Time to Think Again about the U.N.?

Washington Times  10.21.97
Balint Vazsonyi

The sudden critical interest in the American legal system exhibited by Mr. Bacre Waly Ndiaye from Senegal has been widely reported. The news item brought back pleasant memories of a visit my wife and I had paid to that friendly country some years ago. The occasion was one of those cruises that bring together artists and music lovers in a series of concerts on board.

The ship docked in Dakar, capital of Senegal, for a couple of days and we went exploring. Having secured a map of the city, we made for the market place. Soon, a toothless young man in a striped burnous fell in step with us. He seemed determined to sell us something, or to help us negotiate a purchase, but otherwise proved harmless. The market was much like one's image of ancient bazaars, and no less interesting.

Later, ignoring misgivings by the overly cautious crew of our ship, we rented a car. We drove up and down pleasant streets with villas, until we found ourselves in areas represented as streets on the map, but with nothing there.
Aided by a polite policeman who spoke good French, we then embarked on a trip along the single highway that appeared well-paved, leading due East. Before us stretched an endless landscape completely covered by baobab trees. Anyone who has read The Little Prince would have had a field day. Baobab trees! - but nothing else.

At one point we came upon a grass hut. We stopped. The inhabitants filed out. They regarded us with amazement. We smiled and waved. They smiled and waved. We drove on.

I still recall the hard bargaining at the market, starting with a price about six times what the vendor was hoping to get. But once the bargain was struck, he kept it religiously and insisted on giving us small items in lieu of the change he owed. Within his framework, he was scrupulously honest.

But that framework, compared with America's system of laws, is much like the grass hut we saw is to the Empire State Building. If America's tireless pursuit of justice inspires Mr. Ndiaye - for it is hard to see where else he could draw inspiration - he might first cut his teeth on his country's closest neighbor. As the New York Times Magazine reported on October 12, Mauritania's centuries of slavery and continuing abysmal treatment of its people cry to high heaven.

The issue, however, is hardly Mr. Ndiaye. The issue is a very troublesome organization that goes by the name "United Nations" which grants a Mr. Ndiaye authority neither he nor the grantor ought to have. Unless the U.S. takes appropriate action, we might wake up some day to the spectacle of an Albanian commission overhauling our transport systems, Japanese experts establishing the way to treat prisoners of war, and Iran determining the place of women in society.

At the time of its foundation, the U.N. must have seemed like a wonderful idea. The failure of the League of Nations, the horrors of two world wars, the emergence of nuclear weapons all pointed to the urgent need for a forum capable of resolving conflicts, and of imposing civilized standards.

Just as immigrants to this country used to - and still should - regard access to American jurisprudence a privilege, so the many countries of the world with wretched or nonexistent legal systems might have seen participation in Anglo-American institutional principles as an opportunity to appreciate. Alas, most of them only see an opportunity to meddle in affairs for which they lack qualifications as well as authority.

From the start, there was a conceptual problem with the application of American federalism in the form of "one state - one vote." In the General Assembly, Iceland (population 250 thousand) has as much to say as the United States (250 million).

But now we face an additional anomaly because the U.N. charter treats new countries much as the U.S. treated its own new states: at the moment of birth, new countries have instant identical rights. Whereas Iceland had a democratic assembly more than a thousand years ago, there have been Slovaks all that time - but no Slovakia until 1993! If a people seem unable for a thousand years to form a country in the middle of Europe, will membership in the U.N. suddenly act as a magic wand?

France already tried the "magic wand" method when, following World War I, it created Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Our armed forces are having to deal with the wreckage every day.

Some timely steps may be in order, not least to preserve U.S. sovereignty unimpaired. One of these might be to inform the U.N. and Mr. Ndiaye that they are out of line, and to obtain a public apology from the Secretary General. But more importantly, Congress ought to weigh a constantly growing "downside" against the steadily eroding "upside" of our U.N. membership. At the very least, a review of the Charter should be undertaken, as opposed to a mere "tightening of the administrative structure."

In the meantime, the American news media could consider some common-sense practices. U.N. officials seem to hold strong views about a wide range of issues - from the environment to jurisprudence. Why not require reports about their own respective backyards, before an opportunity is granted to lecture the rest of us?