Friday, December 10, 2004

The coalition of the crooked and unfree? 

The recent expressions of support for Kofi Annan by the European Union, China, the African Union (and half-heartedly by the United States and Australia) , as well as indeed the General Assembly as a whole which gave him a "rare standing ovation" suggest that, at least as far as the "international community" is concerned, the main mission of the United Nations is not to uphold and promote the highest ethical standards within the world body politic, but to try to provide a block to any actions by the United States. Just as Iraq before, the issue of the UN reform and Kofi Annan's leadership has become a battle of wills between the US and its few allies and the rest of the international community as to who controls the agenda. Any other considerations seem to be, at best, secondary.

Should we expect more from the UN? Should we expect the organization to actually actively promote values such as freedom, democracy, transparency and accountability? Many, particularly conservatives, would say no; after all, the United Nations is not a "club of the democracies," but a club of, well... everyone.

Every year,
Freedom House ranks countries in the world on a 1.0 to 7.0 continuum of Free, Partly Free and Unfree. In the latest such ranking (link in PDF), 89 countries are considered to be Free, of which 39 get the perfect 1.0 score. 56 Countries are Partly Free (between 3.0 and 5.0), and another 49 are considered Not Free (with the scores ranging from 5.5 to the dismal 7.0). Hence, as you look at the composition of the General Assembly, it pits 89 free countries against 105 whose political and human rights climate leaves something (and in many cases very much) to be desired.

You can also look at
Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, which ranks 146 states according to "the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians," based on surveys of countries' residents (it's otherwise impossible to arrive at any "objective" measures of corruption). In the most current ranking, Finland tops the list, with a score of 9.7, while Bangladesh and Haiti, at 165 and 156 respectively, close the list as the countries judged by their own people to be the most corrupt, scoring a disappointing 1.5 each. If we take 5.0 as the median point, only 40 countries in the world are above that line, and 106 below it.

So if you look at the composition of the United Nations' General Assembly it is clearly made up of majority of countries that are struggling in the freedom's stakes and and even greater majority of countries that their own citizens consider to be quite crooked. Any wonder that the UN behaves as it does, both as an international player and in its own internal governance?

A simplistic analysis? Of course. After all, some of America's staunch allies are among the unfree and the corrupt, just as many of America's detractors are both free and clean. Yet, one cannot escape the conclusion that in the end, the United Nations is merely a sum of its parts and its actions merely reflect the nature and the sentiments of the majority of its members.

To put it in simple terms, we are asking countries with their own freedom and democracy deficiencies to be enthusiastic about the spread of democracy and liberty around the world, and we are expecting countries which are corrupt and ethically challenged at home not to tolerate corruption at the highest levels of international governance. It is as if we decided to elect a fair number of residents of penitentiaries to represent us in the Congress, and subsequently expected this august body to legislate meaningfully on law and order issues, much less the Congressional ethics.

That's the crux of the difference between our national governments and the unelected, self-appointed "world government": while neither the American nor the Australian electorate is composed of angels, we the voters don't, nonetheless, expect our elected representatives to live up merely to some average standard of ethics and public morality - quite the contrary, we judge our politicians against the highest possible benchmark - and so often find them wanting. But what can we expect of the United Nations?

Not very much, as some would argue. And this sentiment is not restricted just to anti-UN conservatives, but extends to those who see the UN's primary role to ensure the stability of the international system rather than to work on the expansion of the sphere of freedom and democracy throughout the world. That might or might not be the case, but where does it leave the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a whole host of other human rights covenants and treaties?

In the end, I'm mostly with
Powerline's Deacon on this one when he writes:

"I'm afraid that my views on the U.N., and its reform, are quite cynical. I take it as given that (a) we will not withdraw from the U.N. and (b) we should not cede meaningful power to it. Under these circumstances, I see a scandal-ridden and overtly anti-American U.N. as a plus because such a U.N. minimizes the possibility that the Democrats will persuade voters that we should permit the U.N. to influence our policy. I am confident that the U.N. will continue to answer to this description for a long time."
While I believe that there is a legitimate role that the United Nations can play in the international affairs, just as strongly I believe that the UN should never be in a strong enough position to realistically entertain dreams of turning itself into a genuine world government.

But neither our low expectations of the body, nor indeed our distrust of its ambitions should stop us from arguing that the United Nations can do better. The UN might never become an ethically-charged crusader of international freedom, but at the very least we should expect it to keep its own house in order, if only because a total moral chaos will ultimately prevent the organization from doing some of the good work it does and should be doing.


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