UN finds its niche

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2001, 12:00am

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations and its Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, comes at a particularly apposite moment. Mr Annan's mild manner, his unflappable calm and his genuine spirit of commitment to the often apparently insoluble tasks before him have evoked widespread admiration - and have never been more needed than now.

When Mr Annan took over as Secretary-General in 1997, the UN's prestige was at a nadir following the debacles of its peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia. The Republican-controlled US congress had little time for the organisation, many considering it to be profligate, toothless and little more than a talking shop. And there was some truth in this view.

One of Mr Annan's great achievements has been to better manage the unwieldy organisation, making it both more efficient and, following his personal style, more quietly robust in its approach. The Secretary-General has vastly improved relations with the US and yet is not hesitant to defy America when he feels the need, as he has done previously by negotiating with Saddam Hussein in an attempt to prevent more US bombing of Iraq.

The Nobel committee discounted any link between awarding the peace prize to the UN and its Secretary-General and the events in New York and Washington on September 11. Perhaps not, but the prize nevertheless highlights the critical part the organisation is now expected to play in Afghanistan. In this sense, the Nobel award perhaps signifies hope rather than recognition of previous concrete successes. And for once there is some reason to hope.

The US needs the UN. It needs it most importantly to prevent its war against terrorism being perceived as simply a conflict between rich Western countries and - for the most part - poor Muslim nations.

Following September 11, the US Congress has begun to pay off the US$2 billion it owes the UN. And President George W. Bush has endorsed the UN's future involvement in Afghanistan to bring about the 'stabilisation of a future government'.

The UN is, as the Nobel prize citation eloquently said, 'an organisation that can hardly become more than its members permit'. Now, with support from the world's superpower, the opportunity arises for the UN to fulfil a role closer to that for which it was conceived. Kofi Annan's popularity, his quiet, diplomatic style and his statesman-like presence without doubt make him, in the words of British PM Tony Blair, 'the right man for the job at the right time'.