A good time to improve the United Nations

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — In recent years the United Nations has become a target of criticism, particularly in the United States, even as the failure of the U.S. to pay its dues to the organization has considerably hindered its work and reduced its effectiveness. The election of a new American president provides a unique chance to improve the U.N. and to make it even more responsive to the needs of people around the world.

Having worked as an independent consultant for several agencies of the U.N. for almost three decades, I have been able to assess its shortcomings as well as see its achievements. It has been particularly useful to compare the work of the U.N. with that of other international organizations for which I also work.

It is true that the U.N. is inefficient. Inefficiency, however, is not a prerogative of the U.N. Because of its failure to act more forcefully in several conflicts, the U.N. has been called irrelevant. As the one organization in which all countries can freely voice their opinions, it is now as relevant as ever. Or, to put it more clearly, the world body will be as relevant as the member states want it to be.

Critics of the U.N.’s relevance seem reluctant to recognize the organization’s accomplishments and the important role it has played in world peace, health and development. A complex group of agencies belong to the U.N., such as the U.N. Children’s Fund, which has a remarkable record of improving children’s lives; the World Health Organization, which has led a sustained effort for better health throughout the world; the U.N. Development Program, which has supported the development efforts of poor countries; the U.N. Population Fund and the U.N. Development Fund for Women, which have dramatically improved the lives of women worldwide.

Among the criticisms leveled at the organization in the U.S. is the size of the U.S. financial contribution. The U.S. is the main contributor to the U.N. system, funding close to 25 percent of the total budget (including regular and peacekeeping budgets.) Yet, when contributions are considered as a percentage of an industrialized country’s gross national product, the U.S. is at the bottom of the list.

When the U.N. Charter was ratified, all member states agreed to finance the costs of the organization as apportioned by the U.N. General Assembly. In spite of that, the U.S. has failed to pay its U.N. dues on time and in full for several years. This jeopardizes valuable work, such as U.N. peacekeeping operations. In addition, unilaterally withholding dues — which former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has called a disgrace — engenders unnecessary resentment among other member states that struggle to fulfill their obligation.

As of March 2008, the U.S. owed more than $2.4 billion in long-standing arrears to the U.N. In addition, the U.S., which habitually is late in paying its dues, is deeply indebted to U.N. peacekeeping operations. This situation not only threatens efforts to stop the violence in Darfur, but also the effectiveness of 16 other U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world, even as the U.S. votes for new and larger missions.

To underscore the fundamental responsibility of the U.S. to fund the U.N. should not deter us from recognizing the shortcomings of this organization. Yes, the U.N. should be more efficient, overlapping tasks should be eliminated, and system-wide coordination should be improved. But any streamlining should be preceded by a serious reassessment of priorities and objectives.

The universality of the U.N. as an instrument to preserve peace and security is as valid now as it was at the time of its creation in 1945. No group of nations or “league of democracies” could play such a role. To do that, however, the U.S., as the more powerful country in the world, should allow and understand dissent from other member states.

The U.N.’s job is not to rubber-stamp any particular member’s policies. Tony Blair famously declared during his last visit to the U.S. as British prime minister: “Powerful nations want more effective multilateral institutions — when they think those institutions will do their will. What they fear is effective multilateral institutions that do their own will.”

Despite its shortcomings, the U.N. is still the best guarantor of world peace. Rather than advocating actions that would precipitate its demise, steps should be taken to strengthen it and facilitate the completion of its complex tasks. The incoming Obama administration has a unique role and responsibility in these efforts.

Cesar Chelala is a public health consultant for several international organizations.