“If there were no United Nations we’d have to invent one” is an overused Turtle Bay cliche worth examining now, as the UN is MIA in the face of the worst global crisis since its founding 75 years ago.
As a pandemic threatens the globe with loss of life on a biblical scale and economic collapse, a behemoth that fancies itself as “the world body” is nowhere to be seen.
Start with the Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, who immediately sprang to “action,” vaingloriously calling for a global ceasefire to enable the world to focus on the pandemic. No major combatant heeded his call. So, next, he asked member states to fund a $2 billion UN-based initiative for a global humanitarian response. That fund is yet to materialize.
The Security Council, the UN’s most prestigious body charged with ensuring global peace and security, is also yet to respond. It failed to unite behind Mr. Guterres’ global ceasefire and couldn’t even muster a generic statement on the pandemic: China opposes any reference to the origin of an outbreak that America insists calling the “Wuhan virus.”
Instead, pre-coronavirus pet issues dominate the UN.
This week Mr. Guterres issued a policy brief on the impact of Covid-19 on women and girls — even as the New York Times reported Wednesday that in this city the virus “is killing men at twice the rate of women.” More men than women are infected and die globally, as well, but Mr. Guterres has been promoting women’s issues ever since his 2016 election bucked a global clamor for a woman UN chief.
Other specialized bodies also use the virus to promote pet issues. UNICEF calls to protect children, even as covid-19 hardest hit are the elderly. UNRWA pleads for funds to help Gazans face the virus, although there have only been a handful of corona cases in the Strip.
Then there’s the World Health Organization — the UN body that, if it worked well, would be the global clearinghouse for all things corona. Instead, WHO has hindered action, contributed to the spread, and, in the process, raised the ire of America, its top funder.
WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has, justly, drawn most of the criticism over initially denying Covid-19 was pandemic and stating no human to human transmission was possible.
Mr. Tedros, an Ethiopian microbiologist and expert in respect of malaria, is more a symptom than the disease. This week he warned critics against mixing politics and health issues. Yet, as amply demonstrated by Mr. Tedros successful China-backed 2017 run to head the health organization, WHO is all about politics. He was elected despite glaring shortcomings.
Starting his career as a Communist rebel against the government, Mr. Tedros’ political career soared, eventually making him foreign minister. Earlier, as health minister, he whitewashed findings of an Ethiopian cholera outbreak. Yet, he became the first non-medical doctor to head WHO, where, as one of his first acts, he named a buddy, the notorious Robert Mugabe, as “goodwill ambassador.”
No wonder cronyism, rather than health considerations, marked WHO’s response to the current global pandemic. Mr. Tedros’ bowed to Communist China’s incomplete contamination reporting, praised Beijing’s health authorities’ response, and condemned travel bans.
During a Wednesday press conference, Mr. Tedros complained about the government and people of Taiwan that, he said, are attempting to “discredit” him. Huh? Taiwan was almost alone issuing early warnings — including in a letter to WHO — about the novel virus’ potential devastation. Mr. Tedros and his lieutenants brazenly dismissed the warnings.
“Birds don’t know borders,” Taiwanese officials told me years ago, when SARS, or avian flu, devastated east Asia. That argument symbolized democratic (and medically-advanced) Taiwan’s campaign for WHO membership. But Beijing, which considers Taiwan a runaway province, vehemently fights against even a symbolic Taiwanese participation in UN-affiliated bodies.
The UN Charter’s first words, “we the peoples,” is a riff off its America’s constitution. Now — in President Trump’s words — it’s gradually becoming “China-centric.” Ever so symbolically, Turtle Bay’s iconic halls have all but emptied out in March due to social distancing, just as China assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council.
The UN’s sprawling, uncontrollable, and overly politicized bureaucracy is paralyzed facing a global crisis of the kind it was founded to fight. That invites a rethinking of the whole project.