Saturday, January 15, 2005

This disaster exposes the myth of the UN's moral authority

Telegraph | Opinion | This disaster exposes the myth of the UN's moral authority

The UN's authority is instead one of those ineffable mystical mysteries. The authority's existence cannot be perceived by the senses and exerts no influence on the events of this world. Even the authority's most devout hierophants retain the right to disavow that authority at whim, as Ms Short herself disavowed its resolutions on Iraq. And yet at other times those same hierophants praise this same imperceptible, inconsequential, and intermittently binding authority as the best hope for a just and peaceful world. An early church father is supposed to have said of the story of the resurrection: "I believe it because it is absurd." The same could much more justly be said of the doctrine of the UN's moral authority.

Whence exactly does this moral authority emanate? How did the UN get it? Did it earn it by championing liberty, justice, and other high ideals? That seems a strange thing to say about a body that voted in 2003 to award the chair of its commission on human rights to Mummar Gaddafi's Libya.

Did it earn it by the efficacy of its aid work? On the contrary, the UN's efforts in Iraq have led to the largest financial scandal in the organisation's history: as much as $20 billion unaccounted for in oil-for-food funds. UN aid efforts in the Congo have been besmirched by allegations of sexual abuse of children; in the Balkans, by charges of sex trafficking.

Is the UN a defender of the weak against aggression by the powerful? Not exactly. Two of this planet's most intractable conflicts pit small democracies against vastly more populous neighbouring states. In both cases, the UN treats the democracies – Israel, Taiwan – like pariahs.

This record may explain why the UN is regarded by so many Americans as neither moral nor authoritative – and why American leaders of both political parties reject UN attempts to control American actions.

And indeed, when we talk about UN authority, it is UN authority over America that we always seem to have in mind. The UN is the stated topic, but it is American power that is the real subject of concern.

As Ms Short complained in The Independent on January 1: "At a time when the world faces terrible challenges, of poverty, disorder and environmental degradation, there is a real danger that the US government is consistently undermining the only legitimate system of international co-operation that we have." In a world that contains – among others – the EU, Nato, the World Trade Organisation, and literally hundreds of regional and global governmental and non-governmental associations, it seems bizarre to describe the UN as the sole legitimate international actor.

But of course the UN is the only one of these actors consistently to come into conflict with the United States. It is this bias of the UN system – and not any of the UN's meagre list of achievements – that causes so many on the global Left to regard it as legitimate in a way that they do not regard, say, international treaties for the protection of patents.

Europeans often interpret American skepticism about the UN as a sign of American indifference to world opinion. Yet Americans care passionately for the good opinion of the world. Nothing John Kerry said during the 2004 campaign inflicted as much damage to the President as his charges that George W Bush had ruptured alliances and lowered America's standing in the world.

Unlike many on the European Left, however, Americans seem able to remember that the UN is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Americans see the UN not as an ineffable mystery, but as an institution invented six decades ago by human beings no wiser than their modern successors to respond to the problems of their time - which were not the same as the problems of ours.

If the UN keeps failing, the answer is not to ignore its faults, but to reform or replace it. There is growing interest in some American quarters in the idea of a new international association, open only to countries that elect their leaders democratically. At a minimum, Americans expect transparency, accountability, and some greater approach to even-handedness in the Middle East. But the real challenge to all of us, in all the democracies, is this: to be guided by realities, not fantasies - and especially not such uniquely unconvincing fantasies as the allegedly unique moral authority of the United Nations.

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