The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, is in the eye of the storm again. This time it is a diplomatic storm that is brewing in the security council over George W. Bush’s expedient insistence on lifting UN sanctions even though the reasons for imposing them in the first place still remain.
At the heart of Bush’s calculations lie oil, American pride and the shape of things to come — for the council has begun wrangling over a US draft resolution on how to divide the spoils of war. On the agenda are control of Iraq’s vast oil revenue, the settling of the huge debts Iraq owes Russia and France, and, finally, the UN role in the future of Iraq. The outcome of the negotiations will decide the survival and strength of the only tool that the world has to tackle such crises.
As the UN’s public face, Annan is often thought to symbolize its ineffectiveness. This seems to be an unfair criticism. After all, what can anyone do in the face of unmitigated American power' As Annan never tires of pointing out, he is “invested only with the power that a united security council may wish to bestow, and the moral authority entrusted to him by the charter.” The UN is what the component nations want it to be.
What matters more for the UN and consensus decision-making than the just finished war is the manner in which the so-called “coalition of the willing” has steamrolled over the concerns of everyone else, leaving in its wake a shaky future for international diplomacy as we know it.
Far from a cushy job
As the pointsman for every crisis that the world creates, Annan relies on a dedicated civil service of some 8,900 to deal with everything from civil wars to news analysis. I experienced its work in the Department of Public Information.
The first popular myth about the UN is that it is an intergalactic civil service of champagne-guzzlers who have mastered the fine art of spin. The second is that it is a powerful self-fulfilling organization operating in a power vacuum.
Far from being stratospheric, UN wages are determined by the Noblemaire Principle designed to allow recruitment from all countries. Wealthy Singapore and Japan pay more and are consequently under-represented at the headquarters. For exactly the same reason, India and Bangladesh are over-represented. Those who do go from affluent countries are certainly not there for the high life. Nor are they layabouts, though some UN departments might be overstaffed.
My tenure began in September 2002, just as the general assembly’s 57th session kicked off. This spectacle of world leaders meant simply one thing for my office — more work. Our normal work of publishing daily news reports on the UN website suddenly went up by leaps and bounds. Two people stayed late to write up to 17 stories a day — far more than a newspaper reporter.
US and us
I had to write a news analysis for the secretary-general which was based on a vast amount of data from DPI offices around the world. The Australian I worked with quite literally lived month to month: he was on one-month contracts. Not being an American, like so many UN staffers, he had to apply every month for a new US visa. No job security, no promotion, no pension for an overworked international civil servant under constant pressure.
I met many such people — people who were sent to Iraq, the Balkans, Congo and Timor Leste to train the natives to create modern Western-style states. They are bureaucrats, but crucially they are also people who deserve security and satisfaction.
Annan himself rose from the ranks. He is also realistic enough to know that the UN cannot turn a blind eye to American power. The most he can hope to achieve is to temper the exercise of American power from within the UN.
The US provides the UN with a home, about 25 per cent of its funding, and in one way or another, dominates most of the member nations. France or Germany will not be able to save the UN if the US turns against it. Annan has only his voice and the convictions of his loyal and dedicated staff. America has everything else.