January 9, 2005

DAVID FRUM NOTICES the United Nations’ lack of moral authority, and, for that matter, utility:

The helicopters are taking off and landing now in the tsunami-shattered villages and towns. The sick are being taken for treatment. Clean water is being delivered. Food is arriving. Soon the work of reconstruction will begin.

The countries doing this good work have politely agreed to acknowledge the “coordinating” role of the United Nations. But it is hard to see how precisely the rescue work would be affected if the UN’s officials all stayed in New York – or indeed if the UN did not exist at all.

The UN describes its role in South Asia as one of “assessment” and “coordination.” Even this, however, seems to many to be a role unnecessary to the plot. The Daily Telegraph last week described the frustration of in-country UN officials who found they had nothing to do as the Americans, Australians, Indonesians, and Malaysians flew missions.

It will be the treasury departments of the G-7 missions that make decisions on debt relief, and the World Bank, aid donor nations, private corporations, and of course the local governments themselves that take the lead on long-term reconstruction. And yet we are constantly told that the UN’s involvement is indispensable to the success of the whole undertaking. How can that be? . . .

Nor finally is the UN really quite so hugely popular as supporters such as Ms Short would wish it believed. The Pew Charitable Trusts – the same group that conducts those surveys on anti-Americanism worldwide – reports that the UN carries much more weight in Europe than it does in, say, the Muslim world. Only 35 per cent of Pakistanis express a positive attitude to the UN, as do just 25 per cent of Moroccans, and but 21 per cent of Jordanians.

The UN’s authority is instead one of those ineffable mystical mysteries. The authority’s existence cannot be perceived by the senses and exerts no influence on the events of this world. Even the authority’s most devout hierophants retain the right to disavow that authority at whim, as Ms Short herself disavowed its resolutions on Iraq. . . .

Whence exactly does this moral authority emanate? How did the UN get it? Did it earn it by championing liberty, justice, and other high ideals? That seems a strange thing to say about a body that voted in 2003 to award the chair of its commission on human rights to Mummar Gaddafi’s Libya.

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