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Now is the time for all good men ...

Posted by Helen Saturday, May 21, 2005

Browsing through the English-language version of Corriere della Sera (as one does) I came across a couple of articles by one of their star commentators, Gianni Riotta.

One was a prolonged hand-wringing exercise of the possibility of the lustre of the European project being tarnished by the French voting no, ending with what he clearly thinks is a firm warning:

“If, by a hair’s breadth, the constitution manages to elude the blade of the referendum guillotine, we must thank the French. But the very next day, we should be working to refine our interpretation of the constitution, and to launch a Europe where “social” is not synonymous with the conservatism of a stale, decadent, Ancien Régime.”
Of course, as one looks at the shenanigans of Commission President Barroso, the ever more idiotic comments of the fragrant Margot and the staggering stupidity and arrogance of some of the yes campaigners in the Netherlands, the term “Ancien Régime” is precisely the one that comes to mind. I am afraid, it is too late, Signor Riotta.

The other article was somewhat more surprising. Its title was The Scandal-stained UN and it began with words similar to those written in the Wall Street Journal Europe many months ago:
“Let’s suppose for a minute that the chairman of a multinational was under investigation for preferential contracts granted to his own son, while the board was passing kickbacks to bloodthirsty dictators, and executives were resigning in droves under suspicion of bribery. Let’s also suppose that the company’s employees had been accused of raping starving African children in exchange for cookies.

Finally, let’s imagine that two members of the commission of inquiry had announced that their findings were being covered up. How would public opinion react? With scorn, with impassioned youngsters demonstrating outside the company’s offices, with self-important editorials in the papers, and with demands for swift, sure, guilty verdicts.

This cheerless imaginary scenario is actually, tragically, unfolding at the United Nations, the most important, most prestigious multilateral organization on the planet. The secretary general, Kofi Annan, is entangled in the 50 billion-euro Oil for Food scandal involving under-the-counter payments to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and his son Kojo is accused of covering up embarrassing commissions from Cotecna, one of the companies involved.

Following charges of illegal conduct against Undersecretary-general Benon Sevan, it is now the turn of Maurice Strong, the U.N.’s special envoy to Korea, to suspend himself for being too friendly with a businessman who doubled as an Iraqi bagman.

Two members of the investigation committee, Robert Parton and Miranda Duncan, have resigned in protest at pressure to go easy on Kofi and Kojo Annan in their final report. Sadly, we all know about the Blue Helmets’ sexual transgressions in Africa from the revelations of the young girls who were raped,which we would prefer never to have heard about.”
Dear me, I thought.Nobody loves the UN any more, not even Italian journalists. In fact, the rest of the article proceeds more in sorrow than in anger, Signor Riotta’s greatest fear being that the UN’s refusal to clean up its act will confirm “the neocons’ worst unilateralist prejudices”.

It might, of course, confirm some other people’s prejudices, as well. Furthermore, a refusal, even now to condemn all those practices unequivocally does little to dispel those prejudices.

Still, unlike many of the British apologists for the UN (the BBC springs to mind) Gianni Riotta seems to be more on the John Bolton side of the argument about where the UN should be going next. (Not that he would see it that way.)
“In recent years, the U.N. has been touted by ad hoc apologists as a moral conscience capable of opposing war, imperialism, and even pollution in the name of peace and harmony. If we concede that this is its role, and not the pragmatic, robust mediation of interests promoted in the name of human rights and development, it is evident that the United Nations is losing its charisma,and is incapable of instilling fear in bullies and bandits.”
As it happens the UN has never had much charisma, except for those who did well out of it; nor did it ever instill fear in bullies and bandits, some of the worst, such as the Soviet Union and China, being much cherished permanent members of the Security Council.

But it is Signor Riotta’s final conclusion that is priceless in its brilliant and unconscious (I think) humour:
“For anyone who truly loves the U.N., and wants to serve it with passion, the time for hard, disinterested decisions has arrived. Before September, when the debate on reform will begin, the Glass Palace will have to be cleansed of its oil stains, and regain its former transparency.”
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.