Dan Plesch: Naive not to acknowledge the world's elite wants a weak UN

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The Independent Online

A departing UN official has attacked her boss, Ban Ki-moon, for being ineffective. At first glance, the story is about as astonishing as "Dog Bites Man". But the story is much more complicated than a simple case of a disgruntled ex-employee sounding off. As is so often the case, it is what is not being said that is most important, or, as in the Sherlock Holmes story, the dogs that are not barking but should be.

There are headlines to be had for sure; the accuser is Inga-Britt Ahlenius, the retiring UN undersecretary general of the Office of Internal Oversight Services, whose job includes combating corruption at the UN. When she speaks, we need to listen carefully.

But her list of accusations concerns many quite small bureaucratic instances: for instance, the blocking by the Secretary General of an American to a job investigating corruption on the grounds that only American men had been considered for the post. Ms Ahlenius might have shown a little more commitment to the cause of diversity, and to the necessity of standing up to pressure from America.

For that pressure goes unacknowledged even in her climactic point. It is in this conclusion to the memo that she shows her naivety, by not acknowledging that the most powerful states want the UN to be weak. She blames the Secretary General and not his political masters for failure. "Is there any improvement in general of our capacity to protect civilians in conflict or distress?" she asks. "What relevance do we have in disarmament, Myanmar, Darfur, Afghanistan, Cyprus, G20...?"

These points are fine, as far as they go. But it is quite clear that at root the UN's weakness is a direct result of the failure of its most powerful members to provide the cash and political will to address international crises. The whole UN budget is smaller than that of the New York Fire Department. It has no military forces of its own, and while Britain allocates forces to Nato, it has none at the disposal of the Security Council.

It was not always like this. In 1946 Winston Churchill spoke in favour of a UN air force. Sixty-six years ago, in July of 1944, a UN conference of more than 40 states, including the USSR, agreed to prevent renewed world war by regulating international finance and exchange rates and funding post-war reconstruction that prioritised full employment at Bretton Woods. These decisions were not the creation of a secretariat but the will of member states. Now the climate of opinion amongst the elites of the leading countries has changed: now, the UN is starved of resources and then ridiculed for its ineffectiveness.

Still, Alhenius is right on one matter, the weakness of the UN is a threat to peace. We have forgotten that the UN was built as the alliance to win the Second World War and maintain the peace. We have discarded the policy agenda agreed at Bretton Woods and which helped secure the post-war economic boom. As Churchill said in 1944, "It is the only hope of the world".

Dan Plesch is director of the Centre for International Studies at SOAS and author of 'America, Hitler and the UN'

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