… and for that matter, so has the UN

Milton Friedman died recently at age 94. He was the most influential economist during the second-half of the twentieth century and was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize in Economics.

Among many things I learned from reading Prof. Friedman was his theory that most institutions established for some mission keep expanding their role long after the good they might have done has been accomplished. His standing advice was that the best thing such institutions could do was to declare the job done and shut down.


This “Friedmanian” advice generates horror among bureaucrats and their organizations, even as the good impulses that founded them are exhausted.

So it is with the United Nations. As a bloated bureaucracy in perpetual motion and going nowhere , the UN has become a haven for jet-setting diplomats in New York and Geneva, paid for by the taxpayers of a handful of countries.

Since the UN is unlikely to shut down, the next best thing is Kofi Annan’s departure at the end of December from the Secretary-General’s chamber.

Annan took office in 1997. He was voted to replace the failed administration of then out-going secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali of Egypt, under whom Annan served as head of the UN office of Peacekeeping Operations.

Boutros-Ghali’s second term was vetoed by the U.S. Under his watch, the UN failed to prevent the Rwandan genocide of 1994, failed to muster support for UN intervention during the Angolan war, and failed to effectively deal with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in part by minimizing the human tragedy from the resulting conflict in the Balkans. Annan should have been held equally responsible for dereliction of duty.

Canada’s former general, Romeo Dallaire, in command of peacekeepers in Rwanda, described in his book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, how Annan was overly passive in responding to the unfolding tragedy of the Tutsi genocide.

As a demonstration of Peter Principle—“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”—Annan’s scandalous ineptness on the Rwanda file was rewarded by his appointment as Secretary-General.

During the decade Annan held the world’s number one diplomatic post, the UN’s reputation has become so sullied that it deserves the treatment Friedman recommended for organizations that have lived well beyond their usefulness.

Under Annan’s watch Africa’s second genocide in Darfur has kept rolling along.

There have been allegations of sexual abuse of women and children by UN peacekeepers in Congo. Annan’s office was implicated in the worst financial scam in the UN’s history—its Oil-for-Food program in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

It’s true that the UN’s watch on global security is only as effective as the will of its veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council. But the running of the UN remains the responsibility of the Secretary-General and the doctrine of command responsibility and accountability does exist.

The UN is not simply an aggregation of its member states, but an institution invested by its Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other conventions, to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.”

The UN has at its potential disposal the resources of its member states to enforce its Charter principles. When the UN fails, as it did under Annan in Rwanda, in the Balkans and in Darfur, the top official must be held accountable.

Such accountability will not occur as Annan departs. If only the charade of the UN as it exists today could depart with him, perhaps we could reinvent this institution by learning the appropriate lessons from its less than honourable record of the past half-century.