The UN

2005 03 25
“Abhorrent acts”

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

From The Guardian:

The reputation of United Nations peacekeeping missions suffered a humiliating blow yesterday as an internal report identified repeated patterns of sexual abuse and rape perpetrated by soldiers supposed to be restoring the international rule of law.

The highly critical study, published by Jordan’s ambassador to the UN assembly, was endorsed by the organisation’s embattled secretary general, Kofi Annan, who condemned such “abhorrent acts” as a “violation of the fundamental duty of care”.

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2005 02 03
On the other hand . . .

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

. . . It does looks as though there was serious wrongdoing at the U.N. in the administration of the oil-for-food program.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 02 03
Breaking news!!! Must credit CNN!!!

From CNN, breathlessly:

Documents obtained by CNN reveal the United States knew about, and even condoned, embargo-breaking oil sales by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and did so to shore up alliances with Iraq’s neighbors.

The oil trade with countries such as Turkey and Jordan appears to have been an open secret inside the U.S. government and the United Nations for years.

The unclassified State Department documents sent to congressional committees with oversight of U.S. foreign policy divulge that the United States deemed such sales to be in the “national interest,” even though they generated billions of dollars in unmonitored revenue for Saddam’s regime.

The trade also generated a needed source of oil and commerce for Iraq’s major trading partners, Turkey and Jordan.

“It was in the national security interest, because we depended on the stability in Turkey and the stability in Jordan in order to encircle Saddam Hussein,” Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, told CNN when asked about the memo documents.

Look, everybody knew this was happening. And it wasn’t a bad compromise at the time, given the overall policy of containment, since the U.S. depended heavily on the cooperation of Iraq’s neighbours. I believe there was even a limited amount of winking and nodding at Syria too.

The current fuss and storm about the UN’s role in the sanctions regime is a mostly dishonest joke. The UN is not a perfect institution, by any stretch. But the right’s current obsession with the UN’s activities during the sanctions regime is not intended to address any real problems with the institution. It’s intended to distract, discredit and dumb-down public debate about Iraq and containment prior to the war. CNN’s shocking new revelations are only shocking if you’ve bought into the storyline peddled by the right for the last year or so – that the whole damn mess was the fault of the rascally UN.

Howls of outrage (2)

2005 01 11
Oil for Food Question

I don’t know much about the oil for food issue. I have to plead guilty to letting most news reports of it go unread. I know that much of the issue has to do with certain “over-payments” to certain entities, many of them private companies. This article in the Washington Post today talks of a $2 million loss here, a $1.4 million loss there for the “$64 billion program”.

While the article mentions that Saddam was stealing “billions” from the program, the largest compensatory overpayment mentioned in the article is this:

A separate audit alleged that the commission might have saved as much as $2.2 billion by setting currency exchange rates on the date an award was paid instead of the date a claimant suffered a loss.

Now, I’m not sure what sort of “losses” the article is referring to here. However, if they are indeed losses that generate a claim to compensation by the oil for food program, then there is reason to maintain some perspective on the scope of the “scandal”. If the major source of complaint–in monetary concerns–is this $2.2 billion, then it needs to be asked whether the suggestion by the audit–i.e., that currency exchange rates should be set at the time of compensation rather than at the time of the loss–is a reasonable one. As far as I can tell, no scandal should be generated by coming down on one side rather than the other on this question. Of course, this is just one question among many, and maybe I am wholly misguided as to the role of this compensatory issue within the imbroglio at large.

Enlightening comments are welcome.

Howls of outrage (4)

2004 07 09
The U.S., the U.N. and Sudan

Via The Agonist, I see signs that the U.S. is facing opposition in the U.N. in its attempt to get a resolution through on Sudan . . . . Or at least so it seems. The Reuters story the Agonist directs me to looks like a real rush job: Only American diplomats appear to be interviewed for it, so one wonders if the self-serving spin in their story has been dealt with properly.

If the piece is accurate, however, then by the powers invested in me as a blogger, I firmly condemn that bullshit.

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2004 06 14
Safire on the U.N.

Anyone who cares about the U.N. will want to see a thorough investigation of the U.N.’s behaviour throughout the period of the Iraq-sanctions regime. Of course, people who don’t give a hoot about the U.N. will also want to see an investigation of the organization, so long as it embarrasses and discredits it.

Which side is William Safire on? Not sure. He does seem to be hot on the trail of the corruption story. But, you know, it would be easier to take Safire seriously if he mentioned that Chalabi has been sitting on some very important documents formerly in the possession of the Ba’ath party in Iraq.

It doesn’t matter here whether you think Chalabi really is corrupt or whether you think he’s the finest Arab since Mohammad. At the very least, it creates an appearance of impropriety that Chalabi – wanted for embezzlement, suspected of being an Iranian spy, and whose past operations are known to have involved document forging – has had these documents in his exclusive possession for an awfully long time.

If Safire cares about the integrity of an investigation partially dependent on these documents, why does he not utter a peep about the issue? Sorry I keep going on about this. But it’s been – what? – three columns on this issue now, and he still hasn’t gotten around to addressing this point.

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2004 06 06

Oy vey:

The UN in Afghanistan says not a penny of the money the international community has pledged for elections due in September has been handed over. It says that if the funds do not come through soon, the vote is in danger of being further delayed. The polls were originally supposed to happen this month. The warning relates to money promised for the actual voting process – to buy items such as voting screens and ballot papers and hiring electoral staff.

More from the BBC.

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2004 05 26
Secor on Brahimi

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

Laura Secor has an interesting profile of Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.’s man in Iraq.

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2004 05 19
Super-Duper-Important Breaking Silly News

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

Kofi Annan has had a bounty put on his head.

What will they stop at next?

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2004 04 26
Idealism and principle again victorious at the U.N.

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

Another triumph!

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2004 04 22
A footnote to “Corruption at the UN”

The other day, I did a little fulminatin’ about the UN food-for-oil scandal. The basic point was that the credibility of the UN depends on an open and thorough investigation of the matter, and anyone who argued against the war because it would undermine the UN ought to be just as outraged about this threat to the credibility of the UN.

Just a small point to add to this: The credibility of the investigation is inevitably going to depend partly on documentary evidence taken from Ba’ath party files dating from the time of the sanctions. But if I’m not mistaken, these files are now in the grubby little hands of Mr. Chalabi and his cronies, who aren’t letting anyone else at them. Chalabi knows perfectly well that the documents give him the dirt on any number of potential rivals within Iraq. For the really paranoid, Chalabi’s possession of these documents also opens up the possibility that he might seed the evidence with forgeries to discredit rivals, if real documents cannot be found for this purpose. At any rate, here as in so many other areas, the appearance of propriety matters as well as the substance.

All of this raises legitimate concerns about evidence tampering and also selective treatment of the evidence. Remember that Chalabi has an angle here, and the some of the first rivals for him to face down are rivals at the U.N. who don’t seem especially keen on the Pentagon’s favourite Iraqi.

Anyone who takes this investigation seriously will want the documents removed immediately and put in the care of a credible and independent third party. On this issue, I find myself in agreement with a number of critics of the UN, at least on the point that there is a very strong prima facie case for serious, systematic corruption. Where I suspect we part ways is in how seriously we take the investigation. Here is a test: If they really do take the investigation seriously, they should also call for Chalabi to release all the relevant documentary evidence immediately to an independent third party. It’s already too late for this, but better late than never.

A single voice crying in the wilderness (1)

2004 04 21
Corruption at the UN

There is outrage stirring among columnists over corruption in the UN’s oil-for-food program in Iraq. The program was a crucial part of the sanctions regime, and how we regard that regime is sure to influence our sense of the various options available to policymakers before the war. As far as I can tell, the program was very corrupt, and the outrage is entirely appropriate.

During the buildup to the war, many people worried that going to war without a (proper, explicit, uncontroversial) UN resolution would damage the UN. As it turns out, the net effect of the war itself will probably be to strengthen the institution, since the war will probably end up as a byword for what happens when you try to flout the international community. But the story of corruption, long known in its outlines, is at least as serious a threat to the UN’s credibility as the war was supposed to be, and I would like to see more people upset about it for that reason.

I’m glad that Annan has decided to appoint a panel to investigate this mess, especially since it seems credible even to the likes of William Safire. But it has a long uphill battle to get to the truth, since the main culprits (Russia, China, France) all sit as permanent members on the security council. We can expect every manner of stonewalling and deception from the whole sorry lot of them. I would like to put my contempt for their behaviour on record here.

The other point to make about the UN corruption and UN legitimacy is made so effectively by Pogge, that I’ll let him take care of it.

Howls of outrage (2)

2004 04 18
Another triumph for the UN!

Posted by in: Political issues, The UN

Or perhaps not.

Well, the sensible point about the U.N. was always that we hoped the institution might come to be credible and effective someday, while at the same time appreciating some of the things it achieved in spite of everything. The sensible point was never that the UN, as it is now, is the apple of our collective multilateralist eye.

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2004 03 31
[International law]

Well, I’m shocked. It turns out that the U.S. is not, as a matter of international law, supposed to detain people in Guantanamo, at least in the way it has so far. This, according to a U.N. committee on human rights.

I know, I know. Doesn’t the U.N. have bigger – or, um, more offending – fish to fry? And what credibility can it possibly claim when Syria gets a spot on human rights committees? And so on and on.

But there’s a serious point here. There are occasional calls to reform the U.N. and give its human rights claims more teeth – the sort of thing that would put Syria and other countries on the hot seat. I’m all for that. Let’s not fool ourselves, though. The U.S. would also be reluctant to see genuine reforms, since genuine reforms would make criticisms like the one I mentioned above all the more difficult to brush off. I think the Bush admin’s treatment of the ICC gives a decent idea of how it would treat any really fair and open reform of international measures to promote human rights. That’s a pity, because for all its failures, the U.S. really is crucial to the development of the kinds of norms and practices that would benefit everyone in the long run. That’s sort of why I harp on this so much.

Mulling this over yesterday reminded me of a book I read a while ago, Richard Falk’s The Great Terror War. Falk wrote the book after 9/11. It’s a serious attempt to think through some of the difficulties raised by 9/11 and especially the implied threat in 9/11 of something far worse to come. If I remember correctly, one of Falk’s main points is that the threat of “mega-terrorism,” as he calls it, justifies some modification to existing international law. The solution here is not to just break international law, but to attempt to craft some principled and suitably restricted modifications to it.

Well, the devil is in the details, of course. But the basic point seems fine to me. The virtue of Falk’s approach is that he balances a willingness to recognize the difficulty of fighting “mega-terrorism” (the phrase just didn’t catch on) against the obvious worry that many countries, including the U.S., would abuse their new powers in the name of fighting terror.

It is my sad duty to report that the U.S. has done pretty much the reverse of what Falk recommends. The administration’s official position is that it is following international law in Guantanamo (because the captives don’t qualify as legitimate prisoner’s of war). If you think about it, this implies – rather perversely and contrary to what the admin actually believes – that existing international law crafted years ago under entirely different circumstances is perfectly suited to handling fresh challenges involved in fighting an international group of loosely organized terrorist cells.

On the other hand, the administration’s unofficial position is that it hardly matters if the detentions are illegal. The administraton demonstrates this contempt for the law every time it brushes off fundamental challenges to the detentions – as if it weren’t obvious that the Geneva Convention requires that the detainees be brought before a tribunal, at the very least, to determine their status. (I’ve read conflicting reports about conditions at the camps. I’m not sure what to believe, but the point is that the conditions are irrelevant – or rather, the fundamental objection is not to the conditions of detention, but rather to their legal justification. Another thing to note is that it was the military brass that pushed the hardest for the Geneva Convention, and many of the better features of Guantanamo are probably due to its intervention.)

The result of all this sqeamishness about international law has been deeply unsatisfying. In a situation where the administration might have been able to seize the momentum to refashion crucial legal tools necessary for fighting a long struggle against terrorist groups like AQ, it chose at once to deny the need for these crucial tools while at the time unnecessarily undermining the legitimacy of its own behaviour.

This isn’t a problem without consequences, either. The finer points of international law can make a huge difference in how well the U.S. is able to coordinate its counterterrrorism activities with other countries. To take one modest example which most Americans will likely never have heard about, there was an enormous fuss in Canada when Canadian troops in Afghanistan handed over suspected AQ members directly to U.S. troops. Why, you ask? Because doing so made Canadian troops complicit in a clear violation of the Geneva Convention – a rather bigger deal up North than it is here. The Canadian government no doubt took heed of the heat it took over this, as, I’m sure, did other governments. If you think that doesn’t make a difference, think again.

Ah, lost opportunities and squandered good-will . . . We’re in the vicinity of the defining quality of the Bush administration.

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2003 08 21
U.S. will ask U.N. for move to widen force in Iraq

U.S. Will Ask U.N. for Move to Widen the Force in Iraq

This is all very nice, but there are some problems here. First, the U.S. doesn’t really seem to be offering any concessions. It just seems to be reasking the old question of whether the UN, after getting dissed for several long months, is willing to step up and take over American responsibilities with nothing in return. Without substantial concessions, the timing here looks more like a cynical bid to capitalize on the recent bombing of the UN compound.

Second, it comes dangerously late in the game, after Iraq has slipped further into chaos than anyone wanted. It is reaching the point where it may be too dangerous to call on other countries.

Finally, although internationalization is great, the most substantial risks in this project – I’m afraid – will have to be carried by the U.S. and the British. It is not fair – by any stretch – that American soldiers have to die in Iraq, but it would be even less fair now to ask countries which counselled vigorously before the war against going in. Should Canada send troop, for example, after having privately tried to talk the U.S. out of this course? Well, setting aside the fact that Canada conveniently sent all its troops to Afghanistan so that it wouldn’t be able to oblige, I think the answer is no. Unilaterialism before the war means that this is an American problem, and so Americans had better deal with the worst of it, whether or not they have help with the rest.

There is one good reason and two very bad reasons that the U.S. has resisted substantial outside help this far. Unfortunately, the good reason isn’t good enough, and the bad reasons are very bad.

The good reason to worry about outside help is that the U.S. is rightly perceived as being on the hook here. If someone else fucks up, it’s the U.S. that will get all the blame. And, the worry goes, too many hands in the kitchen will decrease the chances of success. Fair enough, but think there are ways around this. And the worry has to be balanced against the many benefits of internationalization. Putting the reconstruction under the direct supervision of the U.N. (for all its faults) might relieve some of the cyncism surrounding this whole exercise. It’s painfully obvious now that the UN is also a target for insurgents, and it is not a solution to all the problems that plague Iraq. But it would be good enough to offset the reasonable worries we might have about it.

The first lousy reason that I suspect the US has for resisting this is that a genuine attempt to bring in others, a real version of interntionalization that didn’t look like a cheap attempt to coerce others into cleaning up the US’s mess, would require the admin to eat crow. And they would clearly rather many, many, more young Americans died before they did that.

The second lousy reason is that the US may really want to control the Iraq during and after occupation. Bringing France and Russia et. al. back to the table might require the U.S. to cut them a deal, and that’s the last thing they want. This war was fought, I think, out of a concern for long term strategic interests in oil and influence in the Middle East. The war really will be a failure, even on their own terms, if they have to cede any of that influence to get Iraq back on its feet.

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