Hey UN, Inspect This!
By Tucker Carlson ( as appeared in the July 2003 edition of Readers Digest, page 29 to 32 )
Until it was invaded by the United States for refusing to disarm, Iraq was slated to co-chair a United Nations conference – on disarmament. Meanwhile, Muammar Qaddafi’s Libya has taken its seat as the new head of the UN Commission on Human Rights.
Sound like the setup to a particularly ironic joke? It’s not. It’s true. At the UN, the irony is always unintended.
Other members of the UN Commission on Human Rights, for instance, include Zimbabwe, Algeria, Sudan, China and Vietnam. Brutal despotisms all, these are countries with no authority to criticize anyone else’s human rights record. And that may be precisely the point.
This spring, at the height of the war in Iraq, Cuba began a crackdown on internal dissent. At least 75 people were jailed – some for close to 30 years – for the crime of criticizing Fidel Castro. Three others were summarily executed for hijacking a ferry in an attempt to flee the island. If there was ever a moment when action from the UN Commission on Human Rights might have been useful, this was it. Yet, the commission was unable to muster even a strong criticism of Cuba.
It reserved its harshest words not for Fidel Castro, but for the United States. On April 17 th , the day the commission voted against condemning Castro’s repression of human rights, the UN issued a press release summarizing the position of the Cuban government. The UN, it read, has “been terrorized by a world tyranny that fascist extreme-right groups were trying to impose on … the world from the fraudulently usurped power” of the United States and its “equally disgusting lackeys.” The effort to censure Cuba, the release continued, “was a gross maneuver, completely discredited and immoral.” That’s the Cuban position. What’s the American position? It’s hard to know. It wasn’t even mentioned in the release.
This sort of cynical politics is tough to take when the UN is now costing American taxpayers close to $300 million each year. And it’s not even the worst of what we’re getting for our money. With 65,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.5 billion, the UN is larger than many of the governments it represents.
Unfortunately, it is also less efficient. A 1999 internal investigation found the organization riddled with cronyism, nepotism and outright corruption. When they weren’t hiring their friends and relatives, some UN employees were stealing vehicles, writing checks to themselves and forging invoices. Bookkeeping of any kind was often non-existent.
Another investigation conducted last year found that little had improved. In one well-publicized case, UN employees in Africa took part in a plan to extort money from refugees hoping to leave for a better life in the West. Meanwhile, another group of UN workers was expelled from Bosnia, after allegedly selling young girls into prostitution.
And those are just a few of the outrages that have been made public. Much of what the United Nations does is shrouded in secrecy. From 1996 to 2003, for instance, the UN oversaw the transfer of about $100 billion in oil and supplies in and out of Iraq under the oil for food program. But instead of easing the burden of sanctions on the civilian population, as the program was designed to do, UN officials admit that some of the money wound up in Saddam’s pockets – and that they knew about the bribes and kick-backs. How much went to sustain Baath Party terror? An ABC News investigation says $2 billion to $3 billion. We may never know the exact figure, though: The UN has so far refused to conduct an independent audit of the program.
A little sunshine might help. But it’s not the whole answer. The real problem with the UN isn’t corruption. It’s moral blindness. To the UN, a junta is a democracy is a police state. All states – as long as they’re “member” states – have equal moral authority. With the exception of the United States and Israel, which are both frequently the objects of withering scorn, no one country is considered intrinsically better or worse than any other. It’s hard to police the world if you won’t acknowledge the difference between cops and robbers.
But that doesn’t mean the UN doesn’t accomplish things. Last fall, as America headed toward war with Saddam Hussein, a debate broke out among UN bureaucrats – not about Saddam’s regime, though. It was a debate about the Swiss flag.
Switzerland, after almost 60 years, had finally decided to join the United Nations. But there was a problem: Switzerland has a square flag. UN regulations require the flags of all member nations to be rectangular. An impasse ensued. Experts were summoned. The controversy raged. Finally, a compromise was struck. Switzerland was allowed to maintain the shape of its flag. But it had to reduce the size.
The Great Swiss Flag Debate went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. At UN headquarters in New York, tough, it was big news. The UN isn’t very good at preventing wars or stopping genocide or liberating the oppressed. It can rarely bring itself to criticize even the most murderous despots. But if you’re looking for someone to moderate a debate over the shape of your national flag, the UN is the place for you.