Rethinking International Law

By Armand Laferrere

It's time to change the way the UN does business, helps the needy, and manages conflict.

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uropean institutions established in the immediate post-World War II period have undoubtedly aged faster, and more poorly, than those from any other comparable period. The failure of these national institutions—such as centralized welfare organizations and government-owned monopolies—is widely acknowledged; even their defenders recognize that they must be radically reformed if they are to survive. The problems are all too obvious: They lack proper oversight, are not adapted to a changing world, and are both costly and startlingly inefficient.
On the international level, however, the establishment of the United Nations in July 1945 is still described as an event of unmitigated progress. Yet this international institution has much in common with the national institutions founded in the same period. In both cases, the declared objectives were certainly noble. Indeed, the United Nations Charter of June 26, 1945 boasts the most lofty of objectives: To outlaw war, defend the right of peoples to self-determination, and grant equality to all sovereign states. It is exceedingly unfortunate, then, that this institution is also weakened by the same problems that plague its national counterparts: Insufficient oversight, increasingly archaic mechanisms, and poor performance.
The lack of adequate oversight was recently exposed by two affairs that would have seriously damaged the UN’s credibility—if, that is, the organization were in fact judged by its results. The first was the revelation of large-scale misappropriations in the administration of the Oil for Food program, which was designed to permit humanitarian exceptions to the embargo imposed on Iraqi oil sales after the 1991 Gulf War. Under its terms, Iraq was permitted to sell oil in exchange for basic necessities; revenue from these sales was to be placed in a fund administered by the UN in exchange for a commission of roughly two percent, which was then to be used to purchase food, medicine, and other such items as authorized by UN administrators.
Details on the way the funds were actually used are still emerging, but it has already been firmly established that several billion dollars were misappropriated, ranking it among the greatest financial frauds in history. Payments were consistently approved for expenses not the least bit humanitarian, such as subsidies to the Iraqi Information Ministry and real-estate deals that enriched Saddam Hussein’s coffers. Meanwhile, international businessmen and politicians were corrupted by gifts of oil vouchers: Sold at a fraction of their real value, these vouchers gave the right to resell oil at the market price (only the first, underpriced payment made its way into the UN fund). According to Iraqi documents, the senior UN official in charge of administering the program and a former French ambassador to the UN were among the beneficiaries of this largesse. Both men have since contested the authenticity of the incriminating documents. Whatever the case may be, the program’s oversight was clearly inadequate in light of the sums involved. Moreover, the blatant misappropriation of funds meant to alleviate Iraqi suffering adds a discordant note to proclamations of solidarity with the Iraqi people uttered of late in certain diplomatic circles.
In December 2004, shortly after the Oil for Food scandal came to light, UN auditors published a report on a child prostitution ring organized by and for UN peacekeepers in the Congo. Similar accusations had already been made against UN troops in Eritrea and Bosnia. This time, however, the UN itself confirmed the charges and admitted to cover-ups by commanding officers in the field. Nonetheless, the officers and soldiers involved emerged without so much as a slap on the wrist: They are not, we were told, subject to UN discipline. Ironically, the UN sex scandal did not arouse great interest among the same Western media who gave such broad coverage to sexual humiliations committed by American soldiers in Iraq—who, it should be noted, have since been severely punished.

Armand Laferrère is a former adviser to the French minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy. He is a member of the board of directors of the Franco-Israeli Friendship Association. A version of this essay appeared in the French journal Commentaire.

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