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SARS has revealed again
the UN's lack of integrity




Jonathan Power

May 21, 2003

LONDON - Why does the United Nations so often shoot itself in the foot? Just as the World Health Organization is basking in accolades at its annual assembly this week and next for its part in the battle to overcome the spread of SARS another story has begun to emerge - of  political ineptitude and moral cowardice that should bring shame not honour on its departing director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

It is the way the UN agency has dealt with Taiwan, now the country outside China with the fastest growing number of cases, despite it having a national health service, according to a year 2000 report of the Economist Intelligence Unit, only second in the world to Sweden's. This suggests that if Taiwan doesn't get on top of the disease no one will, for all the self-serving reports put out by the WHO this past weekend that it appeared that the battle against SARS was being won. Again Taiwan is somehow not being counted into the equation- just as Dr Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway, refused to answer urgent letters from Taiwan's ministry of health and medical experts when Taiwan first realized the disease was spreading into Taiwan from China. Not only did WHO refuse to accept or republish Taiwan's data for a number of days, it refused to provide any assistance, such as providing Taiwan's scientists with the sample viruses needed in their research toward treatment and vaccines. Neither did it rush its experts to Taiwan, as it has done elsewhere, indeed chiding China publicly for being slow to accept them.

When Dr Brundtland finally got onto the Taiwan case- presumably after waiting for a nod from China, which claims democratic Taiwan is part of China's dictatorship (even though Beijing has always said if there were a union it would give the island autonomy on matters like health), WHO published the data from Taiwan under a heading that suggested that Taiwan is a province of China, a matter that is by no means settled in international law.

It is strange that China can bend its own rules when it comes to Taiwan. It allows Taiwan to participate as a full member in two important economic bodies- the Asian Development Bank and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) - but it will not permit the same on humanitarian matters and refuses to even countenance that Taiwan should have observer status at the WHO. But then money talks. China knows that Taiwan for all its small population- only 27 million - is an industrial and technological giant with $243 billion of foreign trade each year and its investments in China largely make possible China's own technological revolution.

The UN bureaucracy has a bad habit of anticipating Beijing's commands. Eight years ago I was commissioned by a London publisher to edit a book that would commemorate the UN's 50th birthday. Although meant to be an official history it was also to be an independent work. Imagine my chagrin when I was told by the Secretary-General's office to remove all mention of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. I was also told to remove a reference that the election of Hiroshi Hakajama of Japan as the then head of the WHO had prompted official complaints of fraud, and a couple of sentences which said that Iraq and North Korea were accused of violating the treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons by trying to make such weapons themselves.

In the end, meeting total resistance form the secretary-general's office to my plea for editorial integrity, I had no choice but to go to the New York Times and the Washington Post, two of my old employers, who splashed the censorship story at great length and embarrassed the UN leadership on the day of its birthday party.

Of course, it was washed away fairly quickly as most stories about the UN bureaucracy's lack of standards and professionalism often are. Perhaps the worst example is the performance of the UN peacekeeping secretariat during the genocide in Rwanda in which at least 800,000 people were slaughtered eight years ago. Although the U.S. administration of Bill Clinton must take much of the blame for insisting on only a minimal role for UN peacekeepers, it has emerged that the secretariat, then under the leadership of Kofi Annan, the present secretary-general, had done a bad job in keeping the Security Council informed. According to an official post mortem inquiry conducted under the chairmanship of Ingvar Carlsson, the former Swedish prime minister, the peacekeeping department "did not brief the secretary-general" about a key cable warning of what was likely to happen from the UN's force commander in Rwanda. Moreover, "The inquiry believes that the secretary-general could have done more to argue the case for reinforcement in the Security Council. Several members of the Security Council have complained that the quality of information from the secretariat was not good enough‚ "The analysis of developments after the genocide began show an institutional weakness in the analytical capacity of the UN." And so on. 

If the UN were truly an organization that valued integrity Mr Annan at that point should have stepped down. So should Dr Brundtland today, not waiting for her term of office to expire in six weeks' time. And at the very least the WHO this coming week should vote again on Taiwan's request to be given observer status. It would be two very visible steps towards righting a grievous wrong.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2003 By JONATHAN POWER


Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the

40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"





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