"The U.N. won't participate in Mickey Mouse elections," sniffed Carina Perelli during a recent news conference at the United Nations. Take that, Iraq and Afghanistan. Shape up or ship out.
For all the good work it does, the only political world body we have threatens to become more hindrance than help as Iraqis and Afghans try to hold elections soon and establish some political stability. At a moment when they need the support and confidence of others, besieged indigenous politicians are being told their efforts do not measure up to the hothouse standards of international civil servants.
The U.N.'s commitment to good deeds is not being matched by a clear commitment to rapid democratic change in two countries liberated by the U.S. military from brutal, dictatorial regimes. Particularly in Iraq, the United Nations seems to be lending itself to efforts to disadvantage the Shiite majority, which has the most to gain from democratic elections. The United Nations must not allow itself to be used in such fashion.
Perelli, director of the U.N.'s electoral assistance division, announced last month that she would recommend postponing the crucial Iraqi national elections scheduled for January "if the security situation does not improve." Ignoring the near-certainty that further delay would only inflame "the security situation," she then invoked Walt Disney's emblematic rodent to prejudge what will happen if Iraqis do not follow her advice.
No statement could cause more angst for Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite religious and political leader, and his followers -- except perhaps the one that Perelli uttered a few weeks later, when she decreed a controversial electoral system for Iraq based on proportional representation.
Perelli is either oblivious to, or party to, the furious effort by the Sunni governments of the Arab world, led by Jordan's King Abdullah, to prevent a Shiite majority from gaining control of Iraq through elections. She follows in the footsteps of U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and U.S. proconsul L. Paul Bremer III in using concern about "minority rights" (for Sunnis) to allow the system to be rigged against the Shiites.
That at least is the impression that Sistani's advisers are forming of Perelli's efforts, one of his aides indicated to me last week. The Kurdish minority is also disadvantaged by the party-list electoral system she proposes, but Iraqi non-Arabs are even less of a concern for the U.N.'s ruling caste.
The United Nations has taken on an outsized role in Iraq given the minimal resources that its staff, traumatized by last year's bombing of its headquarters, is prepared to invest in that country today. Perelli has decided that the United Nations will not attempt to observe -- much less supervise or run -- elections in Iraq, whenever they occur.
Perelli and a staff of perhaps 25 experts will work in the U.S.-protected Green Zone in Baghdad and train Iraqis to conduct registration and balloting. Like Brahimi, who rarely ventured out of the heavily fortified U.S. occupation headquarters, the members of the election team will have virtually no contact with ordinary Iraqis or a chance to determine for themselves what "the security situation" will or will not permit.
The Green Zone has become a character in its own right in the Iraqi drama, and a nefarious one. The symbolism of American administrators moving into and converting Saddam Hussein's palaces into bunkers from which they and U.N. specialists urge Iraqis to take the lethal risks of democracy -- and then criticize the unprotected Iraqis for not getting it right -- has become noxious to many in Iraq. And so it should.
The costs in delaying elections in such circumstances can be high, Afghan President Hamid Karzai warned Americans privately on his visit to Washington last week. Karzai believes that an election campaign and the act of voting would accelerate political stabilization in his country, despite the predictable imperfections and security problems of Election Day. Delay causes people to lose faith and gives corrupt and undemo- cratic forces more time to entrench themselves.
Afghan elections are due in early October. A change in U.N.-mandated rules to allow same-day registration and voting would resolve many of the problems now being cited to argue for a six-month delay. NATO's European members could help by providing the military support they have already promised to Afghanistan.
Elections educate citizens and give them a personal stake in the future of governments. They bring the promise of change, the driving force in improving the human condition.
This is written not to bash the United Nations but to underscore some obvious points: Elections do not have to be perfect, or even peaceful, to bring positive change. The perfect can be made the enemy of the good. When in doubt, trust the people.