United Nations

Cutting off hopes of reform

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 September, 2005, 12:00am


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If we set out to create a farm in the wilderness, we should not expect the biggest local predators to help. We have our interests and they have theirs; as our little patch of order spreads, their ability to hunt freely and dominate the local environment is increasingly constrained. So we should not be surprised that John Bolton is trying to sabotage the reform of the United Nations.

The US ambassador to the world body, recently appointed by President George W. Bush in defiance of Congress' wishes, believes that if the UN is not an instrument of American power, then it is an obstacle to it. He and his neoconservative colleagues are deeply traditional people who believe America's best chance of remaining a winner is to preserve the world as a free-fire zone for the exercise of US military and economic power.

That is why Mr Bolton, at the last moment, entered several hundred objections to the draft agreement on the changes that are needed to make the UN relevant to the challenges of the 21st century. About 175 heads of state and government are currently in New York to mark the UN's 60th anniversary and approve the landmark document that has been under negotiation for the past year, but the last-minute US intervention has re-opened many issues that were all but settled, and it is doubtful that there will even be a final document by tomorrow.

Mr Bolton demanded that all references to climate change be removed, and likewise all references to wealthy countries like the US committing to a goal of 0.7 per cent of their gross national product in foreign aid.

There was to be no special help for developing countries to join the World Trade Organisation, and no commitment by nuclear-armed countries to work towards nuclear disarmament. There should be no reference to the International Criminal Court (which the US is trying to destroy), and no reference to the UN Millennium Development Goals on poverty, education, disease, trade and aid. Passages promising a larger role for the general assembly were to be struck out, as was the promise to create a standing military capacity for UN peacekeeping.

Gone was the reaffirmation that 'the use of force should be considered as an instrument of last resort', the promise to 'encourage pharmaceutical companies to make anti-retroviral drugs affordable and accessible in Africa', and any legal responsibility for the security council to authorise intervention to stop genocides and ethnic cleansing.

He even wanted to remove the phrase 'respect for nature' from the section on values and principles. Since the core project of expanding the security council has already been postponed for several months in the face of apparently irreconcilable ideas about how to do it (and may actually be postponed for years), Mr Bolton's demands pretty much pulled the rug out from under the whole UN reform project.

The option of pressing ahead without American participation, as was done with the Kyoto accord, the International Criminal Court and a number of other recent international initiatives, does not exist in this case, for the US is a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council and also contributes a quarter of the UN's budget. Rather than agree to an inadequate document now and foreclose the possibility of further reform for many years to come, it would be better to let the current attempt fail and try again in three years' time.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist