TOPICS : UN chief tries to bridge gaps with US

Michael J Jordan:

After two years of relations frayed by profound differences over Iraq, the UN and the US are scooping out common ground, and finding it, in tsunami relief, elections in Iraq, and a session Monday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Aus-chwitz concentration camp in Poland.

In her confirmation hearings last week for US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice twice declared “The time for diplomacy is now” — a hint that Washington sees benefits in getting a UN imprimatur on its next moves in Iraq and the war on terror. But mending fences may be even more important to the international body’s embattled leader, Secretary General Kofi Annan. With two years left in his term, Annan is cleaning house and working to improve ties with the UN’s host country, largest contributor, and most influential member.

When an Iraqi-American, Samir Vincent, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to charges that he lobbied to lift sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, it was a harsh reminder of myriad investigations into the UN’s $64 billion Iraqi oil-for-food program. Annan wants to put behind him that and other scandals of the past year, which ended with calls in Washington for his resignation. When Annan took the helm in 1997 as the first secretary-general to rise through the ranks, the UN was tainted by Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing and the Rwandan genocides. Topping Annan’s agenda were internal reforms as well as the Millennium Development Goals, which aim to halve global poverty by 2015. His early efforts won widespread praise.

But the Security Council’s refusal to endorse the Iraq invasion led to tensions between the US and Annan. He especially angered Bush administration when, during last year’s presidential campaign, he called the US occupation of Iraq “illegal.” And over the past year, conservative US pundits have laid into Annan for a series of scandals on his watch: up to $21 billion that Hussein skimmed through illegal oil sales, bribes, and kickbacks; the $2,500 a month that a company involved with oil-for-food paid to Annan’s son, Kojo, for five years; a no-confidence vote that UN staff passed against upper management for its handling of alleged sexual harassment and favouritism; and charges made against dozens of UN peacekeepers in Congo for sexually exploiting refugees under their protection. The common thread, say critics, is poor management from the top.

But concerns about US disengagement from the UN are overblown, analysts say, citing US participation in UN peace-making efforts in Liberia, Burundi, Congo, and now Sudan. Stung by charges of ineffectiveness over Iraq, Darfur, and other conflicts, the UN has thrown the majority of its resources into tsunami relief. Annan is also refreshing his management team and has vowed greater transparency and accountability.

The US had also pressed for Monday’s rare special session of the General Assembly to commemorate the Aus-chwitz liberation. Annan also pushed for it. Meanwhile, the UN has helped prepare for Iraq’s election and supports holding it despite ongoing violence. As for oil-for-food, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who heads the UN investigation and has promised a “truly definitive report”, is expected to release his findings soon. — The Christian Science Monitor