It’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the United Nations, with Annan firmly in charge, will continue to spiral downward into further failures and eventual irrelevance.

U.N. Reform Should Start with Annan’s Resignation

Mired in scandal, plagued by corruption, and facing irrelevance, the United Nations is in desperate need of repair. In response, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last week unveiled his long-awaited proposal for reforming the troubled world body. His plan is bold and ambitious. Some propositions have real merit. Others are hopelessly objectionable or ridiculously impractical. More broadly, Annan’s proposals raise weighty, far-reaching questions about our world that could keep a collection of philosophers occupied for a generation.

Unsurprisingly, however, the Secretary General’s report ignores the most desperately needed reform of all: Annan’s own resignation.

Annan has become the chief symbol of the need for U.N. reform. In over eight years as Secretary General, he has presided over the unmatched $20 billion U.N.-Iraq Oil for Food scandal, stood by as U.N. peacekeepers traded food for sex with young girls in more than a dozen missions around the world, and oversaw multiple U.N. agencies as they were wounded by charges of embezzlement and sexual harassment. In a survey last year, U.N. employees reported an organization riddled with nepotism, cronyism and corruption. And through these tribulations, Annan’s first reaction has usually been to try to keep the bad news quiet.

This week, just days after Annan announced his reform agenda, the U.N. Commission investigating the scandal-ridden Oil for Food program issued a report critical of the way the Secretary General handled an apparent conflict-of-interest involving his son and a program contractor. An earlier report revealed that the program’s head ― who was hand-picked by Annan ― had likely taken bribes from Saddam Hussein’s government while U.N. officials skirted key purchasing rules to select Oil for Food vendors.

The Secretary General and his backers argue that many of the U.N.’s management failings predate Annan’s ascension, and while this is certainly true, it’s equally apparent that the problems have worsened considerably on his watch. Indeed, it appears that Annan’s administration has devolved into the most corrupt and mismanaged in the U.N.’s history. For an organization with a long record of such problems, that’s a dubious distinction.

Indeed, it’s the primary reason Annan cannot be allowed to lead the U.N. reform effort. Annan’s commitment to cleaning up the bureaucracy and fixing the U.N.’s many problems is simply not credible. His reassurances about reform irreconcilably conflict with his long ignominious record at the organization’s helm.

Nevertheless, if the United Nations is to retain any semblance of relevance, much less achieve the lofty objectives articulated in its Charter, it must become more accountable and transparent. The rats infesting the U.N. bureaucracy must be cast overboard. And the world body must open itself to heightened scrutiny from its own members and, more importantly, the public at-large. After all, the world body’s survival may well be at risk.

With the stakes so high, there’s only one way to begin U.N. reform that holds open the chance of future success: new leadership must be put in place. And that starts with Kofi Annan’s resignation.

But Annan firmly rejected such talk as he reacted to this week’s critical report on Oil for Food. Asked if he would resign, Annan, the career diplomat who seems never at a loss for the right tactful phrase, responded, “Hell no.” And none of the 191 members of the United Nations have called for Annan’s ouster.

In light of this obstinance, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the United Nations, with Annan firmly in charge, will continue to spiral downward into further failures and eventual irrelevance as the Secretary General’s reform proposals prove futile and ineffectual.

March 31, 2005
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