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Can a new boss fix the U.N.?

The campaign to find a new leader of the troubled organization is already under way.

At its best, the U.N. does a lot of grunt work that makes the world a little better.
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It’s hard to imagine the world getting even as far as it has in tackling climate change without the United Nations pushing governments to reduce emissions. Or the Iran-nuclear deal, as imperfect as it is, having taken shape without the U.N. imposing sanctions on Iran or its teams of inspectors verifying compliance.

But after its role in these big events last year, the U.N. finds itself the subject of a lot of negative headlines this year. Is there much that a new leader, to be chosen in a campaign that began in earnest this week, can do about it?

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There is plenty to fix, including a pattern of sexual abuse and rape by peacekeeping soldiers who take advantage of vulnerable people they should be protecting, and an unwillingness to acknowledge responsibility for a cholera epidemic in Haiti that has killed 9,000 people. The U.N. is also facing accusations that it is allowing itself to be a tool of the Syrian government

Then there was a cry-from-the-heart op-ed in the New York Times from a senior U.N. official, explaining why he is quitting.

A certain element of Congress, and the U.S. population, loves to hate the U.N., regarding it as dysfunctional and anti-American. Plus, the U.S. share of the U.N.’s general budget, at 22 percent, is far higher than any other country’s.

The sum of its contrarian parts

At its best, the U.N. does a lot of grunt work that makes the world a little better. Organizing last year’s climate conference in Paris is one example. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s work on Iran is another. The pursuit of development goals that are pushing hundreds of millions out of dire poverty is a third. Most of the organization’s work involves stuff you’ve never heard of — and probably never will — but may mean a lot in Ethiopia or the Philippines.

Often, though, the U.N. is little more than the sum of its contrarian parts. A creature of the governments that built and sustain it, the U.N. finds itself caught among conflicting agendas of the world’s major powers, or deferring to the narrow interests of brutal and corrupt regimes.

That disenchanted senior U.N. official, Anthony Banbury, maintains bureaucracy is killing an organization he still loves: “If you locked a team of evil geniuses in a laboratory, they could not design a bureaucracy so maddeningly complex, requiring so much effort but in the end incapable of delivering the intended result. The system is a black hole into which disappear countless tax dollars and human aspirations, never to be seen again.” 

Prominent failings

It’s hard to understand, except as a matter of legal precedent, why the U.N. is having such a hard time acknowledging that its peacekeepers probably brought cholera to Haiti, compounding the country’s misery after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince.

The demand for peacekeepers has mushroomed. There are more than 120,000 personnel in 16 missions around the world — a reflection of the urge to do something to halt suffering. A peacekeeping mission is often one of the few tools available. But the U.N. can find itself turning to unqualified, ill-disciplined units from countries that are willing to offer up troops.

The U.N. pays the governments, creating an incentive for some to offer peacekeepers. But it doesn’t have the right to discipline the soldiers. So once again, the U.N. is scrambling to clean up a sexual abuse scandal, this time in the Central African Republic.

U.N. officials, already hamstrung by those limitations, have come in for blistering criticism for their failure to do much of anything about it.

The question in Syria appears a little less clear-cut: By striving to keep a channel of communication and cooperation open with a government, even one as brutal as Syria’s, does it in some way assist that government in abusing its own people? Some aid workers and human rights advocates think so.

A reflection of humanity

The U.N. is, in an odd way, just a reflection of humanity – with all of its aspirations, and all of its warts. Leaving aside for now ambitious plans like reforming or expanding the Security Council (it’s hard to see how those ideas could gain traction), there still are some ideas on the table for making it work better.

Countries whose military units are accused of abuses could be barred from offering any more peacekeepers. According to the BBC, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants the flexibility to court martial peacekeepers on site, a commitment from countries to prosecuting peacekeepers for sex crimes, and creation of a DNA database of peacekeepers.

Banbury argues that the U.N.’s personnel system is the first thing that needs fixing: A system that takes on average 213 days to recruit and hire someone is about to get even more cumbersome. He also rails against political expediency playing such a large role in U.N. decisions, but that’s an even tougher nut.

The ideas are all small ball, and all worthy. None will suddenly transform the U.N. into a paragon of principle and efficiency. Efficiency is too much to ask of any such giant (governmental or corporate), particularly one confronting the world’s biggest problems and an endless number of competing agendas.

Ban will step down as secretary-general at the end of this year. His successor, for the first time, might well be a woman. Whoever it is, the United States, Russia and China, above all, will need to agree. That already will limit her room to maneuver. But if she can nudge the U.N. toward reflecting the better angels of our nature, that should be enough.