International Policy Digest

Eskinder Debebe
World News /20 May 2016
05.20.16

Can the UN Be Fixed?

With so many constituent programs, agencies and sub-agencies, the UN is a conflicting and at times confusing mess. That contradiction was on full display earlier this week when a UN panel reviewing the widely used herbicide glyphosate contradicted a recent decision made by another UN agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), finding glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk” through dietary exposure. The joint UN panel comprising experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found itself at odds with IARC but aligned with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the Canadian health service, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all of which have found glyphosate to be safe.

IARC, itself a WHO body, has established a trend of making international headlines by declaring a wide range of environmental factors, substances, and even basic foodstuffs “probably carcinogenic,” as it did with both processed meat and red meat as a whole last year. Nearly every substance the organization tests is found to be carcinogenic to some degree. Of 989 substances and activities it has tested, only one was found to “probably not” be carcinogenic. It had accused all of the others (including meat, wood dust, and working as a nurse) of probably causing cancer. Many critics allege the agency’s highly theoretical criteria and failure to account for real world factors are to blame for its nearly universally negative results. Last March, for example, IARC declared five herbicides and pesticides as either “probably” or “possibly” carcinogenic, including glyphosate.

While subsections such as IARC and the WHO’s governing structure attract considerable criticism (as during the Ebola epidemic), the organization as a whole can still boast the eradication of smallpox and countless lives saved through immunization, education, and public health programs. Although the WHO’s successes in the field are praiseworthy, its internal discord often mirrors issues within the broader United Nations.

Indeed, many other prominent UN institutions have recently been marred by scandal. Nepalese UN peacekeepers sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake, for example, gave birth to a cholera epidemic that has since killed 9,000 and infected 700,000 more. Citing immunity, the UN has refused to apologize and was brought before an American court. In the Central African Republic, the UN made the fateful decision to include forces already accused of human rights abuses when it began peacekeeping operations in 2014. As a result, reports regularly emerge of UN peacekeepers sexually assaulting the very civilians relying on them for protection. Despite international outcry and condemnations from UN leadership, the response has been slow and limited. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR), for its part, has effectively discredited itself by including on its panel blatant rights abusers like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

Before United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon steps aside at the end of this year, the nine declared candidates (and quite a few others) positioning themselves for the post will need to go through months of backroom dealing if they hope to replace him. Despite its role as a global agent for good governance, the selection process for the UN’s own top post is a maze of unwritten rules and gentleman’s agreements. Since the Cold War, the permanent members of the Security Council (Washington and Moscow in particular) have used their vetoes to block candidates seen as too favorable to a rival power. As a result, the contest is now a question of finding the “most inoffensive” candidate for the post, as Kofi Annan’s chief speechwriter described Ban Ki-moon’s ascension.

The sheer scale of the UN’s challenges and the scope of its mandate demand a strong, ambitious Secretary-General. Instead, the current system for choosing leaders seeks out bureaucrats willing to avoid antagonizing the major powers. Former assistant secretary general Anthony Banbury laid out the damning consequences this has had on the UN’s ability to function. The body’s bureaucratic morass makes it nearly impossible to bring on crucial personnel and their subsequent immunity renders dismissing individuals who hurt the broader mission equally challenging.

The intra-WHO disputes over the safety of glyphosate offer yet another example of the wider dysfunctions within the UN and the inability of its bodies to effectively coordinate efforts. This lack of clarity is hardly surprising when the process for choosing the UN’s top leadership is equally opaque. Fortunately, a growing chorus of officials and outside groups is creating pressure for a more open and democratic selection process, the most prominent among these being the 1 for 7 Billion campaign. Backed by Amnesty International, Avaaz, CIVICUS, and over 750 other organizations, the campaign is pushing for reforms that include a formal list of selection criteria, an official list of candidates, public information sessions with candidates, and an end to backroom deals. While the UN has taken a few small steps toward meeting these demands since the campaign launched in 2014, more needs to done before this year’s selection process enters full swing. Only through such reforms can the UN hope to regain its legitimacy and stay relevant in the years to come.