The UN Keeps Failing, Right When We Really Need It

The organization's greatest strength -- and weakness -- is its 193 member states.
UNPKs banner 239023490.jpg
UNAMID peacekeepers from South Africa unload boxes of medication to deliver to the Rural Hospital in Kutum, North Darfur, on August 12, 2012. (Reuters)

It is the world's most important organization, yet remains one of its most dysfunctional.

This week a former United Nations employee described a pervasive culture of impunity inside the organization - one in which whistle-blowers are punished for exposing wrongdoing. James Wasserstrom, a veteran American diplomat, said he was fired from his job and detained by U.N. police - who searched his apartment and placed his picture on wanted posters - after he reported possible corruption among senior U.N. officials in Kosovo.

As Washington steps back in the world, a dynamic United Nations must step forward. So far, the U.N. of Ban Ki-moon has not been up to the task.

"It's supposed to be maintaining the ideals of human rights, the rule of law and anti-corruption," Wasserstrom said in an interview. "And it doesn't adhere to them on the inside."

The United Nations is under attack as well for its decision last month to pay no compensation to the families of 8,000 Haitians who died and 646,000 who fell ill from a 2010 cholera outbreak that experts believe Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers set off in the country.

The organization, though, remains a vital tool. On Thursday, President Barack Obama used a White House meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to pressure North Korea. Administration officials hope that punishing new U.N. economic sanctions , supported by China for the first time, will cause North Korea to end its saber rattling.

"It's important for North Korea, like every other country in the world," Obama said, "to observe the basic rules and norms that are set forth, including a wide variety of U.N. resolutions."

The United Nations has been, and will always be, an imperfect institution. Its greatest strength - and weakness - is its 193 member states. Getting a majority to agree on major issues, pass reform or refrain from political patronage can be maddening. Russia's shameful blocking of Security Council action against Syria, for example, has shown the continued limitations of that antiquated body.

But the United Nations is likely to grow more important in the years ahead as Washington's fiscal problems curtail U.S. overseas ambitions. Sadly, as the United Nations enters a potentially dangerous phase of peacekeeping missions, Ban's leadership is lacking.

The 68-year-old former South Korean foreign minister has highlighted the need to combat global warming, create sustainable development and increase the number of women in leadership positions. But he has failed to provide the dynamic leadership and reforms the institution desperately needs.

"It's a very mixed record," said a senior United Nations official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He spends a lot of time in Davos, the Arctic Circle or Monaco, and meanwhile there are critical issues - such as the future of peacekeeping - facing a real crisis."

To the alarm of some, the United Nations is returning to the ambitious peacekeeping operations of the 1990s - some of which ended disastrously.

The Security Council last month authorized the creation of a 3,000-soldier-strong U.N. "intervention brigade" in Congo, with an unprecedented mandate to fight with government troops against rebels, or on its own. An 11,000-troop United Nations peacekeeping mission is also expected to arrive in Mali as French forces wind down their battle against militants there. A mission in Somalia is possible as well.

"We're talking about a new era of big demands on peacekeeping," said Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations. "We are on the cusp."

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Global

Just In