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The rot at the heart of the United Nations

Pity poor Louise Fréchette, Canada's star at the UN. As Kofi Annan's second-in-command, she is one of the UN's most accomplished and well-liked bureaucrats. This was supposed to be her big week -- the week in which the leaders of the world would converge on New York and renew their commitment to tackling global poverty. She has been working toward this week for years. But now, the historic meeting is collapsing before it's even begun, and Ms. Fréchette herself has been caught in the backwash of the worst scandal in the history of the United Nations. Her reputation has been shredded, and some diplomats have speculated she may even wind up as the fall guy for her boss.

The scandal is oil-for-food, the massively corrupt humanitarian program that enabled Saddam Hussein to plunder more than $10-billion (U.S.) for himself and direct $100-billion more in lucrative contracts toward friendly firms. Many details of the giant UN boondoggle have yet to come to light. But it's clear that the kickbacks, smuggling, theft and looting were on a scale unprecedented in history. The oil-for-food mess makes Enron look like chump change.

In a devastating report issued last week by an independent commission chaired by Paul Volcker, both Ms. Fréchette and her boss were singled out for failing to police abuses of which they were surely well aware. The report said they made "minimal efforts" to address sanctions violations with Iraqi officials, or to ensure that "critical evidence" of wrongdoing was brought to the Security Council's attention.

But Ms. Fréchette and her boss couldn't have stopped the looting even if they'd tried. That's because they don't have any real executive power. The UN is a club run by the members, and they're just the managers of it. It was the Security Council that set up the sanctions program in the first place, and gave Saddam Hussein the power to select his own oil companies and contractors. The Russians and Chinese did splendid business with him. You get the sense that for most of the Security Council, the oil-for-food program worked exactly as intended.

Ironically, Ms. Fréchette has been a tireless advocate of UN reform. But UN reform is next to impossible, because even the tiniest reform requires everyone to agree on it. Last year, for example, the General Assembly passed a resolution giving Mr. Annan the "extraordinary" authority to get rid of 50 unnecessary staff positions and create 50 others where they're needed. Ever since, the secretariat has been trying to get agreement on what the 50 jobs might be -- so far without success.

In another heroic effort, Ms. Fréchette and her boss tried to save money by consolidating the UN's vast library information function, which is divided between Geneva and New York. They wanted to have it all in New York. But the Swiss government objected because it wants to build up business in Geneva, and Russia objected because the head of the Geneva office was a Russian. That was the end of that.

Everyone agrees that if the UN is to be rescued from dysfunction, the secretary-general and his staff need real power. Don't hold your breath. Too many member nations don't see anything in that for them.

The same troubles plague every other push for progress. Take the definition of "terrorism," another hot button on the agenda. Such a definition might condemn the killing of innocent civilians by, say, suicide bombers. But the Arab states have stalled at signing on. They want an exception in the case of people living under occupation (otherwise known as the Israel clause).

Or consider the laughably named Commission on Human Rights, whose members include some of the worst human-rights violators in the world. The secretary of this body is another widely admired Canadian named Louise -- the former Supreme Court justice, Louise Arbour. But she, too, has no real power, and yesterday the word was that last-ditch efforts to reform it have collapsed. As for getting everyone to agree on a definition of "genocide" -- so that the UN might be able to do something about the killing fields of Darfur -- forget it. Developing nations don't want to be held accountable for their own crimes, and developed ones don't want to be held accountable for policing.

"The United Nations' incompetence is hard-wired into the institution's DNA," editorialized The Washington Post. So is its moral paralysis and its corruption. In that light, oil-for-food was no aberration. It was inevitable. mwente@globeandmail.ca

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