Answering questions on Radio 4's World Tonight about the bomb attack on its offices in Algiers, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was cut off in mid-sentence. When asked why the UN was targeted, she started to say: "Unfortunately, the UN is not any more the innocent, humanitarian organisation that can work anywhere," before she was hustled on to the next question as to why the UN didn't take better precautions against attack.
But, however uncomfortable the question, especially when the aid organisation has just lost nearly a dozen employees in the bombing, what its spokesman was saying has a terrible ring of truth about it. In the West, the UN is regarded as largely a good thing, with its many arms dedicated to helping refugees, resolving conflicts and, if necessary, to stepping in with the blue helmets to keep the peace.
In other parts of the world, however, the UN is no longer regarded in this benign light. Indeed, in a substantial part of the developing world it has come to seem an instrument of western oppression and US hegemony a club of the big boys intent on bullying smaller countries in the interests of Washington and its European allies.
When al-Qa'ida blew up the UN offices in Iraq in 2003, killing its envoy, it was trying to drive the outside world away and make sure that nations hesitated to support the US and Britain in the occupation (in this it was, in fact, brutally successful). When al-Qa'ida North Africa, as the militant group now calls itself, blew up the UNHCR offices in Algiers, it was to show that it too had the power and determination to bring down a symbol of western presence.
Iraq has much to do with this change in perceptions. Of course, the UN had been attacked elsewhere before the invasion took place. But Washington's decision to press ahead with occupation regardless showed to much of the Muslim world both the UN's powerlessness and the extent to which it was regarded as a tool of the US, not an independent source of global governance. The rest of the world has been brought up to believe that the security role of the UN was to keep a peace already agreed. Now it saw that the UN was being pushed to impose a peace on terms dictated from outside.
The trouble with denying this and protesting the UN's innocence is that the Third World perception of it as an instrument of the West has some basis to it. If you take the Middle East, the succession of resolutions on Palestine, never implemented and almost universally ignored, the relent tless pinioning of Saddam Hussein through sanctions and then enforced regime-change, the current pursuit of Iran through sanctions and threat, are all seen expressions not of international concern but western self-interest. And the same is true of much of Africa, where the blue helmet has come to represent western ideas of order rather than local concerns for justice.
The heart of the problem is the UN Security Council. So long as the Cold War defined the world, it made sense to lock the nuclear powers into a committee that could stop local conflicts escalating into global confrontation. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Security Council lost its purpose. Instead, it has been used by its western members as a sanction for whatever intervention they deem right. As they, and particularly the US, are the chief funders of the UN, it is hard for the organisation to avoid going along with them.
All sorts of ideas have been presented to reform the UN to take it into the post-Cold War world, including a standing army and an expanded Security Council. Britain has been especially keen on the latter, pushing for the addition of Japan, Brazil, an African country and Germany to the existing five members.
The trouble with this is that it merely extends (as it is meant to) the dominance of the big powers. Why these new countries? Because they are all free market, democratic, middle-sized powers that can be relied on to accept the terms of reference of the Big Three of the Security Council the US, Britain and France. Hence the early faux pas of the new Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, in letting slip that what Britain thought of as "an African member" was, quite specifically, South Africa.
How you could honestly regard as representative a council that excluded the Middle East, the single greatest source of insecurity in the world, beggars belief. But then how could you regard Japan as somehow the voice of Asia, given its past?
It won't work and it shouldn't. If the UN is to be reformed, it has to provide at its centre an inclusive voice, not an exclusive one. But then if it is to recover its former reputation as an "innocent humanitarian organisation" welcome around the world, then it needs to rethink its mission from the bottom, stepping back from the military interventions with which the West would saddle it.