The failings of the United Nations are so familiar by now and the disappointment in it is so deep that it’s hard to imagine the organization letting us down any further. Remarkably, that’s just what it has contrived to do as its General Assembly convenes in New York this week for its 60th anniversary gala opening.

The anniversary was planned as an unprecedented global summit, bringing together heads of state from every corner of the earth to ratify a sweeping U.N. reform plan. Promised changes included improved mechanisms for addressing terrorism and human rights, and structural reforms to halt corruption within the U.N. itself. There was to be a global commitment to reducing poverty, through reaffirmation of the so-called Millennium Development Goals. New rules were to be adopted for slowing the arms race and controlling nuclear proliferation. The Security Council, which has the power to impose sanctions and dispatch armies, was supposed to become more representative and, presumably, more effective. In the process, it was hoped, the world body might even put an end at last to its pervasive, built-in anti-Israel biases.

The hopes were lofty ones. The results were anything but. Though the crowned heads arrived on schedule — some 150 of them, said to be the biggest summit meeting in history — the document they were asked to ratify was a hollow shell. Human-rights reform had been utterly gutted, thanks to lobbying by the worst abusers. The anti-terrorism convention was compromised nearly to death at the insistence of Muslim states. The commitment to fighting poverty was watered down at the insistence of the Bush administration. Security Council reform disappeared without a trace. So did disarmament and nonproliferation, something Secretary-General Kofi Annan called “a disgrace.”

It was disappointing, but not surprising. The U.N. is, in the end, nothing more than the sum of its parts, the 190 sovereign member-states. As the collective expression of their will, it cannot be more democratic than they are. Indeed, it’s something of a miracle that they ever agree on anything.

Sadly, Annan seemed to have real reform in his grasp as recently as last spring. The final hurdles were considerable, but insiders were optimistic. Then came the Iraq oil-for-food scandal, tainting Annan’s credibility as a broker. The final straw, most U.N. sources say, was the arrival this summer of John Bolton, America’s prickly new envoy, brandishing a long list of demanded amendments. One by one the pieces came unstuck.

American critics tend to focus on the U.N.’s failure to distinguish between the world’s democratic “good actors” and undemocratic “bad actors,” making it unable to advance democracy around the globe, an essential goal. That misses the point. The United Nations was from its very inception an alliance of democracies and dictatorships, led by the United States and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Its goal was not democracy but peace. It hoped to deter aggression and to prevent a new World War II by providing a framework for joint action.

It hasn’t been the utter failure it’s made out to be. Some of its agencies have become essential tools — such as the World Health Organization, the telecommunications union and the World Bank.

Even in its core mission, preserving the peace, there have been successes among the failures; think of the U.N. peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, the Golan Heights and Liberia. But the failures have overshadowed the good, particularly in the last decade. By repeatedly dithering in the face of genocide — in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur — the organization has betrayed its most basic mission. That, more than anything, has fueled the reform demands.

Perhaps surprisingly, the single area of greatest improvement has been in treatment of Israel. In 2000, under prodding from Annan and others, Jerusalem was made a temporary member of the so-called Western Europe and Others regional group. That opened the way for Israelis to be elected to several key U.N. posts. In 2004 the regional membership was effectively made permanent. During the past year the organization hosted two previously unimaginable events, a major Holocaust commemoration and a world conference on antisemitism. This fall, in an act of vast symbolic importance, Israel’s Ambassador Dan Gillerman was elected vice president of the General Assembly.

The anti-Israel bias hasn’t been eliminated entirely. The organization still maintains a multimillion-dollar network of agencies whose sole agenda is demonizing Israel in the name of Palestinian rights. Automatic General Assembly majorities still pass a raft of anti-Israel resolutions each year, though the number has dropped from a high of nearly 35 in the early 1990s to an expected 20 this year. Israel’s regional group membership is effective only at the main U.N. headquarters in New York. It’s thus barred from full participation at secondary offices in Vienna, Nairobi and Geneva, where the scandalously biased Human Rights Commission is based.

But the trend-line is unmistakably positive, as Israel’s diplomats have repeatedly declared in the past year. Prime Minister Sharon himself took time this week to praise the improvement in remarks to reporters en route to New York.

Annan clearly hoped the improved record on Israel would help build public support here for his broader reform agenda, which is viewed with suspicion by the veteran U.N.-bashers of the American right.

It hasn’t worked out that way. The major Jewish organizations, seemingly taking their cues from Washington rather than Jerusalem, have continued their denunciations of U.N. injustice as though nothing had changed. The latest salvo was a hard-hitting television commercial unveiled this week by the American Jewish Committee, assailing the U.N. for its unrelieved mistreatment of Israel just as Israel’s prime minister was issuing his paean to the new mood at the world body.

U.N. officials have been understandably miffed. They speak warmly of the role that Jewish organizations like AJC once played in the founding of the world body, and continue to play in struggles for human rights. They expected that if they acted in response to pressure and made something better, somebody would notice.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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