Overhauling the United Nations

A bipartisan panel has released a report calling for reforming the United Nations. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican, co-chairs the congressional task force. He talks about the recommended changes.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The Senate is inching closer to voting on whether John Bolton should be the next US ambassador to the United Nations. A report out yesterday suggests that whoever gets the job will have to work full time to fix the UN. The panel was led by George Mitchell, the former Democratic majority leader of the Senate, and Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House. Their findings were similar in some respects to the reform agenda being pushed by the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan. Both want to strengthen the UN so it can prevent genocide and force it to define terrorism as a crime, among other things. The report by Mitchell and Gingrich goes even further. We spoke with Newt Gingrich, who believes the institution is badly broken.

Former Representative NEWT GINGRICH (Republican, Georgia): There's a culture of corruption and inefficiency in absolutely responsibility that the jobs are given away as patronage jobs. And there are people there whose only great interest is being able to live in the US and who actually don't necessarily do any job at all. It's frankly cheating the poor of the world and the helpless of the world from the kind of support and protection they ought to be getting.

MONTAGNE: Well, just given that these reform proposals overlap to a degree those made by the secretary-general, Kofi Annan, what's the difference...

Mr. GINGRICH: There are a lot of differences. The secretary-general proposes in his report a standard which would have the UN as the only legitimate venue in the world. That's an absurd position. We say the opposite. We say the United Nations should be used when it is appropriate, but if the UN fails to act, people should not be blocked from doing the right thing just because the UN fails. It's a very different standard.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's go on from that thought to talk about one or two of the panel's specific proposals. Darfur--your panel would argue that the United Nations should be able to act; that is, put troops on the ground.

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, we recommend a much stronger system of training, disciplining and organizing those militaries which are willing to participate. And we recommend that they have a proactive responsibility, not a passive responsibility. I mean, the number of places where UN forces have stood by passively while people were being slaughtered because they had very, very narrowly limited assignments is truly tragic.

MONTAGNE: Turning to another concern, a new memo has surfaced concerning the UN oil-for-food scandal. It suggests that Kofi Annan gave a nod to the company that employed his son, a nod that would get a UN contract. He's denied this latest charge, but if he is fully implicated in a scandal, should he step down?

Mr. GINGRICH: That's a highly political question. I think the minute you get involved in that, you're involved in a political fight that actually distracts attention from reforming the UN. And the UN system needs to be overhauled. If that were done in the right kind of way, you would probably, over time, maybe before the end of his term, maybe at the end of his term, want to have an entirely new team that would give you a new culture of honesty and accountability and transparency. That culture does not exist today in the United Nations.

MONTAGNE: The nominee for the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, is an outspoken, harsh critic of the UN. In your opinion, could he force a reform agenda on the UN?

Mr. GINGRICH: Well, I don't think that the United States has to work with the organization. The United States has to work with the members. Former Secretary of State Larry Eagleburger has said that John Bolton was very effective, in his judgment, in working in the United Nations in 1990 and 1991, and he has no doubt that he will be effective this time.

MONTAGNE: Have you talked to John Bolton about the recommendations?

Mr. GINGRICH: No. We agreed that it was inappropriate to exchange these things until he got confirmed by the Senate.

MONTAGNE: And of all the reforms proposed, which would you say the next US ambassador, whoever that might be, should tackle first?

Mr. GINGRICH: The most important step we recommend is for the United States to organize the democracies, and, in effect, to create a voting bloc of the democracies. The top eight supporters of the United Nations are all democracies and they pay three-fourths of the total cost of the United Nations. And they should start by insisting that no country can serve on the replacement of the Human Rights Commission unless it obeys the rule of law and is a democracy, and they should resolutely oppose any dictatorship being allowed to serve on that commission.

MONTAGNE: The House of Representatives is considering a bill that would cut in half the US dues payments to the United Nations if certain reforms aren't met there. Do you support threatening to cut off American money as an effective way to push for reform?

Mr. GINGRICH: I would simply suggest that that ought to be the last step taken, rather than the first, and that insisting on a set of reforms ought to be the precedent. But the United States should not accept the premise that we should tolerate whatever the lowest-common-denominator reforms are. There'd have to be profound reform for the UN to work.

MONTAGNE: Newt Gingrich, thanks very much for talking with us.

Mr. GINGRICH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Newt Gingrich is co-chair of a bipartisan congressional task force charged with evaluating the United Nations. To read the full report, go to our Web site, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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