Andrew Gilmour

Stop bashing the UN

Andrew Gilmour takes issue with our North America editor, Mark Steyn, who has been critical of the United Nations

Question: what do the Taleban, Serb war criminals, al-Qa’eda, Rwandan genocidaires, the Ku Klux Klan, the Kach movement, the Japanese Red Army and the Janjaweed of Darfur have in common? Answer: two things actually. The obvious one, plus the fact that — like the Spectator columnist Mark Steyn — they all passionately abhor the United Nations, see it as an obstacle to their particular agenda and call for its abolition.

The UN has always evoked violent passions, especially among its detractors. Its defenders tend to be rather calmer. For those like me, working for the UN in places such as Afghanistan, Kosovo, Gaza, Lebanon and West Africa, the usual line of attack encountered is that we are agents of Western imperialism, American lackeys, even (remarkably) Israeli stooges, or — the more moderate version — simply that we are too much under the control of the most powerful member states, especially the US, and don’t take into account the concerns of smaller, poorer countries.

In the West, the common criticism is that the UN is a slow, excessively bureaucratic talking-shop urgently in need of reform since, as it is now set up, it doesn’t have the capacity to confront the great challenges of the coming decades. For those opposed to the war in Iraq, the UN’s fault is that it couldn’t stop the invasion; for those in favour that it didn’t support it. But almost everyone, particularly those in the UN secretariat, agrees that the institution needs major reform.

This isn’t cant. Those working in the UN system can see its weaknesses even more clearly than those outside. Earlier this year the Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, laid out by far the most ambitious reform programme for the organisation in its 60-year history. The fact that governments chose not to adopt it in full is their prerogative and our disappointment.

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Written by
Andrew Gilmour
Andrew Gilmour is executive director of the Berghof Foundation in Berlin. He worked at the UN for 30 years, his last position was assistant secretary general for human rights.

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