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2001 In Review: War On Terror Raises Profile, Prestige Of United Nations

  • Robert McMahon

The events of 11 September brought the United States and the United Nations closer together and in the process helped boost the stature of the world's top multilateral body. As 2001 draws to a close, the United Nations is performing a central role in rehabilitating Afghanistan, building on its peacekeeping successes and reflecting on receiving the Nobel prize for its efforts in securing peace. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon looks at how UN prestige has risen, especially since 11 September.

United Nations, 18 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center jarred not only the United States but the world diplomatic community at UN headquarters about eight kilometers north of the disaster site.

A number of diplomats from UN member states were able to see from their offices the smoking towers of the Trade Center. They also joined in America's mourning as it became clear that citizens of more than 80 nations died in the attacks in New York and at the Pentagon in Washington.

The 15-member UN Security Council and General Assembly, grouping all 189 nations, responded by passing resolutions on 12 September condemning the attacks. The council expressed its readiness to react with "all necessary steps" and the assembly called for urgent action to cut off support for terrorists.

These resolutions have set in motion measures seen as crucial in the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. They are also part of a series of actions -- political, humanitarian, and economic -- that have propelled the United Nations to the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate Afghanistan -- where the World Trade Center terrorists were believed to be based -- and stabilize Central Asia.

It is the kind of development that diplomats here say points to the indispensable role of the United Nations in international security matters.

Croatia's ambassador to the UN, Ivan Simonovic, who becomes chairman of the UN's influential Economic and Social Council next month, tells RFE/RL that the terrorist attacks helped serve as a wake-up call for the world body.

"I think that 11 September has clearly indicated that we are extremely interdependent and the joint fight against terrorism is just one of many fights in which we have to stay together."

Diplomats said the initial response showed the genuine sympathy and support of UN members toward their host country. It also was a signal of how personally the events of September touched UN representatives, according to Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior analyst at the United Nations Association, an independent think tank.

"All this created an enormous impression in UN diplomatic mood and in world public opinion that certainly contributed to the astonishingly broad grant of authority that the Security Council rushed to approve the very next day without even clearing it with the foreign ministries of most of its member states."

Within weeks of the terrorist attacks, the Security Council passed another resolution affirming the U.S. right of self-defense and requiring UN members to embark on a crackdown on terrorists. The resolution calls for states to adjust their legislation to make it illegal to harbor terrorists or provide financial support for them.

More than half the member states have already submitted to the council reports on how they will coordinate their financial control systems, crucial to cutting off support for terrorists.

Laurenti says the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush now recognizes the importance of the universal reach of the United Nations.

"The administration has gradually come to realize that the UN is a unique place for getting the entire world community, or most of it, on board, so instead of having to bargain with 189 countries bilaterally to get them to impose stricter financial controls, you can get the Security Council to adopt a [binding] resolution."

The U.S. foreign policy establishment moved quickly to engage the United Nations after the attacks. Opposition to repaying hundreds of millions of dollars in UN arrears and to the confirmation of UN Ambassador John Negroponte was quickly dropped in the U.S. Congress.

And while mounting its military campaign in Afghanistan, Washington threw its support behind UN efforts to broker peace talks involving the major non-Taliban Afghan groups. Those efforts bore fruit earlier this month with an agreement on an interim government. The Afghan groups appealed for wide-ranging UN help to rebuild their country.

UN officials welcome the attention from the largest budget contributor and the country regarded as the most important in the UN system. They express hope that a new spirit of multilateralism will have greater influence on U.S. actions.

But U.S. officials say it is misleading to portray the Bush administration as slow to recognize the import of the United Nations. Michael Southwick is a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for international affairs. He tells RFE/RL that it is only natural that the U.S. is more active at the UN now that is has become mobilized for war.

"Yes, we have been more engaged because there's more to be engaged about. I don't think it represents, as some people may try to point out, there's a fundamental alteration in the attitude of the United States to the UN."

Southwick says U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell built a close relationship with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan soon after taking office. The Bush administration sought the swift payment of UN dues and continued to provide important military support for the UN missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, despite early concerns.

Southwick also says U.S. pressure on the United Nations to reform its budget, started during the Clinton administration, has made it a more impressive organization.

"You have a cleaner organization. You have more efficient organization. And you have another thing, which is extremely good leadership at the top of most organizations, and Kofi Annan is the best example of that."

Annan and the United Nations organization were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on 10 December in recognition of their peace-building efforts. It marks a continuing comeback in international prestige for the organization, which had become tarnished by peacekeeping debacles in the 1990s in Rwanda and Bosnia.

Peacekeeping is undergoing a major transformation, guided in part by a report from a commission headed by veteran UN diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi. Brahimi, now the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, has repeatedly said that for UN peacekeeping to be effective it must have clearly prescribed objectives and must be empowered by member states to carry them out.

Many recommendations in his report must still be implemented, but already UN missions have undergone changes in response to the changing nature of conflicts. Missions in East Timor and Kosovo have engaged in institution-building with a strong emphasis on international policing and judicial reform.

In the case of Afghanistan, Brahimi has stressed the importance of Afghans choosing their own form of government and handling their own security as much as possible, due to years of foreign meddling.

One of Annan's top aides in the UN Secretariat, Edward Mortimer, tells RFE/RL that the UN in the 1990s was in part the victim of unrealistic expectations and was pushed into situations it wasn't prepared for. It is now more cautious, he says, but still willing to play a role in the world's trouble spots.

"The UN should know when to say 'no' and should not be pushed indiscriminately into every situation. One has to have a clear idea of what it can achieve and how it can be done. If you give it the task, you have to give it the resources to carry out that task."

As for the dispute between the Palestinians and Israelis, Annan's role has been low-key. Israel has repeatedly rejected proposals by Arab states to send a UN observer force into the occupied territories, and it is backed on the UN Security Council by the United States.

The Middle East conflict also bedeviled the United Nations' conference on racism last summer, and many say this diminished the worthy aims of the meeting.

The conference began amid controversy when a parallel human rights forum of nongovernmental organizations called Israel a "racist apartheid state" guilty of war crimes in its treatment of Palestinians. U.S. and Israeli delegates later walked out to protest language in a draft final declaration that equated Zionism with racism.

David Malone is a former Canadian diplomat at the UN and president of the International Peace Academy, an NGO based in New York. He says the racism conference was a failure.

"I think the Durban conference was a disaster for the UN, but more importantly for the issue of racism, which is such an important issue. It got lost in the thickets of the Israel-Palestine dispute and the issue of reparations for slavery. It produced a lot of very heated confrontations. It produced a detestable NGO statement, it seems to me, and so it was an example of what the UN does worst in spite of the good intentions of [Human Rights High Commissioner] Mary Robinson and the secretary-general."

UN officials say the interest aroused by the September events may serve as a catalyst at two major UN-sponsored conferences next year. The first, in March, is a conference in Mexico on financing for development at which UN officials hope to see a commitment from countries in the industrialized world for more development assistance to poorer nations.

The second conference, in South Africa in August, deals with sustainable development. That conference will also provide an important dialogue between rich and poor nations over balancing environmental and economic concerns.