Friday, May 18, 2007

Zimbabwe's good example

Hot seats
May 17th 2007
From The Economist print edition

Making bad countries run good causes is actually a promising notion

ZIMBABWE is an odd choice to head the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. No one can doubt the sustainability of Robert Mugabe's regime: it has, regrettably, defied countless predictions of collapse. As for development, the country is certainly a striking case study—but of decline, not growth. Few countries offer more vivid advertisement for the connection between sound government and long-term prosperity. The commission's aim is a better life for the many. Zimbabwe is run to provide a high life for the few, involving looted farms and high-spending shopping trips to Dubai and Johannesburg, with increasing misery for everyone else.

But look on the bright side. Few things are more dull than a worthy cause run by a do-gooding country. It is a fair bet that if, say, Sweden or Canada were chairing the commission, nobody outside the aid industry would hear a squeak about its doings over the next year. Zimbabwe's stewardship, by contrast, will attract much scrutiny. Journalists, donors and other critics will be searching for examples of misspent money or—even better—further examples of hypocrisy.

The power of such a spotlight has already been demonstrated: Libya's chairmanship of the UN Human Rights Commission in 2003 helped force that body's transformation into something that—perhaps—requires slightly higher standards. Since then Libya has started to shrug off bits of its roguish reputation, voluntarily ending its nuclear programme.

Chivvying the world's nastiest countries by putting them in charge of good causes is a promising principle. Unimaginative diplomats from west European countries and America are worrying whether Kazakhstan is a suitable country to become chairman of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2009. Might that honour help nudge reform along? Far better, of course, to put the still more ghastly government of Turkmenistan in the chair. That closed, dictatorial country would find it hard to maintain its isolation through the hectic schedule of chairing a 56-member organisation.

Similarly, putting some notorious narco-state in charge would electrify the UN's sleepily-run drug programme. Saudi Arabia could take over the UN's commission on the status of women. The inter-governmental panel on climate change could be overseen by smoke-belching China. Belarus, which ruthlessly sells weapons of all kinds to anyone with cash, could be asked to take over the UN disarmament department.

You've taken Manhattan; now head for Harare

Moving headquarters might help too: North Korea could inadvertently make an excellent champion of nuclear non-proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency's staff might find the austere delights of Pyongyang a bit of a contrast to the cosy comforts of Vienna, but the arrival of dozens of nuclear snoopers would certainly make it harder for the regime there to cover its tracks. Shifting UNESCO headquarters to Riyadh from Paris would highlight the dire state of publishing, science and education in the Arab world. Based in Beijing, the International Labour Organisation would find many more chains to loosen than it does in the workers' paradise of Switzerland. Western countries' weaknesses might benefit from exposure too: the Universal Postal Union could move to Italy.

Of the places in direst need of a spotlight, however, Zimbabwe may be grim, but Sudan is even grimmer, especially its Darfur region, where government-backed militias are still killing people. Sudan has not signed up to it, otherwise the International Criminal Court could be packing its briefcases for Khartoum. Sadly, when it comes to regimes that serially abuse their people, there is plenty of competition.

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