Funny place, the United Nations. Great piece of real estate in mid-town Manhattan, in a quiet neighbourhood known asTurtle Bay. Impressive building, too, but the glow quickly fades once you get past the big public spaces on the ground floor. The walls are crying out for a lick of paint and the furniture looks like it was hauled out of a government warehouse back in the 1960s. Inside the second-floor suite of offices that house the Security Council, past the forbidding “Delegates Only” sign, decades of wear and tear are evident on the threadbare carpets. If this was ever the throbbing centre of the world’s most prestigious international institution, it isn’t obvious now.
For the month of February, Canada holds the presidency of the 15member council, the first time in a decade it has taken the helm of the United Nations’ executive committee. Robert Fowler, Ottawa’s ambassador to the United Nations and an accomplished amateur photographer, has hung a few shots from his travels through Asia and Africa in the president’s office, just to give it a personal touch for the month.
And starting last week, Fowler got to sit at the top of the famous horseshoe-shaped table—or he would have if he hadn’t been struck down by an acute attack of appendicitis and had to ask his deputy, Michel Duval, to pinch hit. Fowler hoped to be back at work this week, in time to preside over a day devoted to airing some of Canada’s favourite issues, such as how to protect civilians from the ravages of war. That’s at the heart of Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy’s “human security” agenda—focusing not on traditional strategic issues but on threats to individuals, such as drug trafficking and the global trade in small arms.
Axworthy put a lot of effort last year into getting Canada elected to the Security Council for its sixth two-year term. But let’s not get too excited. The five permanent members—the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France—run the show. And most of the work of the council involves either keeping the work of the United Nations ticking over or responding to the crisis of the moment. So February will be consumed with things like renewing the alphabet soup of missions that patrol some of the most benighted corners of the world. Welcome to the United Nations, where officials puzzle over the future of such head-scratchers as MINURSO (the mission to Western Sahara), MINURCA (Central African Republic), MONUA (Angola) and UNPREDEP (Macedonia)—all up for review this month.
Then there are the headline issues, including Kosovo and Iraq. Ever since the United States bombed Iraq in mid-December without so much as a by-your-leave from the Security Council, the council has been badly split. The five permanent members couldn’t agree on what to do about Iraq, or on the future of the United Nations’ special commission on weapons inspections there (known as UN-
Leading the Security Council for a month isn’t going to be easy
SCOM). Just before Canada took over the presidency on Feb. 1, though, it engineered a compromise solution that at least got the council talking about Iraq again. It suggested forming three “assessment panels” to take a new look at policy on Iraq. That does nothing to solve the underlying dispute between Russia, China and France, which want to end sanctions against Iraq, and the United States and Britain, which still want a hard line against Saddam Hussein. But the move broke the stalemate—a minor coup for Canada.
The bigger problem, though, is that Canada’s tenure on the council comes at a depressing time for the United Nations. It’s on the sidelines for the truly hot issues. Washington has taken Iraq into its own hands, essentially bombing where and when it wants. In Kosovo, it’s NATO that is taking the lead in a possible peacekeeping effort. And most troubling for countries like Canada that put a lot
of stock in the United Nations, relations between Washington and the organization have gone from bad to worse.
The issue, again, is Iraq. In early January, The Washington Post reported that “confidants” of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan believed that the United States was using UNSCOM as a cover for spying against Hussein. Washington was furious; it saw the story as a way for Annan to undermine UNSCOM and its tough leader, Richard Butler. Top U.S. officials in turn orchestrated a campaign of leaks against Annan—portraying him as soft on Hussein. “Kofi Annan’s staff,” wrote Post foreign af-
fairs columnist Jim Hoagland, “is out to knife American policy on Iraq and ‘rehabilitate’ Saddam Hussein.”
The irony, of course, is that Annan was Washington’s candidate as secretary general. The Americans eased out his predecessor, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, and smoothed Annan’s way into the top job two years ago. They viewed him as a pragmatic operator who would see things their way, and would whip the UN bureaucracy into shape as well. He and Washington had a long honeymoon; last February he got the Americans off the hook by brokering a deal with Hussein at a time when Bill Clinton was looking for ways to avoid attacking Iraq. But things have soured since then, and the United States has still not coughed up the $2.2 billion in past dues it owes the United Nations—crippling the organization’s ability to act effectively.
If the Americans are now ready to throw their onetime protégé overboard, that spells even bigger trouble for the United Nations. David Malone, a former Canadian diplomat who now heads the International Peace Academy in New York, puts it like this: “If the most powerful country in the world, by far, is no longer interested in working through the United Nations, its relevance in the world would seem to have shrunk significantly.” That’s putting it mildly—and it underlines a sobering reality as Canada wields the gavel atTurtle Bay.
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