Most readers of this website, I suspect, do not need to be told that the United Nations is a joke, a scandal, a cesspit of careerism, corruption, and colossal indifference, and, all in all, a gross and, in many cases, criminal betrayal of every noble principle on which it was founded. But there are millions of people around the world who still don't get it. For while the UN may not have done a particularly effective job of tackling the challenges it is supposed to address, it has done a bang-up job of promoting itself – especially to captive audiences such as schoolchildren, who in many countries routinely have slick UN propaganda pressed upon them by their teachers. The Nordic countries, especially, have a special place in their hearts for the UN. In Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, UN Day is an official “flag day.” According to one survey, in no country are the citizens fonder of the UN than in Norway: if one hardly ever hears a good word here about Israel, one virtually never hears a bad word about the UN, which is almost universally viewed as virtue set in system.
Which is why it's a pleasure to greet the release of a first-rate new documentary entitled UN Me, written, produced, and directed by Ami Horowitz and Matt Groff. The film, which starts by reminding us of the high ideals that inspired the UN's formation, quickly shifts to recent times, making it clear, in one segment after another, just why, for many of us, the bloom fell off that rose quite a while ago.
UN Me begins by according us a few brief glimpses of the sheer sloth that characterizes the whole shebang. Old UN hands describe the short working days, long lunches, and frequent midday naps that characterize the everyday life of many of its functionaries. Wandering the halls of UN headquarters in New York shortly after 5 PM on a weekday, Horowitz (who's the on-camera guy throughout the film) encounters a virtual ghost town: almost everybody has long since cleared out for the day. This institutional torpor is, he makes clear, emblematic of the whole worldwide enterprise. Ken Cain, a former UN peacekeeper in Cambodia, recalls that during his UN hitch there was “no discipline, no accountability.”
Horowitz reminds us that countries like Libya, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and China have sat on the UN Human Rights Commission – and, later, on the Human Rights Council that was meant to be an improvement on that comically corrupt agency. In 2010, Iran was elected to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. At one point in the film, Horowitz asks Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and director of the UN's 2009 anti-racism conference in Geneva, why Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, of all people, was named keynote speaker at that event. That question, she replies in a small voice, is “not for me to answer.” (No, you don't get far at the UN by providing honest answers to reasonable questions like that one.) Horowitz informs us that Article 6 of the UN Charter actually “calls for the expulsion of any nation that consistently violates the principles of the charter.” Yet no member country has ever been expelled under Article 6. Shashi Tharoor, UN information chief, cheerfully explains that it's best to have everybody “under the same tent.”
An early segment of the film covers some of the more egregious scandals involving UN peacekeeping. Though there's nothing here about Srebenica (presumably the filmmakers assume that their audience knows enough already about that disgraceful episode), we hear anecdotes about peacekeepers in various countries who, in their interactions with the people they were there to protect, acted like thugs, got rich trafficking drugs, spent their time whoring, and sexually abused minors. Peacekeepers in the Congo committed literally thousands of rapes. At least one ran a pedophilia ring. We're shown video of UN bureaucrats solemnly vowing that errant peacekeepers will be caught and punished. But in fact almost no UN peacekeeper has ever been held accountable for anything. In Côte d'Ivoire, peacekeepers actually fired on peaceful, unarmed protestors. But was anyone punished? No; that's just not the UN way. When Horowitz, in a sit-down interview with Abou Moussa, head of the UN mission in Côte d'Ivoire, asks about the episode, Moussa gets up and leaves.
The film moves on to the absurdity that is the International Atomic Energy Agency – which, tasked with preventing nuclear-arms proliferation, has actually helped North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan to acquire nuclear technology, purportedly for peaceful purposes. Since, as the film notes, the IAEA can only perform inspections in countries that invite it to do so, it spends more than 80% of its $380 million annual budget inspecting facilities in – believe it or not – Germany, Japan, and Canada. Iran's nefarious nuclear-related activities are transparent – and yet the IAEA is reluctant to blow the whistle and impotent to act. “It's all about process, not results,” we're told. “The results are worthless.”
Then there's terrorism. After 9/11, the UN passed Resolution 1373, which was supposedly designed to fight terrorism. It would appear to be as toothless a measure as was ever ratified by a deliberative body. Horowitz interviews Javier Ruperez, whose title is – get this – Executive Director of the Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate of the Counter-Terrorism Committee of the Security Council. Asked what the committee actually does to fight terrorism, Ruperez speaks blandly of the production of reports. Member countries, you see, are asked to file reports indicating whether or not they're aiding terrorists. The directorate, or committee, or whatever it is also sends inspectors for, oh, a week or so to various countries to find out whether anything fishy is going on there. None of this, of course, actually accomplishes anything. Asked whether the UN has official lists of terrorist groups and of countries that support terror, Ruperez says no: “This is not the practice of the UN.” (Of course not: that would offend certain member states, and we can't do that.) Another question: how does the UN define terrorism? This, Ruperez declares, is still a “pending matter.” At the UN, needless to say, everything is still a pending matter, and always will be.
Next up: the Oil for Food scandal – which, as Claudia Rosett, the top-notch UN expert and eloquent UN critic, tells Horowitz, was absolutely “designed to produce corruption.” Allegedly, the objective of the program was to provide food, medical supplies, and so forth to the Iraqi people in exchange for oil; in reality, a bunch of UN big shots, up to and including Security Council representatives (and perhaps even one or two folks higher up), lined their pockets with kickbacks. But, again, the UN did nothing – it was, as Rosett says, “the biggest scam in the history of human relief,” but nobody was fired or jailed. As always, the UN proved that nothing could be more alien to its institutional culture than the idea of accountability.
The Rwanda genocide gets its own sad chapter in UN Me. The head of the UN peacekeepers in that country, General Romeo Dallaire, actually wanted to do the right thing. But when he asked Kofi Annan, then in charge of all UN peacekeeping forces, for authority to take relatively modest action to prevent a looming genocide, Annan said no. Why? Because it was more important to protect the UN's “image of impartiality” than to protect people from genocide. UN forces were even ordered to withdraw from a school where they were the only thing standing between Tutsi refugees – many of them children and old people – and Hutus with machetes. Result: a brutal massacre for which – yet again – no UN personnel were punished.
While this nightmare was unfolding in Rwanda, Boutros-Boutros Ghali, then secretary-general of the UN, was on a European tour, which he refused to cancel in order to deal with Rwanda. When he did return to New York, he denied that Tutsi were being exterminated. Interviewed by Horowitz about this outrage, David Bosco of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes that the UN has “an institutional difficulty with determining that one side is the aggressor and one side isn't.” Indeed, Horowitz and Groff even got Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, on camera smoothly asserting that in the wake of the Rwanda genocide, it's best not to “allocate the blame to one actor or the other.”
Horowitz also interviews Jody Williams, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who was invited by the UN to examine the situation in Darfur and who ended up livid at the UN's palpable discomfort with her undiplomatic conclusions and its failure to act on her urgent recommendations. “Avoiding the truth seems to be in the DNA of this organization,” Williams charges. It's “totally a joke.” Cain essentially agrees: “The notion isn't to do the right thing. The notion is to keep your job. They're bureaucrats in the most banal and cowardly sense of the word bureaucrat.” And Rosett charges that the UN, with its emphasis on “secrecy and privilege,” actually “has a lot in common with dictatorships, not democracies.”
At film's end, Horowitz and Graff pose a simple question: what, given all these unpleasant facts, does the UN stand for? The answer, alas, is clear. It stands for itself – period. Like many other pointless bureaucracies, it is about perpetuating its own existence and enhancing its own image – and about seeking to squelch the truth about its fecklessness, incompetence, and absolute lack of a moral compass. It's also, I would suggest, about providing hack politicians from around the world with yet another career steppingstone, once they've risen to the top of the ladder in their own crummy little countries and finished emptying their own citizens' pockets.
Oh, well. Some of us, as I acknowledged at the beginning of this rant, already know all this. But even though I'm one of those who did, UN Me still fired me up – a useful service. What's more important, however, is that all too many intelligent and otherwise well-informed people on this planet still actually revere this massive con game disguised as a staunch defender of human rights, international peace, and social harmony. If this film doesn't at least start to open their eyes, nothing will.
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