March 12, 2009 | Forbes.com
The U.N.’s Year Of Libya
Should a veteran acolyte of Qaddafi's tyranny lead the General Assembly?
At a White House meeting on Tuesday, President Obama and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon were full of praise for a U.S.-U.N. partnership, which Obama envisions as “extraordinarily constructive” for bringing “peace and stability and security to people around the world.” Ban described such collaboration as essential to deal with many crises in what he called a “make-or-break” year.
But is the U.N. up to the job? Both Obama and Ban appeared oblivious to the news that, according to a recent Gallup poll, the American public's opinion of the United Nations has plummeted to an all-time low.
Approval peaked in 2002 at 58%. Then came the 2003 showdown over Iraq, the Oil-for-Food scandal, the peacekeeper rape scandals, the procurement bribery scandals, the Cash for Kim scandal involving the U.N. Development Program's overzealous dealings with the government of North Korea and a drum roll of further evidence, continuing to this day, that the U.N. is not only bad at managing crisis but abysmal at managing itself.
Americans are rightly concerned. American tax payers provide roughly one-quarter of the U.N.'s ever-expanding $20 billion-plus system-wide budget. For this, Ban has just thanked them, in a meeting with U.S. lawmakers, by reproaching the U.S.–his biggest sugar daddy–as a “deadbeat,” and clamoring for more money.
In the face of such stunts, small wonder that over the past seven years, U.S. approval has plunged to 26%; it tipped into free fall under Secretary-General Kofi Annan and dropped even further under Ban.
So what's the U.N. doing to clean up its act? Worse than nothing. Along with the collapse of its vaunted “ethics” reforms, the continuing financial murk, the failure to shed any of its thousands of outdated, redundant and in some cases puerile mandates, the U.N. is now getting ready to anoint the next president of its General Assembly.
It's hard to think how anyone could be a worse choice than this year's president, the anti-American, radical leftist retread Sandinista, Nicaragua's Miguel d'Escoto Brockman, who opened last year's General Assembly by denouncing the U.S.
But the U.N. has found a way. The expectation is that this fall, when the U.N. clogs New York traffic for the opening of its 64th annual General Assembly, the new president of that 192 member-state body, sometimes styled as the Parliament of Man, will be the candidate of–and no, I'm not kidding–the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. Or, in short, Libya.
More specifically, the new chairman of the U.N. General Assembly will be longtime Libyan diplomat Ali Triki. (His name is also transliterated as Ali Traiki.) While there has been little coverage to date of this impending exaltation of Libya's man to chair the main membership body of the world's leading multilateral institution, the AFP last week did run a story reporting that Ali Triki “is set to be the next president of the U.N. General Assembly.” AFP quoted a Libyan diplomat who expected Triki “will be elected” sometime around mid-June.
Hold that thought. If this is an election, why does a Libyan diplomat feel so sure that his country's candidate will win? That's not because Libyan diplomats are gifted with Delphic powers of prophecy. It's because three months before this U.N. “election” takes place, its result is already considered a done deal.
At the U.N. these “elections” are rigged. By unwritten agreement, the presidency of the General Assembly rotates among five regional groups. Each group, when its turn comes up, picks a candidate in advance. Accepted procedure is that the U.N. post is then conferred on the lone candidate not even via a rubber-stamp vote, but by acclamation (also known as the U.N. habit of operating by “consensus”).
For the next annual session of the Assembly, from September 2009 to September 2010, it is Africa's turn in the regional rotation. Out of their secret haggling has emerged the candidacy of Libya's Ali Triki.
This has nothing to do with the crises of world security, the needs of the impoverished, the quest for justice or any of the other issues on which Obama and Ban are hailing the potential for closer collaboration. This choice springs from a brand of backroom politics that makes Chicago pols look like Mary Poppins.
At the U.N., despite the label that implies some sort of democratic process, there is no public campaign. There is no airing of platforms. There is not even any relatively modest approximation of public confirmation hearings.
The election–pardon me, the acclamation–is expected in June. All present, America included, are expected to applaud and acclaim Libya's candidate as the best man for the job.
Not that a procedure more democratic in method would guarantee a better result. The U.N. General Assembly is dominated by unfree states, in which “election” without any genuine democratic process is nothing new. These include the Saudi-based Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Sudan-chaired Group of 77 (which actually has 130 members), the African Union and assorted other overlapping special interests which have, as the common denominator, a majority of unfree U.N. member states.
Their decisions do not reflect the will of the governed, but the pleasures of those who rule.
In the case of Ali Triki, the U.N. General Assembly appears to be choosing someone who neatly embodies not the lofty ideals of the U.N. charter but the seedy reality of what the institution has become.
During the 40-year tyranny of Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Triki has racked up a long history of devoted service to the Tripoli regime, spanning the Qaddafi era of such ventures as the bombing of a Berlin discotheque in 1986, the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988; as well as the 1996 massacre of inmates of Libya's Abu Salim prison, and the repression and jailing of democratic dissidents, such as Fathi Eljahmi, to this day.
Triki was working as Libya's foreign minister in 1984, when Libya hanged two students who had opposed Qaddafi. Triki's comment to the UPI at the time, when asked why the executions had taken place, was: “Sometimes you need it.”
When those executions triggered protests outside the Libyan embassy in London, what ensued was a disturbing brand of “diplomacy.” A gunman inside the embassy opened fire on the anti-Qaddafi protestors. Eleven were injured and a British police woman was killed.
Triki's candidacy is the product of the African Union, currently chaired by Libya's despotic Qaddafi. What values might he bring to the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly? For a preview, we might look to the preparations for the U.N.'s Durban Review conference scheduled for April in Geneva. Chaired by Libya's ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, the preparatory committee for this conference has dished up plans for a global gag on free speech via Islamic anti-blasphemy laws, a mob attack on the democratic state of Israel and demands in the name of slavery reparations for wealth transfers that would in all likelihood have nothing to do with slavery and everything to do with the greed and profit of some of the world's worst governments.
Last month, the Obama administration took a close-up look at this noxious Durban II stew, gagged and, to its credit, backed off.
Why, then, condone the same brand of leadership for the U.N. General Assembly?
If the anointing of Ali Triki grinds ahead as U.N. business as usual, this September's opening will feature Libya on the Security Council, Libya presiding over the General Assembly and Libya fresh from chairing the preparations for the Durban Review conference in Geneva. Is that the kind of U.N. America should depend on?
Not so long ago, Libya was under U.S. and U.N. sanctions for its long terrorist record.
Qaddafi's return to polite society began when he cut a deal with the U.S. in December 2003 to surrender his clandestine nuclear weapons program. The chief incentive at the time seemed to be that he would escape being targeted by the Bush administration, which wanted him to share the fate of Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown earlier that year.
President Bush then turned to diplomacy, in which Libya was presented as a model for the good things awaiting other rogue regimes willing to abjure the pursuit of nuclear weapons, such as North Korea and Iran.
That has not worked. North Korea conducted a nuclear test in 2006 and has yet to surrender an ounce of bomb material or allow real inspections. Iran appears close to getting the bomb. But for Qaddafi, with the willing cooperation of Washington, the rewards just keep rolling in. The political reforms that some of his early post-pariah suitors, such as Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden hoped for have not materialized.
Obama was elected on a platform of change. The U.N. is an arena in which profound change is desperately needed–all the more so if Obama wants much closer collaboration with Turtle Bay as a main avenue of U.S. foreign policy. One place to begin would be to break with the sordid current custom of consensus and call for a genuine, publicly contested election for president of the General Assembly.
That would no doubt cause shock and horror among some of the entrenched eminences now looking forward to 2009-2010 in the General Assembly as the Year of Libya. But if there is any prayer of reclaiming the U.N. as an institution dedicated to serving its charter goals of peace and freedom, the only real hope of change lies in America finding the audacity to challenge U.N. rituals that by now reek of a decaying imperial court.
Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column on foreign affairs for Forbes.com.