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UN just Plaything of America and International Big Business


by Radha D'Souza  

New Zealand Herald, 4 February 2002 

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca,   4  February 2002


Is the United Nations going down the same ill-fated road as its predecessor, the League of Nations. The signs are not good

Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General, worries about the possible expansion of American action against Afghanistan "to other organisations and other states".

Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, says the UN might well have to play "a very, very important role in a post-Taleban world".

Taken together, the two statements continue a troubling trend for the UN. From Somalia, Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Yugoslavia, Libya and the Lebanon to Colombia, Nicaragua and so on, world events have followed a familiar pattern.

The US sets the political agenda. Its traditional allies - Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand - go along with it. The Europeans distance themselves but do not oppose. And the UN is presented with a fait accompli.

On economic issues, whether it is globalisation, economic development, Third World debt, the environment, unemployment or sanctions, the political organs of the UN have little say.

Yet the UN is regularly called on to clear up the humanitarian mess caused by the political and economic action of Western powers, be it intervention in civil wars, famines, a refugee crisis or cleaning up the environment.

Keeping with this trend in the present crisis, the US unilaterally declared war on global terrorism. That encompasses organisations in countries as far apart as Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan and the former Yugoslavia. And it confidently counts on the UN to play a role in the post-Taleban world.

To understand the persistence of this trend, it is necessary to examine the structure of the UN. Its architecture is founded on its political organs, economic agencies - and American domination as an integral feature.

The political edifice of the UN stands on the five permanent members of the Security Council with veto powers - the US, Britain, France, China and Russia. Effectively, on contentious issues, the five powers are the only ones that really matter.

During the Cold War, the two superpowers lined up an array of states behind them as part of the politics that divided the world into spheres of influence. The UN became the site at which the Cold War was played out, and its credibility as an institution was the unintended consequence.

Now, the veto power remains unconstrained in the hands of the Big Five. Post Cold War, they have used that power as a lever for their own national interests. The consequent impotence of the UN in dealing with major world issues has led developing nations and democratic voices to ask that if one citizen, one vote is a worthy democratic principle within nations, why is one country, one vote not good enough between nations?

The economic edifice of the world under the UN system is founded on international agencies such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. Their relationship with the UN is governed by special relationship agreements that give them autonomy from the UN's political processes.

The constitutions of these organisations follow a weighted voting system that gives the developed countries a dominant position based on their capital subscriptions. Their constitutions follow those of private banks and institutions, even though the members are states with sovereign responsibilities, not private citizens.

As these global economic actors become insulated from democratic processes, protests over globalisation, debt, poverty and concerns over human, environmental and labour rights have challenged the economic agencies and their role in promoting private profits.

Over the past two decades, private corporations have become entrenched within UN agencies dealing with research and development, such as Unesco and the FAO.

Thus, the International Commission on Large Dams, an industry organisation of large dam contractors, has played an important role within UN development agencies in pushing for large dams, the social, economic and ecological benefits of which are increasingly questioned everywhere.

Private corporations exist to pursue private interests, not public ones.

Alliances of developed countries, such as the OECD, in the UN facilitate strategic coordination of interests within the international agencies. Alliances of underdeveloped nations, such as Unctad, must do the same to be heard.

The UN agencies are caught in a cleft between popular movements and disillusioned Third World states and the big powers and private corporations that underpin the institutional aspects of the world economy.

How is the US able to dominate the UN to the extent it does? The architecture of the UN was designed by the US and Britain, influenced in no small measure by Britain's wartime debts to the US.

Neither the Soviet Union nor China was in the picture then. The UN was promoted through US domestic political mechanisms. Consequently, the US, of all member states, has laws, institutions and social structures that synchronise its relations with the UN and the international agencies.

The 1946 Bretton Woods Agreements Act and the National Advisory Council are among the legal and institutional mechanisms that allow the US to use domestic laws to control the UN agencies and institutions.

For example, the directors of the World Bank cannot earn more than the American nominee on the board because a domestic law that pins their wages to that of other American civil servants binds the nominee.

For other nations, international law and institutions sit somewhere between a moral obligation and a pragmatic necessity. Whereas the Cold War was couched in the morally dichotomous language of democracy and communism, in a unipolar, neo-liberal world dominated by pragmatism the UN appears to be under siege.

The US is able to tell the UN what it will do and when in Afghanistan, just as it did in Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, although it has been in arrears of UN dues for decades. What other country can make the payment of its UN dues contingent on organisational restructuring according to the wishes of its domestic legislature, as the US Congress does?

Unable to reconcile the interests of the states, the economic actors and people, the UN finds itself in deadlock.

The League of Nations underwent its own internal convulsions as it became inconsequential and member states played out two world wars against the backdrop of economic recession, financial market collapses, bankruptcies, takeovers and mergers, unemployment, racism and militarism, all marching under the banner of free trade and global markets.

Have we forgotten all that? Or are we not afraid any more?

Radha D'Souza   is a lecturer in the school of law at the University of Waikato

Copyright    Radha D'Souza    2002. Reprinted for fair use only

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