UNITED NATIONS - As Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon begins his second year in office, he has refused to claim any tangible successes during 2007, nor has he laid out any clear-cut strategy to meet the political and economic challenges facing the United Nations in 2008."So far his performance and what appears to be his future approach do not reflect anything close to the independence, strength of character, willingness to stand up to powerful governments and commitment to equality of nations and peoples," says Phyllis Bennis, director, New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
These are qualities that would be required if the United Nations had any chance of rebuilding its tattered reputation and its potential capacity, said Bennis, author of several books on the world body, including "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power".
She said Ban Ki-moon's end-of-first-year speech provided an example. "While he spoke of protection of the 'global commons' and the 'bottom billion' as U.N. priorities, he failed to provide any real programmatic blueprints for how those crucial goals might be brought about," Bennis told IPS.
Addressing his first press conference for 2008, Ban told reporters Monday: "You know that I am not one to speak easily of successes."
"The past year was one of immense challenges," he said, pointing out only two areas where he has made "certain progress": "a new chapter on climate change" and "new and daunting challenges in peacekeeping, most specifically in Darfur."
But still, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur is in trouble even before it could get off the ground, primarily due to a shortage of both troops and helicopters.
At the press briefing, Ban was constrained to admit he has only 9,000 out of the estimated 26,000 soldiers needed.
"That is why we are very much concerned about this ongoing deteriorating situation in Darfur," he said, tempering his short-lived optimism on peacekeeping in Sudan.
Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, a former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Least Developed Countries (LDCs), says restoring the credibility and neutrality of the United Nations, as the most universal world body, is the organisation's biggest challenge as the new secretary-general enters his second year.
"The United Nations has been losing the widespread respect and support it used to enjoy," Chowdhury told IPS in an interview late December.
He cited several examples: there are demonstrations and protest marches against the U.N. A topmost official is prevented from visiting the U.N. office in the field. U.N. officials are being expelled by host governments. U.N. peacekeepers are being withdrawn on charges of sexual harassment. And it goes on and on, he said.
"Stigma of corrupt practices sticks on. U.N.'s esteem has never been that low worldwide. This should get top priority attention of the secretary-general and the senior management group," said Chowdhury, a former permanent representative of Bangladesh to the United Nations and a diplomat who has been associated with the world body since the late 1960s.
Anuradha Mittal, founder and director of the San Francisco-based policy think tank Oakland Institute, said: "If allowed to be truly independent with necessary resources, an unbiased United Nations could have real impact and help affect real change when it comes to the most urgent issues of our times, including poverty, conflict resolution, HIV/AIDS and climate change."
"Unfortunately, the United Nations and its agencies have become impotent as they have come to be controlled by western capitals such as Washington DC, who have held the United Nations hostage by withholding their contributions," Mittal told IPS.
Therefore, the priority in 2008 would be for the United Nations and its agencies to live up to their original mandate, which was to bring all nations of the world together to work for peace and development, based on the principles of justice, human dignity and the well-being of all people, she declared.
Meanwhile, the United Nations is expected to face a rash of old and new political problems which it will try to resolve in 2008. These include the crisis in the Middle East, Darfur, Myanmar, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), amongst others.
At Monday's press conference, the secretary-general pledged to galvanise world action on poverty alleviation -- as he did on climate change at the General Assembly in September.
The demands on the United Nations grow ever greater, he said. "If anything, the coming year promises to be even tougher than the last."
"Look how it has begun, with turmoil in Kenya and renewed violence in Sri Lanka. We must nurture a fragile peace process in the Middle East. We must do more to help the people of Iraq emerge from conflict and rebuild their shattered lives. We must stay the course in Afghanistan so that it does not again fall into lawless anarchy," he said.
But can he really fulfill all -- or most -- of these pledges in 2008? Not a chance, says Bennis.
One of the most visible -- and damaging -- impacts of the foreign policy for the last seven years (of the administration of President George W. Bush) has been "a triumphalist assertion of unilateral militarism, ignoring or undermining or simply violating (largely without consequence) the United Nations Charter, U.N. resolutions and a host of other international laws", she noted.
The United Nations was and remains one of the fundamental victims of the Iraq war -- indeed, of the so-called "global war on terror".
"A question for the uncertain future is whether the U.S. will lift its heavy-handed domination of the global body, and allow the U.N. at least the modicum of a chance to play the role mandated by its Charter: to end the scourge of war, to protect human rights for all people and peoples, and to work to eliminate global poverty and inequality," Bennis told IPS.
So far the likelihood does not seem high -- not least because U.S. domination of the U.N. has been for many years a bipartisan affair in Washington, she argued.
After all, it was Madeleine Albright, a former secretary of state in the ostensibly "multilateralist" administration of President Bill Clinton, who said in 1995 "the U.N. is a tool of American foreign policy."
Certainly other countries -- France and China among them -- have played damaging roles in crucial U.N. developments in recent years, including reform efforts, Iran sanctions and more, Bennis said.
"But U.S. domination remains the single greatest obstacle to the U.N.'s realisation of its potential as part of an internationalist coalition, which would also include global social movements and a rotating cast of at least a few governments, standing against war, for human rights and protection of the planet, and providing the scaffolding for a world governed by laws instead of power," she declared.
© 2008 Inter Press Service