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The U.N.'s Unaccountable Inquisitors


Belmont Club has been on fire lately covering the "United Nations", which is facing growing questions in America's legislature and even bills that would stop payment of dues.

Whatever you think of the U.N., it's worth looking at Belmont Club's revealing analyses. He touches on many subjects: UNSCAM, Kofi Annan, legitimacy, the roots of U.N. failure, recent reform proposals; even the nature of the U.N.'s most prominent paradox. In that paradox, he says, lies the answer to the riddle of the U.N. itself.

We'll start with the U.N.'s essential failures in UNSCAM. These include corruption, but were not limited to it.

"Mr. Annan has named the esteemed Paul Volcker to investigate Oil-for-Food-related allegations, but the latter's team is severely hamstrung in its efforts. His panel has no authority to compel the production of documents or testimony from anyone outside the U.N. Nor does it possess the power to punish those who fabricate information, alter evidence or omit material facts. It must rely entirely on the goodwill of the very people and entities it is investigating. We must also recognize that Mr. Volcker's effort is wholly funded by the U.N., at Mr. Annan's control. Moreover, Mr. Volcker must issue his final report directly to the secretary general, who will then decide what, if anything, is released to the public."

As Coleman notes, this wouldn't do for Enron. It doesn't cut it for Annnan, either:

"The fundamental problem with Traub's argument is that Oil-For-Food existed for the purpose of enforcing sanctions imposed by the Security Council as a whole. It was not a program whose goals could be chosen according to taste, "with the U.S. and Britain determined to prevent Iraq from importing items that could be used for military purposes and the French, Russians and Chinese equally determined to give the Iraqis the benefit of every doubt." It had one purpose only. Oil-For-Food either existed expressly to prevent Saddam's rearmament or it was nothing at all. For that reason, the Secretary General's failure "to sound the alarm over Iraqi swindling and for a slow and grudging reaction when the allegations first surfaced earlier this year" is not primarily about thievery and corruption, although it is about that: it was mainly about flouting international law; it was about subverting the will of the Security Council. It was about Kofi Annan becoming a law unto himself."

Next, Belmont Club offers an analysis of a recent U.N. panel's proposed "reforms":

"The BBC summarizes the background to the panel's work: The UN's "relevance has been brought into question not only by the Iraq war, when it was in the final analysis ignored by the United States. Before that, we had Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and others where it failed to act in time, and now we have Darfur."

Yes, we certainly do. The solution? Why, more power given to the U.N., of course! Belmont Club does an excellent job parsing much of the realpolitik involved, as well as the U.N.'s ambition.

He followed that up with:

  • Problem Number Four (Dec. 4/04). Ah, the Congo. But let's start with Belmont Club's 3-paragraph summary of the U.N.'s position regarding its crisis of legitimacy:

"Evans delivered an address called Shifting Security Parameters in the 21st Century which contains nearly all of the elements now being proposed to reform the UN. In this model the currrent threats to world peace are:

  1. international terrorist organizations
  2. WMD proliferation
  3. failed states
  4. an out-of-control United States
But to address the first three, the first step is to solve problem number four."

In that same piece, we move on to the Congo, where the U.N. actually has the responsibilities it wishes to usurp:

"Morale among the blue helmets is not high. Many regard their posting to Congo as the height of misfortune. Some are ashamed to be part of such an indolent force. During massacres in Ituri's main town of Bunia last year, some Uruguayan peacekeepers suffered nervous breakdowns after watching atrocities they had been ordered not to prevent. One reportedly told his psychiatrist that goats were talking to him. When asked what they were saying, he replied, “They're shouting: ‘Help me! Help me!' "

As Congo - The Roots, and the Trap argued in June 2003, this failure is not an accident. Just as Rwanda and Srebrenica were no accident. They are an inevitable consequence of the U.N. and transnational progressivist mindsets, hard-wired for failure in the face of any real evil or threat.

One would think this sort of thing might lead to self-examination, either among the U.N. itself or among its backers. The simplisme of such notions amuses....

"Why? Because it's the UN, a place where the normal laws of gravity are inverted, everyone is immune from everything, where nothing works yet everything is beyond reproach. That's why. Having grasped that one essential fact it is necessary to accept the corollary. Neither the departure of Kofi Annan nor his replacement will alter the strange physics of the place which arises from the first-class funding of third-rate causes of the worst possible sort. If that is the definition of Oil-for-Food it is also the definition of the United Nations.

One of the shadow costs of an obsession with the United Nations is the preemptive dismissal of diplomatic structures which have historically worked...."

Which may explain the stance the U.N. and its backers habitually take. Explain - but not justify:

"Any objections that these answers are unsatisfactory are met by the claim that the questions themselves are illegitimate. "There has been no hint of impropriety on the part of the Secretary-General, who on numerous occasions has proven his honesty and integrity." It is impertinent to observe that Annan has proven nothing. Any further argumentation is met with the assertion that 'it is your fault anyway'. In Congressman Kuchinich's words "we want to highlight the shared responsibility by the United States for the alleged fraud and abuse that occurred in the Oil-for-Food Program." Any suspcion that the Jihad may exist is put down to "intolerance and hatred among some Americans" and "condescension".

The implicit assumption underlying this discourse is that "we" -- and not you -- ask the questions. The United Nations and no one else sits in judgement. That's final: it is International Law. As Robert Kaplan pointed out in The Media and Medievalism, the most powerful tool of totalitarianism is to don the guise of righteousness and assume "the right to question and to demand answers, the right to judge and condemn, and the right to pardon and show mercy." It is in the end an attempt to usurp the wellsprings of legitimacy. Do you hold it to be self-evident that you have the right "to assume among the Powers of the Earth" a separate and equal station? That's being a rogue nation. Do you presume that "that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". That is not in the Koran. It is illegitimate and utterly intolerant to impose such a view upon anyone, even upon yourselves."


The U.N. has been a haven of the corrupt and a tool of the hostile for most of its history - dominated by Third-World kleptocrats who demand for themselves what they will not grant their own suffering peoples, bought as required by the Arab League, and played largely for the benefit of the Soviet Bloc. So long as it remained irrelevant to serious politics, it status as a low-cost diplomatic nexus made it worth the triviality of its monetary fees. Belmont Club, who noted that "corruption at the United Nations was only tolerable for so long as it did nothing of consequence," had it exactly right.

Ah, but the U.N. has far grander ambitions now. Lofty ambitions of power untrammeled by its performance, and demonstrably unencumbered by notions of liberty, accountability, or humanitarian concern. Like Marxism before it, however, the U.N.'s dismal record of blood and failure is no mistake, and no accident. Despite apologists' untiring claims to the contrary, its record exist precisely because of its underlying concepts, not in spite of them.

What was once tolerable, is tolerable no more. What was once a simple waste is becoming something rather different: an active threat.

The U.N.'s weapons are theft and paralysis. Against it are arrayed the weapons of accountability and will. As Belmont Club notes above, the hostility is obvious, and the terms of the game crystal clear. Will the U.S. surrender, or prevail? The two sides cannot be bridged; the circle cannot be squared.

In the end, one side or the other must lose, and be changed thereby. For a while, anyway.

"He crouched down there, covering his eyes and cowering, for the fear had taken his mind. When he raised his head and looked again, the world re-existed. It was not in good condition, but it was there."
   -- Ursula LeGuin, The Lathe of Heaven


The pseudonymous Wretchard of The Belmont Club blogs here.

Sorry, AMac, I was experimenting with the "Timed Future Publishing" feature and this one escaped early. Fixed now.

I've seen several people quote Sen. Coleman about the ineffectiveness of the UN in vestigatation:

Senator Norm Coleman (R-MIN) is not happy:
"Mr. Annan has named the esteemed Paul Volcker to investigate Oil-for-Food-related allegations, but the latter's team is severely hamstrung in its efforts. His panel has no authority to compel the production of documents or testimony from anyone outside the U.N. Nor does it possess the power to punish those who fabricate information, alter evidence or omit material facts.

However, am I the only one who thinks the UN not having these powers is a good thing? Considering everything else the UN has abused, I, for one, think that giving them the power to demand documents is a _bad_ idea.

For instance, with so many countries and people thinking that the US lied to the security council about Saddam's WMD (though I think they are mistaken), this power could have been used to try to force our intelligence secrets into the open.

While I understand the desire for accountability in the UN, think about the Law of Unintended Consequences!


I keep running across a "keep the UN as a bad example" meme. I am inclined to agree, but it requires people able and willing to recognize a bad example. I look at the EU or the movement in South America to start something similar and get depressed -- the sort of people who go into government almost all think that intentions matter more than consequences, that more government is better and, often, that any kind of ubergovernment must therefore be best of all.
It also requires a good example and people willing to point out the difference. We have the tradition of pre-Roosevelt America. And we have a really amazing number of citizens (or at least amazing relative to what I thought after reading Old Media before the blogosphere) such as yourself helping with that. So I suppose there is as much hope as fear, and there is no more worthwhile fight.

As for a bad example, why don't we try to get the US to withdraw from the Security Council so there's more opportunity for all these countries who think that position will make them more important and useful? It doesn't seem to me that we get anything positive out of it any more, that we're in the UN mostly to prevent the negative - which isn’t working, and that letting these idiots show themselves for what they really are will almost certainly be positive in the long run. If we can't get the UN to do much positive or stop anything negative, and if the US will be blamed for the failures, let's get out of the way and let the UN show us what it can really do. And we’ll sit on the sidelines and carp. Heck, it might even work - if the US doesn't take a position, maybe the rest of the world will realize it has responsibilities and actually do good, rather than just saying that they’re for good (why, they must be - the US is bad, they’re anti-US, ...). But I won't hold my breath.

I am all in favour of scrapping the UN; but you can't beat something with nothing, so if we really want to deal it the deathblow then the US needs to lead the way in presenting a superior alternative. Porphyrogenitus has been pushing the idea of a "Commonwealth of Democracies" for a while now, and Tom Barnett has been throwing out the idea of using the G-20 as an "executive body". I shy away from any definition that doesn't include China (Porphy's would by definition), and am equally wary of one that includes Saudi Arabia (the G-20 does). So I'm thinking some synthesis of a little of both ideas would be necissary for it to be effective, but it's definitely something that the US should be pushing for.

In any case, anyone who doesn't recognize by now that the UN is broken at the core and cannot be fixed is kidding themselves. Until states that aid and export violence are excluded from the circle, it will be forever hamstrung.

Two points:

1. How real is this? - I'm not up on this, and I don't have time now, but I remember reading something about how all the "proof" of malfeasance in the U.N. oil scandal, was held by Chalabi's family - and that Chalabi's group hadn't release the stuff they claimed to have?

Could someone enterprising please fit this part into the narrative, if you would, with cites? Not that I don't think that the UN oil for food scandal doesn't exist, I'm sure it does, but I'd like all the facts on it to date - not just a one-sided interpretation. (Joe, I'm not asking you to provide, I'm hoping that one of the site's readers will do the work for me...)

2. Selective outrage for political purposes - And, just a reminder, no matter how informative this site is, (and it is very), the lense of outrage is selective about various outrages in the world - perhaps I'm wrong, but I haven't seen any postings on this site regarding the "voice vote" so that if Delay is indicted in Texas, he can continue to be in a position of leadership in the house.)

That particular example is off-topic, but the on-topic point is selective outrage.

Thanks for any more info in advance.

On the above - my question "how real is this?" is specifically about "oil-for-food", as a sub-issue of the post.


OK, this post is from April 30th, when the scandal was in its infancy but it is brief and contains links to the initial research. There has been much more information since then. Belmont Club's posts provide more background. If you want to read Claudia Rosett's articles, this search from the WSJ Opinion Journal
will have all of them.

Concerning your second point, the content of this blog is for Joe to decide. I personally dislike the tactics in the House on Delay, but remember that the Republicans can be held accountable by the voters in 2006. Who holds the U.N. accountable when their program is defrauded for over $22 billion? Are you saying we should be mum on the U.N. Oil for Food program unless we address every since "outrage" related to Republicans?

"Who holds the U.N. accountable when their program is defrauded for over $22 billion?"

Clearly, the UN Security Council, which had oversight responsibility for the program.

Next question?


What happens when veto-wielding members of the UNSC ignored the accusations over the years and blocked investigations? Or when they are part of the corruption in the program (France, Germany, China)? Kofi Annan appointed the investigators, recommended U.N. employees not cooperate with the investigation, etc., and yet his son is involved and people he personally appointed stand accused.

Looks to me like the fox is guarding the henhouse.


Except in this case nothing would most definitely be better! Looking back at some of the previous fiascos, if there had been no UN peacekeepers in Bosnia at all, wouldn't the folks in the US who managed to get our arms embargo passed have had a harder time getting it passed?


On Joe's 2nd point, clearly, Joe's point of view and the copious information he provides, and this site itself is a great service - but it is still a point of view. I'm not suggesting that he has to provide the balance. Hopefully, my point of view adds some small amount to to the conversation, and to the balance.

The UN is a value-free organization, designed to be a forum for all nations, no matter how depraved. There is only so much that such an organization can accomplish, namely the lowest common denominator. It cannot be serious about human rights or democracy or economic liberalization unless its prepared to become a value-oriented organization.

I agree with Matt that new international organizations are in order, but only if there is international concensus on promoting freedom. But the U.S. should never quit the UN because without the U.S., if for no other reason that the lowest common denominator would be anti-Americanism.


"his son is involved"

Actually, that's not so clear. Cotecna maintains (and Chris Shays apparently concurs) that everything was above board and that Kojo's work was completely unrelated to Iraq, and he was paid as part of a non-compete agreement. I'm waiting to find out more. I suggest you do the same.

All of your discussion on reforming the UN or "a new League of Democracy" assumes that a super-government can constrain its members, that countries sharing a certain quality have the exact same interests.

For example, Venezuela is a democratic republic [we may quibble w/ Chavez's support, but he clearly has a lot of it.] It probably can get into this new "League of Democracy", but its interests are more in line w/ OPEC than with the US. Same can be said of India, Brazil, Israel, etc. They will act in their best interest, even when it is against the interests of the whole.

When discussing "reforms", must keep in mind the age-old adage, "Nation-states do not have friends. They have interests."

BTW, allow me to hazard my own guess about OFF.

Putin & his cronies are up to his eyeballs in it, and the U.S. is loath to blow up that relationship completely. Just a guess.

"Who holds the U.N. accountable when their program is defrauded for over $22 billion?"

Clearly, the UN Security Council, which had oversight responsibility for the program.

Next question?

Yep. WRT OIF, the problem is member states, rather than the forum in which they act. The same could be said of the votes on Israel, the states on the human rights council, etc. The UN gives terrible people and their appeasers a say in the way the world is run, and, surprise, it doesn't work.

Scrap it, and don't replace it with anything.

A possible problem, if you value the Blair/UK alliance: UN withdrawal, or even playing reform cards clumsily, could sink Blair.
Adherence to the UN is part of the Labour Party constitution.
It's potential political high-explosive under Number 10.

"Scrap it, and don't replace it with anything."

I disagree. I think the UN plays a minor but necessary role in resolving conflicts between states through negotiation rather than violence. I see the problem as a misalignment between capacity and expectations. I think that both left and right need to dial down the expectations for the UN, which frankly wasn't designed to do the kinds of things that some people want it to do. Blaming the UN for Darfur, for instance, seems foolish to me. Genocide happened before there was a UN, too ...


Some of the countries you name are probably too independent to join a new "League of Democracy" or too suspicious of American intentions. By joining, countries like Venezuala that are borderline on political freedoms (according to FreedomHouse), would probably be legitimizing a critique of their government. I would suspect that the League would be more attractive in the Anglosphere and Eastern Europe, but it would probably gain greater legimacy if Brazil, India and Japan participated.


"Blaming the UN for Darfur, for instance, seems foolish to me. Genocide happened before there was a UN, too ..."

OK, praktike, we shouldn't do anything about genocide because it happened before the UN existed. The problem is the UN has set itself up as the legitimate body of international law that can enforce the peace. How about this, from Chapter I, Article 1 of the United Nations Charter:

To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

You may also be interested in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide

Article I
The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide, whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.

The UN set the standards, however it is filled with nations that don't want to enforce them. Nations with interests in seeing that they are not enforced are allowed to be part of the process.

The UN should stop pretending that it cares when it really does not. The UN acts like it is doing something, when in reality nations use the UN to do nothing (the UN is deliberating, how can we act until they give the seal of approval?). The hypocrisy of the organization is what bothers me. The UN is good in theory and bad in practice.

The hypocrisy of the organization or the hypocrisy of its members?


I think the UN plays a minor but necessary role in resolving conflicts between states through negotiation rather than violence.

No examples come immediately to mind (though I'm tired, so that doesn't mean examples don't exist). I suppose that examples of success are never going to be remembered like examples of failure. A peace treaty between two African countries is unlikely to make the news like the result of war between the same two nations.

The organisation's failures can, in part, be put down to the decisions of member states. The UNSC's member states voted against a shooting war in Bosnia, frowned on intervention in Rwanda, are currently uninterested in Sudan, etc. Which comes back to my original point, ie, the UN's failings are largely due to the interests of member states.

I do like the idea of a forum for negotiation, but that doesn't need to take the form of an international organisation. The Quakers do it already. Though ultimately an abomination, the Oslo Accords were negotiated independently of the United Nations. If the will to talk is there, the sides will likely find a way to talk. If they don't, then they will go to war. Either way, the UN rarely seems to play a bigger role than spectator.

Blaming the UN for Darfur, for instance, seems foolish to me.

Precisely. The UN is another way of saying the leaders of the world's states. No-one wants to send troops, so the UN can't. The UN might not have been intended to solve the world's major problems, but the organisation's fan club certainly believes that it can. As it stands, the UN is a halfway house between Westphalian sovereignty and world government, and as such it isn't a surprise that it pleases neither side of that ideological divide.

Yeah, but Terje was the UN's guy, no? Or was he an independent player at the time?

Armitage had set up a multinational group of "Wise Men" to function as at-large conflict arbitrators, but AFAIK they've had limited success. Zinni, the US representative on Armitage's group, couldn't do anything in Israel, and he had little better luck in Aceh. I don't know if the group still exists or not, though. In any case, I think having people with in-depth knowledge of the issues and politics can be helpful, not to mention the administrative need to "house" things somewhere. The US can only do so much, and picks and chooses where to expend its resources and political capital with its national interest in mind. You can have regional security organizations play more of a role, too, but someone has to get them going.

Larsen was, at the time, Norway's foreign minister.

To clarify: when I said "don't replace it with anything", I meant with any United Democratic Nations, or any of the other ideas that have been suggested. Its more trouble than its worth.

WRT to Norway, the Israelis and the PLO went looking for a quiet place to chat and picked Norway.


The hypocrisy of both the organization and its members.


The UN is much like the Mos Eysely (sp) spaceport in the Star Wars movies: "It is a hive of scum and villainy."

You might want to revisit what I said here on Winds about the UN after it was hit by a suicide bomber in Iraq.

The extent of the Oil-For-Food program corruption makes clear there is no such thing as "an innocent UN employee" in Iraq.

It is a functional contradiction in terms that makes "Military and Intelligence" "Honest and Politician" pale in comparison.

The whole reason that the UN refused US Military protection in Iraq before the suicide bombing was because the UN officials involved did not want American military security to see which Ba'athist Iraqis the UN Oil-for-Food officials were dealing with.

Those UN oil-for-food officials really did earn the Darwin Award, and deserved too.

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