Linda Polman: This cynical abuse of the United Nations

A better and stronger UN has been discussed by member states since 1945

But just one day from the summit's opening, it looks likely that they won't agree on anything, and diplomats, politicians, activists and the international press are crying "crisis". They should know that the UN has been here many times before. How could it be any other way for an organisation made up of 191 member states who are in eternal pursuit of their own national interests?

In the UN's 60-year existence, member states have selfishly dragged it from one crisis to the next. Millions of lives have been lost in civil wars and ethnic cleansings. Communist empires have been created and destroyed, chemical weapons forbidden and used anyway, nuclear plants have leaked and exploded, harvests failed and peoples starved to death, disease and terrorism have spread panic, cyclones and earthquakes destroyed environments, and polar caps have been melting. Hundreds of millions of refugees and migrants have traversed continents seeking safety and better prospects.

The UN has been dragged into all Earth's disasters, and it has lived. It will survive this week's summit too. It cannot collapse, because it has no life of its own. It is the servant of its member states. It can only do what they tell it to do.

A better and stronger UN has been discussed by member states since the beginning in 1945. President Harry Truman, one of its founding fathers, pleaded with governments to "recognise, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the licence to do always as we please. Unless we pay that price, no organisation for world peace can accomplish its purpose."

He spoke to no avail. The member states have taken great care not to allow the UN to evolve into anything even vaguely resembling an independent body, because that could nibble away at their freedom to act as they please. Member states are sovereign, and cynically abuse this freedom. National interests have always prevailed over (international) UN goals.

The latest set of proposals for achieving a stronger and fitter UN were painstakingly negotiated in the months preceding this week's summit. But governments have bombarded the draft agreement with hundreds and hundreds of objections and changes. The US alone has tabled almost 800 amendments.

UN member states have never liked being told what to do, the US least of all. The hostilities surfaced back in 2004, after revelations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Congo and Liberia. The attacks gained strength with each scandal-ridden update of the Volcker commission's investigations into the Iraqi oil-for-food programme. The muckraking began in earnest in March 2003. By calling the war in Iraq "illegal", the Secretary General, deeply angered his powerful superiors. Mr Bush promptly dismissed the UN as "irrelevant".

Instead of resigning in protest at the contempt with which the organisation was treated, Annan vowed to reform the UN towards new relevancy. What's left of his proposals lies on the table in New York this week. The US will gladly chuck the remains in the bin if its rewrite of the Annan document is not accepted by the other member states.

Dismissal of (most of) Annan's proposals, as is likely to happen, won't mean the end of the UN. Kofi Annan himself, however, will be left empty-handed. His remaining authority will vanish. Annan's term ends in December next year. By that time, skies may have cleared a little, for the organisation at least. A recent poll in Foreign Affairs magazine indicated that 72 per cent of Americans believe more respect for the views and needs of the international community would enhance US national security.

Iraq has been a chastening experience for the Americans, and the clumsily handled aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has made them eat more humble pie. The US has even had to accept the UN to come help poor Americans in New Orleans.

The UN-basher George Bush will not be president forever. The next administration might recognise the need for a stronger UN to achieve a safer America. For that, the most powerful member states must accept that national interests cannot always come before international goals. And as Truman said back in 1945: "What a reasonable price to pay for world peace that is."

The writer is author of 'We Did Nothing: Why the truth doesn't always come out when the UN goes in' (Penguin)

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