U.N. ME – Confronting the United Nations head on

Last Updated: March 18, 2013By Tags: , , ,

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In U.N. Me, a new film currently playing in theatres, director Ami Horowitz (pictured) asks: is the United Nations living up to its founding ideals?

The answer, rightly so, is “no.”

Ever since it replaced the League of Nations in 1945 the United Nations, founded to stop wars and establish a dialogue between countries, has grown too big, too expensive, too wasteful a place where a lack of accountability and transparency has created a climate of endemic misconduct and causes possible human rights violations. This new film contributes greatly to our understanding of a world institution that’s often at the fore but is also misunderstood. What makes it gripping filmmaking is Horowitz’s intrepid, up-front methodology leading cameras from the halls of the U.N. headquarters in New York to its overseas missions in search for the raw story. He reminds one of a quick-footed Michael Moore serving up vigilante justice.

Horowitz is a sly accomplice, isolating U.N. officials from the people around them. In one interview after another he confronts various United Nations staffers about their often questionable track record. One such encounter takes place in Abidjan, Côte D’Ivoire. Horowitz sought to interview the then-head of the U.N. Mission Abou Moussa but his requests were dodged repeatedly. When he finally gets nabbed for a sit-down, the U.N. official barely looks Horowitz in the face. The Howitzer asks, dead-on, “I was told that there was U.N. peacekeepers who had killed Ivorians” Moussa looks away uncomfortably.

UN Black

This particular incident, which took place in November 2004, remains shrouded in mystery. French troops, in what was dubbed “Opération Licorne,“ had been called to Abidjan to support the U.N.s’ peacekeeping mission as the country started its slide into a civil war. The French shot at the protesters, not U.N. peacekeepers, so it’s not established what Moussa’s involvement in the killing was. At the same time, when prompted by Horowitz to give his thoughts on the matter Moussa claims ignorance. And yet, here was a guy who was in charge of the U.N. High Commission managing the French troops.

Later, Horowitz questions why Mamoud Ahmadinejad was chosen as keynote speaker for the U.N.’s 2009 conference on racism. When he confronts conference director and U.N. High Commissioner Navi Pillay about it she replies, “I don’t think this is for me to answer.” She goes on to say, “I’m not the secretary-general of the U.N., mercifully nowadays.” This scene, cut at the beginning of U.N. Me, sets up the leitmotiv effectively: U.N. officials are unconvincing people doing unconvincing work. Almost everyone Horowitz talks to appears to either have skeletons in their closet or to be covering up for the head office. And people have died as a result of this. One almost wishes Donald Trump would appear and throw his peremptory one-liner at them: “you’re fired!”

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How could things have gone so wrong? From top to bottom, turf wars and sweetheart deals have ruled the day at the U.N. And if you had any doubts about Kofi Annan and Boutros-Boutros Ghali’s involvement in various corruption rings, U.N. Me should help dispel them. Annan has blood on his hands, also, that of Sergio Vieira de Mello, whom he had sent to Iraq on a mission. Vieira de Mello himself did not need to be there; he got killed in a terrorist attack. As it happens, Vieira de Mello had been slated to replace Annan at the head of the U.N. (there’s a New Yorker article about it, look it up).

Horowitz, who apparently never sleeps, eats or drinks, also put the good guys on camera. Jody Williams, a Nobel Prize winner who headed the U.N. mission to Darfur, appears on camera. We’re also shown footage of the briefing conference Williams led inside the U.N.’s main auditorium to present the troublesome results of her on-the-ground investigation (major human rights violations, etc). Every official from countries with an appalling human rights record–Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc–takes turn decrying the report afterward–no surprises there, it’s almost comical. At one point, she admonishes the Iranian official who had raised doubt over her credibility and deadpans, “my last point is on credibility and it’s not about ours, it’s about yours.”

And yet, you can read the years of frustration on Williams’s face. Clearly, level-headed people like her are the minority.

The United Nations has strayed far from the confines of its charter, which mandates that it preserve peace and take measures for the removal of any threat to it. As the Carnegie Endowment’s David Bosco told Horowitz, “they have an institutional difficulty with determining that one side is the aggressor and one side isn’t, and that is a serious problem for the United Nations.”

Taxpayers finance the U.N. to the tune of $8B a year. This is a must-see film for anyone who’s ever held a job in the U.S. (you ought to see your tax dollars at work). And Horowitz’s razor-sharp documenting of his subject makes U.N. Me as entertaining as it is illuminating.

Visit the film’s site to watch the trailer and get more information about U.N. Me.