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United Nations versus United States?

Interview with Phyllis Bennis *

Saturday 2 December 2006

This is a moment of several overlapping transitions at the United Nations. A new secretary-general will take over at the end of December. New countries will join the Security Council as temporary members. And UN agencies are choosing new leadership. The stakes are high, as the UN remains the key to governments challenging US wars and invasions. But the longstanding battle between US domination and UN independence remains, and so far, it is off to a less than optimistic start.

What is your view on the upcoming Secretary General?

Ban Ki-Moon, the former South Korean foreign minister, was backed by the US. While his government had cautiously contested Washington’s hard-line policy on North Korea with its own “sunshine policy” focused on stability and ultimately reunification between North and South, Pyongyang’s recent nuclear tests have brought Seoul’s hard-liners to the fore, undermining adherents of the earlier policy including the foreign minister. It is very unlikely that Ban, known personally for a confrontation-averse diplomatic style will risk burning his fingers a second time in any high-visibility challenge to the US on issues such as sanctions or extending the mandate of Washington’s “multilateral forces” occupying Iraq.

What about the Security Council?

Along with the “perm five”—the veto-wielding powers with permanent tenure (US, France, Russia, China and Britain), new members have been selected by regional groups. That worked this time for the Asian (Indonesia), African (South Africa) and European (Belgium and Italy) seats. But Latin America which has emerged as the central front of the new challenges to US economic and political policy was different. While Peru will remain on the Council for another year, Washington maneuver to prevent Venezuela to become a member and campaigned for Guatemala instead, although it has been discredited as being Washington’s pawn and facing opposition from more than 100 civil society organizations inside Guatemala, who urged the world body to deny their own government a role on the Council because of its continuing human rights violations). At the end of the day, both Guatemala and Venezuela agreed to step down in favor of a third candidate—giving the victory to Panama.

Is that a victory or a defeat for Bush?

For sure, the US couldn’t get its way. Perhaps it failed because the General Assembly votes were taken by secret ballots, so threats had less resonance. Perhaps it failed because in 2006 Latin America is the center of a rising bloc of progressive governments ready to challenge US economic and political strategies, and with the political and economic clout to do so safely. So far the score is 50-50.

There were important nominations in UN agencies where US pressures were successful recently …

The new head of the World Food Program, one of the most vital of the UN’s emergency assistance agencies, is Josette Shiner, the nominee of the Bush administration. Shiner is a former editor of the right-wing Washington Times, owned by Unification Church founder Sun Myung Moon, and was a long-time member of the church itself. Perhaps more relevant, Shiner is currently the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Business and Agricultural Affairs. Shiner’s appointment was not unlike that of Ann Venemen at the head of UNICEF, who came to the position directly from her post as Secretary of Agriculture in the Bush administration.

Is it too late for the UN?

Recently in Nairobi, Secretary-General Annan moved to reassert UN power in his leading role at the international global warming conference. He berated world leaders, singling out most major industrialized countries for special scorn. Political leaders who continue to resist the massive changes that will be required, Annan went on, are “out of step, out of arguments and out of time.” It is still possible for the UN to reclaim its independence, and with it, the support of the world’s people, something now endangered by the perception of the UN giving in to Washington’s pressure. It is still possible for the incoming Secretary-general Ban Ki Moon to claim the global role of defender of the UN Charter, international law and multilateralism, and to speak out against US domination. It is still possible for the General Assembly to answer Washington’s most recent Security Council veto, once again of a resolution designed to hold Israel accountable for its illegal actions in the Gaza artillery attack that left 19 people dead, including 7 children and 6 women by calling for international protection for Palestinians. But time is running out for the UN. The last time it played its Charter-mandated role of working to stop “the scourge of war” was in the run-up to the 2003 war on Iraq, when the Security Council refused to endorse the invasion, the General Assembly condemned it, and eventually the secretary general called it illegal. The UN then became part of the massive mobilization in which “the world said no to war.” It wasn’t enough, ultimately, to prevent the invasion, but it did deny the Bush administration what it so desperately sought: international legitimacy. It’s not too late for the United Nations to reclaim that role.

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her most recent book is Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power