By Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
For those of us who admire the United Nations, there is an uncomfortable reality to grapple with:
The U.N. has put barely a speed bump in the path to genocide in Darfur. The U.N. has been just as ineffective there for the last three years as it was during the slaughter in Rwanda, Bosnia and Cambodia. Once again, it rolled over. It's no wonder that anti-genocide campaigners have barely bothered protesting at the U.N. and have instead focused their pressure on the White House.
The sad fact is that the U.N. is a wimp. It publishes fine reports and is terrific at handing out food and organizing vaccination campaigns, but the General Assembly and the Security Council routinely doze through crimes against humanity.
Sure enough, to the extent that there is now a ray of hope in Darfur, what has changed is not that the U.N. has awakened, but that President Bush has shown greater initiative.
My guess is that the recent peace deal in Darfur will fall apart. It is fragile on the rebel side, and Sudan is probably lying once again when it promises to disarm the janjaweed militia. All that said, this peace agreement is the best hope we have to end the genocide, and the U.N. needs to back it up by dispatching an international force to Darfur. If the U.N. fails that test in the coming weeks, it will have disgraced itself again.
Frankly, the U.N. has regularly failed abysmally in situations like the one in Darfur, when military intervention is needed but a major power (in this case China) uses the threat of a veto to block action.
The U.N. has done better in organizing security for elections. The U.N. effort to help Mozambique out of its civil war in the early 1990's was a huge success, and the U.N. also helped greatly in the run-up to the birth of East Timor in 2002.
But by and large, victims of war and genocide are served about as well by the U.N. as earlier generations were by the Kellogg-Briand pact to outlaw war. Granted, when the U.N. fails, that simply means that its member states fail — but the upshot is still that when genocide alarm bells tinkle, the places to call are Washington, London and Paris, not New York.
Does this mean I buy into the right wing's denunciations of the U.N.?
No, partly because the U.N. agencies do a fine job in humanitarian operations. The World Food Program and Unicef are first-rate; they jointly run the U.N. operation I most admire, the school-feeding program. For 19 cents a day per child, they provide meals in impoverished schools, and those meals hugely increase school attendance (see www.wfp.org).
And without the World Food Program organizing food shipments to Sudan and Chad, hundreds of thousands more people would have died. Those U.N. field workers are heroic — just this month, a 37-year-old Spanish woman working for Unicef was shot and critically injured in Chad. People like her redeem the honor of the U.N.
There's also an ounce of hope that the U.N.'s senior officials will learn how to use one tool they have neglected: their bully pulpit.
The best example of this approach is the work by Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s under secretary for humanitarian affairs — one of the real (and rare) heroes of Darfur. Mr. Egeland is Norwegian, but I wish he could quickly become an Asian and thus have a chance to be the next secretary general.
Mr. Egeland has led the way on disasters by being undiplomatic about horrors like the slaughter in Darfur and the catastrophe in Congo. Perhaps it helps that Mr. Egeland is so evenhanded that he offends everybody. After the tsunami, he correctly called many rich countries "stingy" with their foreign aid, thus touching off a useful debate in the U.S. about our aid levels.
If other U.N. officials followed Mr. Egeland's undiplomatic example and spent more time being offensive, devoting less energy to diplomatic receptions and more to dragging journalists through the world's hellholes, the globe would be a better place — and the U.N. would be more relevant.
John Bolton, now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., once suggested it wouldn't matter if the U.N.'s top 10 floors were lopped off. But let's not do that — the U.N. is far better than the alternative of having no such institution. But take it from this disillusioned fan of the U.N. system: let's also be realistic and drop any fantasy that the U.N. is going to save the day as a genocide unfolds. In that mission, the U.N. is failing about as badly as the League of Nations did.
Photo credit: Nicholas D. Kristof. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)