Time to Think Again about the U.N.?
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
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
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
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?