doubt that the UN bureaucracy is imbued with anti-Americanism and often endowed with shoddy management skills. Claudia Rosett dishes that dirt effectively, but even where there is no actual dirt, she lets the reader imagine that there is.

On the ground in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, I have witnessed the often creaky UN machinery and seen plenty of officials who cared more about their generous stipends than about their mission. But I have also encountered selfless international servants who risk everything to help the helpless. Claudia Rosett throws out a few “to-be-sure” qualifiers about the UN’s good deeds, but in the end, they do not inform her analysis. Immunization of the world’s poor and other humanitarian achievements are just not interesting to her.

Having painted the UN bureaucracy as darkly as possible, she then shifts seamlessly from internal management to international security, and lambastes the body for being a “spectator” on critical issues like nuclear proliferation. But she neglects to mention—and it can hardly be accidental—that here she is leaving the realm of the bureaucracy and entering the world of the nation-state.

After all, international security is the province of the Security Council, which is in turn dominated by the United States, Russia, China, France, and Great Britain. Claudia Rosett’s insinuations aside, the Secretariat follows the Council’s orders. It has no choice. Blame for inaction on Iran or North Korea rests not with Kofi Annan but with Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and Jacques Chirac. If leakage in the Iraqi sanctions regime bothers her, she might speak to top State Department officials who winked at violations by Jordan and Turkey. And if she is outraged by inaction in the face of genocide, Warren Christopher and Condoleezza Rice have mailing addresses.

Apportioning responsibility fairly for the failures of global governance does not appear to be Claudia Rosett’s bag. Building the UN into a global menace is good fun—and good copy. Whether it accomplishes anything is another matter.

David L. Bosco

Foreign Policy

Washington, D.C.


To the Editor:

When the Allies created the United Nations after World War II, their goal was to secure peace by acting together as the world’s policeman. The UN was also meant to help spread human rights and prosperity globally. As Claudia Rosett so amply, diligently, and helpfully demonstrates, this vision is mocked by too many realities of today’s UN. There is no shortage of corruption in the UN Secretariat and among UN diplomats; nor is there a shortage of anti-Semitism and racism. The question, therefore, is whether we ought to throw over the entire place or engage in the long, arduous effort to change the habits and institutional culture that have developed over the past 60 years.

Because some UN institutions add value and provide ways of spreading the cost of doing good, I opt for accepting the need to persuade the rest of the world that a reformed UN is in everyone’s interest, and in the meantime making use of what we can within the UN. Fortunately, the U.S. can undertake this work without sacrificing any vital national interest.

Since Claudia Rosett and others are doubtful that the effort required is worth the prize, I call attention to three examples of useful Security Council work in the past five years. Immediately after 9/11, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1373 obligating member states to prohibit active and passive assistance to terrorism. The resolution clarified norms and narrowed the legal space in which terrorists might operate. It has caused a vast increase in the number of states and institutions engaging in counterterrorism, and helped states lacking the proper capacity to obtain it. The world is better off as a result.

Security Council attention also helped bring about Syria’s withdrawal of most of its forces from Lebanon. The serious UN-sponsored investigation into the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri already has led to a much more complete understanding of the crime than could have been achieved through French or U.S. efforts alone.

Finally, attention on Sudan, particularly the catalytic Security Council meeting in Nairobi in 2004 under U.S. leadership and in furtherance of a north-south peace agreement, also increased the hope of saving lives in Darfur. Action outside the UN was also an option, but addressing the issue through the Security Council and achieving the adoption of resolutions have undeniably helped.

These few examples show that the Security Council has and can make a positive contribution to international peace and security. Yet they are not enough. The international community keeps asking the UN to undertake larger, more important, and more complex tasks than ever before without improving its capacities and effectiveness. The Secretariat needs a new culture. It also requires a new personnel system that rewards merit, encourages ideas and risk-taking, and welcomes transparency and accountability. And civilian and military personnel need training before joining UN undertakings.

Just as institutions like the Human Rights Council have to break with their hypocritical pasts, so does the General Assembly itself. One small step would be to create subcommittees with rotating membership to oversee the Secretariat, like legislative oversight committees. Thoroughgoing reform would include a commitment to ethics. It is an open secret, for example, that national governments supplement the incomes of their citizens who hold high office at the United Nations.

To achieve profound change in the face of UN inertia and parochialism will require intestinal fortitude, stamina, and patience. UN dysfunction involves not only bureaucratic flaws and corruption but also the reality that among member states in the Security Council it is often extremely difficult to find common ground leading to effective action on matters of war and peace. That is why we and others sometimes seek alternatives to the UN in addressing urgent problems of the day. 

Nicholas Rostow 

The Levin Institute

State University of New York

Albany, New York


To the Editor:

Claudia Rosett’s diligent pursuit of the Oil-for-Food scandal—in COMMENTARY and elsewhere—exposed corruption and a culture of negligence at virtually every level of the UN that was connected with the program. The Volcker Commission’s independent inquiry, established under the pressure of her revelations, has essentially confirmed her findings (though its recommendations are unjustifiably soft).

Her latest essay shows in still greater detail the lack of accountability that afflicts large parts of the UN. Regretably, though, she only alludes to the most important questions that arise from all this. Should the free world, led by the U.S., fashion an alternative body to promote human rights? She argues for abandoning the “futile quest” for UN reform in favor of a new approach, but the U.S.-led attempt to create a “community of democracies” has thus far fallen on deaf ears. The European Union is simply not interested.

And therein lies the challenge. The U.S. may be able to win wars on its own, but it cannot succeed by itself in defending the values of Western civilization. Like it or not, the U.S. must build a coalition with the world’s largest grouping of demo-cratic states, the EU. Since the latter remains an ardent supporter of the UN, it seems we are stuck with it for now.

Hillel C. Neuer 

UN Watch

Geneva, Switzerland


To the Editor:

At the conclusion of her article, Claudia Rosett intimates that the United Nations is incapable of reform. I agree with her, but I would go several steps further.

I recently published a book titled The UN Gang: A Memoir of Incompetence, Corruption, Espionage, Anti-Semitism, and Islamic Extremism at the UN Secretariat. It is based on the ten years I spent at the Secretariat, ostensibly as director for political affairs but in fact as the top (and only) American spy, spying on the spies who spied on my country. My role there enabled me to get a comprehensive, inside view of what made the UN dysfunctional and its Secretariat a strange combination of maximally redundant activities.

The talk at the UN these days dwells almost obsessively on the need for some sort of reform. Should there be less secrecy or more secrecy in maintaining accounting records? But this is a contrived dilemma for an organization that has no financial independence or immunity from sovereignty, belonging as it does to the member states that fund its operations.

Critics of the existing vacuum in meaningful international cooperation continue to invoke the incantation that a world without some kind of viable international organization is inconceivable. But that is what we have had for the last 60 years. 

Pedro A. Sanjuan 

Mount Vernon, New York


Claudia Rosett writes:

With the exception of Shashi Tharoor, who works for the UN, my correspondents agree with me that the UN is a corrupt and dysfunctional organization. What they question is whether the UN’s virtues outweigh its vices, and what might be done about its drawbacks.

In fact, the issue is larger than that. In my article, I set out not simply to enumerate the UN’s failings but to point to its troubling trajectory. Not only is today’s UN corrupt and largely anti-democratic, but in adapting to the post-Soviet order it has become increasingly intrusive, unaccountable, and dangerous to free societies. The UN has been tapping not only public but private funding, signing on to special-interest partnerships (of which Saddam Hussein’s graft-ridden commerce under Oil-for-Food was simply the most spectacular example), and exploiting its immunities and global reach in questionable ways, all while evading responsibility for the frequently abysmal results.

Let me begin by addressing Shashi Tharoor’s richly illustrative letter. As head of the UN Department of Information, Mr. Tharoor oversees a staff of more than 700, spread throughout 100 countries worldwide, and enjoys an annual budget of $85 million, almost one-quarter of it funded by the U.S. taxpayer. It is perhaps too much to expect that he would be grateful for the role of outside investigations in exposing misconduct that his own department, despite its considerable resources, has variously dismissed or simply failed to note. But rather than acknowledging the scale and continuing nature of the problem, he instead blames others, omits crucial details, and exhorts people to recognize the UN’s “many accomplishments” as advertised in a variety of places, “including, perhaps, the UN’s own website.”

Regarding the size of the UN budget and staff, I did not say, as Mr. Tharoor suggests, that there is no general information available. What I wrote was: “No-where does the UN present a full and clear set of accounts.” And indeed, anyone consulting the UN website and public archives will find precious little insight into the most telling specifics. There is no detailed breakdown of actual spending, no clear explanation of what many of the accounts mean, and no intelligible set of books that would allow the public to see exactly who does what with the billions that flow annually through the UN system. Moreover, most reform proposals from the UN itself have focused on the “core” annual budget of $1.9 billion, rather than on the total budget, which is roughly ten times that size—or more, depending on how and what you count.

Thus, when Mr. Tharoor writes that the Secretariat’s staff under the “regular” budget has been reduced by more than 25 percent since 1986, he is giving a carefully cropped version of the big picture. He acknowledges that for the entire system, “costs have grown to keep pace with the volume and complexity of the UN’s work, which has increased exponentially since the body’s founding in 1945.” But he neglects to mention the proliferating roster of programs and trusts that receive far less public scrutiny than the Secretariat but are nevertheless entwined with it. For example, the Secretary-General oversees the channeling of assorted private contributions throughout the UN system and nominates or appoints the heads of such outfits beyond the Secretariat as the UN Environment Program and the UN Development Program.

In the matter of the Oil-for-Food scandal, Mr. Tharoor skips past the graft to repeat what has become the standard UN line: blaming the member states—the U.S. in particular—for allowing Saddam to engage in billions of dollars’ worth of sanctions-busting oil smuggling in the period 1997-2003. Fair enough. All who knew about the smuggling should, indeed, have tried to stop it. But Mr. Tharoor fails to mention that the Secretary-General himself not only knew about the smuggling but actively abetted it, urging the Security Council to allow Saddam to revamp and expand his oil production. Here, from the UN’s own records, is Kofi Annan’s statement to the Security Council on March 24, 2000, as Saddam’s smuggling was reaching record volumes: “Iraq’s oil industry is seriously hampered by lack of spare parts and equipment, and this threatens to undermine the [Oil-for-Food] program’s income in the long term. That is why I have repeatedly recommended a significant increase in the allocation of resources under the program for the purchase of spare parts for the oil industry.” As a result of Annan’s repeated urging, Saddam was able to re-equip himself to smuggle billions worth of oil not only to Jordan and Turkey but to terrorist-sponsoring Syria.

Further contradicting the UN’s own records, Mr. Tharoor says it was not the job of the UN staff to prevent such smuggling—“they had neither the authority nor the resources.” In fact, Secretary-General Annan had a $1.4 billion budget to administer and monitor Oil-for-Food. And a 1996 memorandum of understanding from the Security Council spelled out that to assist the UN sanctions committee, “the sale of petroleum and petroleum products originating in Iraq will be monitored by United Nations oil experts appointed by the Secretary-General.”

All that, plus a great deal more, continues to vanish down the UN information department’s memory hole. Mr. Tharoor assures the reader that the UN is accountable, noting that “The Secretary-General has explicitly promised to lift the immunity of any staff member charged with a crime in the Oil-for-Food scandal.” He neglects to mention that Annan’s hand-picked director of Oil-for-Food, Benon Sevan, was alleged by the UN’s own investigators to have taken payoffs in Saddam’s oil deals. But instead of facing prosecution within the UN system, Sevan was allowed by Annan to slip away to Cyprus on full pension.

Mr. Tharoor at least acknowledges that the UN has had a problem of sexual abuse by its peacekeepers in Africa, “particularly in the Congo.” He assures us that the Secretary-General has responded with a “zero tolerance” policy and remedial actions. But he fails to mention that the “exploitation” extended to pedophiliac rape, and that despite Kofi Annan’s zero-tolerance response, similar abuses involving peacekeepers in Liberia have since been reported.

“The search for excellence is a constant effort,” writes Mr. Tharoor, citing the Secretary-General’s “new rules of ethical conduct.” Lost on him is the irony that just this February, less than a month after installing an ethics office at the UN, Annan flew to Dubai to accept a $500,000 prize from the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, a UN member state. A few weeks later, Annan promoted to the head of the UN Environment Program a member of the judges’ panel that had tapped him for the prize. Only when this began to flare into yet another scandal in the press did Annan relinquish the money, announcing that he had decided to donate it to relief efforts in Sudan.

As for Mr. Tharoor’s objection that I view “with jaundiced eyes Kofi Annan’s efforts to expand contacts between the UN and civil society and the private sector,” I would argue that it is problematic for any large government institution to start cutting deals with private patrons—all the more so when it comes to an institution as powerful and unaccountable as the UN. At any rate, Mr. Tharoor might be in a better position to argue his point had his own influential department not accepted, with a nod from Annan, at least $1.9 million in grants from Ted Turner’s UN Foundation.

Turning to my other correspondents: David L. Bosco agrees with my account of the UN’s “motley scandals and hypocrisies,” but goes on to note that, despite its failings, the UN does employ some decent and selfless personnel who engage in such good works as immunization of the poor. True. But that leaves the question of why worthy programs and decent civil servants must function within the framework of a scandal-ridden, hypocritical, and shoddily-managed organization.

From there, Mr. Bosco moves to the realm of the nation-state, claiming that the UN Secretariat has “no choice” but to follow the orders of the member states dominating the Security Council. Blame, he concludes, must be fairly apportioned to them for the “failures of global governance.” Yet, when it has wanted to, the Secretariat has shown itself to be very agile in avoiding domination by the Security Council. In the first place, as I noted in my article, Kofi Annan has accepted some $100 million per year since 1998 from Ted Turner’s UN Foundation for projects that are approved and, in some cases, created and run by the Secretariat. In addition, as Paul Volcker’s Oil-for-Food probe noted, the Secretariat’s failure to report its abundant information about smuggling and kickbacks under Oil-for-Food “reveal[ed] a pattern of inaction and inadequate disclosure to the Security Council.”

Finally, Mr. Bosco suggests that if I am outraged by “inaction in the face of genocide, Warren Christopher and Condoleezza Rice have mailing addresses.” True again, but it is the UN that has had the budget, peacekeeping forces, and mantle of “international legitimacy” for dealing with crises in such places as Rwanda, Srebenica, Darfur, and beyond. Here, as with North Korea or Iran, the UN does not just fail to act, it gets in the way. If the U.S. State Department is where one ought to lobby, would it not make sense to remove the UN from the equation altogether?

Grappling more gamely with the practicalities, Nicholas Rostow notes that the UN’s founding vision is “mocked” by too many of its present-day realities. Still he looks for signs of hope, citing action on terrorism since September 11, the UN’s role in evicting Syria from Lebanon, and the “catalytic Security Council meeting in Nairobi in 2004” meant to bring peace to Sudan. Mr. Rostow finds in these examples more cause for optimism than I would think warranted. In each instance, the UN contributed more to incubating the problem than to solving it.

In deference to the despots and terror-sponsors of the Middle East, the UN has a long record of refusing even to define terrorism, let alone attempting to stop it. Even today, while the UN can boast of various counterterrorist measures on paper, some of the most prominent figures on the UN-designated terror list remain at large because the relevant member states will not act, and the UN does not penalize them. Meanwhile, states like Syria and Iran enjoy their seats at the UN table, and the UN ponders and dithers while Iran’s president flaunts his nuclear projects and threatens to annihilate Israel.

As for the withdrawal last year of Syria’s occupying army from Lebanon, the Lebanese protesters who began turning out in force in February 2005 to demand that Syria depart were not only driven by the assassination of their former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, but inspired by news of the Iraqi turnout at the polls the previous month. That crack in the bedrock of Middle Eastern despotism came as a result of the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam, which the UN opposed, and which Kofi Annan condemned as “illegal.” The UN deserves credit for taking a long overdue hint from the U.S. and telling Syria to get out of Lebanon, and for launching an investigation into Hariri’s murder. But the murder investigation drags on, Syria’s Baathist regime remains in power, imposing misery on its own people and providing a corridor of terror running from Iran to the borders of Israel.

Likewise, whatever the impetus provided by the UN meeting held in Nairobi in 2004, the genocide in Sudan continues—a genocide that Annan at the time could not bring himself to name as such. Sudan, during the intervening two years, enjoyed a seat on the UN Human Rights Commission—now reformed into the not exactly improved Human Rights Council and hosting members such as China, Cuba, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Rostow concludes, rightly enough, that the Secretariat needs a new culture and that the General Assembly needs to break with its past. Unfortunately, despite all the talk of reform, there is no concrete sign that the UN is willing or even able to undertake the necessary steps. Mr. Rostow’s wisest observation comes at the end of his letter, where he writes that the realities of the body are such that we and others must “sometimes seek alternatives to the UN in addressing urgent problems of the day.”

Hillel C. Neuer, by contrast, is more clear-eyed about the UN’s failings but perhaps overly pessimistic about the prospects for working around it. He argues that in defending the values of Western civilization, the U.S. is stuck with the European Union, which “remains an ardent supporter of the UN”—ergo, we are stuck with the UN. By the same reasoning, the U.S. was stuck for years with European appeasement of an imperial Soviet Union. But President Reagan was able to turn the tide by demonstrating leadership.

Pedro A. Sanjuan spent ten years in the belly of the UN Secretariat, and has recently accomplished the remarkable feat of writing a book about the UN that is at once entertaining, richly informed, and right on target. In The UN Gang, Mr. Sanjuan argues that not only has the UN failed to live up to its mission to enhance international cooperation, but it has been configured in such a way as to be a prime cause of trouble. What has changed since Mr. Sanjuan’s stint at Turtle Bay is mainly that the body has grown in size and scope. Unless we start seriously seeking viable alternatives to it, worse trouble lies ahead.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.