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U.N. Reform

Author: Esther Pan
September 13, 2004

Is reform on the agenda when the U.N. General Assembly opens?

Talk of reform at the United Nations--particularly of the Security Council--is not new. But this year, as the U.N. General Assembly begins its annual session on September 14, a panel of distinguished experts is preparing a report that could recommend radical changes in the way the United Nations operates. The panel, which will report to Secretary-General Kofi Annan by December 1, is examining how the United Nations can best respond to global security threats. It may recommend major changes, such as expanding the Security Council or creating closer links between it and other U.N. bodies. However, the General Assembly will not consider the panel's proposals until September 2005, and experts warn that past U.N. reform efforts have met resistance from member-states and the large, entrenched U.N. bureaucracy.

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Why did Annan create the panel?

Annan appointed the 16-member High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change in November 2003, after a devastating year for the United Nations. The bitter policy debates that divided world opinion before the war in Iraq; the August 2003 bombing of U.N. headquarters in Baghdad that killed 23--15 of them U.N. staffers, including Special Envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello; and the lack of a clear U.N. role in Iraq damaged confidence within the organization and raised questions about what the United Nations' mission should be. Annan has assigned the panel the task of redefining the United Nations to face new threats, a job he says is as important as the body's founding in 1945. "He wants to be bold, and he wants them to be bold," says William H. Luers, president and CEO of the United Nations Association of the United States of America, a nonprofit organization that encourages support for the work of the United Nations.

What did Annan ask the panel to do?

Primarily three things, says Thant Myintu, a political officer in the U.N. policy planning unit:

  • Define and analyze contemporary threats to world peace and security. "Now, more than at any other recent time, there's a greater division [between countries] in their perception of threats," Myintu says. In the 1990s, the United Nations shifted its focus from the Cold War to the threats of failed states and civil wars. Now, in an age of terrorism, another such shift is needed, experts say.
  • Examine the ability of the United Nations, across its entire system of non-governmental organizations and related bodies, to respond to those threats. For example, effective reforms to halt the nuclear weapons trade will involve not only the Security Council but also the International Atomic Energy Association, while bans on chemical weapons will involve the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, established in 1997 to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • Recommend changes to maximize the United Nations' effectiveness in responding to those threats.
What are the major issues being discussed?

The panel is studying six so-called baskets of issues combining hard (military) and soft (social and economic) threats. These are broadly defined as:

  • classic inter-state conflict, i.e., war between countries;
  • internal violence, including genocide;
  • poverty and disease;
  • weapons of mass destruction (WMD);
  • terrorism; and
  • organized crime and corruption.
What challenges do the reformers face?

Experts say the panel faces a potential conflict between first and third world countries, which see security threats very differently. Industrialized nations consider terrorism and WMD the biggest threats to their security, experts say, while developing countries view AIDS, poverty, disease, and hunger as their most pressing risks. The panel must address both those viewpoints, experts say, although "in actual practice, the U.N. is likely to be more responsive to the threats seen by the first world countries," says James A. Paul, executive director of Global Policy Forum, a nonprofit organization that monitors policy-making at the United Nations.

The panel will also wrestle with several other hotly contested issues, including what position the United Nations should take on the doctrine of pre-emption. A country's right to attack an enemy in order to prevent a likely attack on itself--which the United States used to justify invading Iraq--has been highly controversial at the United Nations, experts say. "Pre-emption is still an issue that divides most of the countries in the world," says Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning at the United Nations. Officials realize that, in a world in which terrorists can buy WMD, countries can't always afford to get U.N. permission before an attack, experts say. But the unrestricted use of force is not acceptable, either.

Will the panel recommend expanding the Security Council?

Experts say there is growing international pressure to expand the Security Council, which currently has 15 members. Five of those--the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia--are permanent members with a veto; the other 10 are elected by the General Assembly to two-year terms and do not have a veto. The 10 seats are allocated as follows:

  • two seats for Western Europe and the Commonwealth countries, including Canada and Australia;
  • three seats for Africa;
  • two seats for Asia;
  • one seat for the Middle East that takes one spot from Africa or Asia in alternate years;
  • one seat for Eastern Europe; and
  • two seats for Latin America/Caribbean.

Many developing countries argue that the Security Council needs broader geographical and economic representation. The panel is reportedly considering increasing Security Council membership from 15 to 24 members in three levels:

  • The first level would consist of the current five permanent members, who would keep their vetoes.
  • The second level would include seven or eight semi-permanent regional members, who would be elected for renewable terms of four or five years and would not have a veto. Some of the candidates for this group, including Japan, Germany, and India, have campaigned for permanent seats with vetoes. Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, and Nigeria are also mentioned as potential second level members.
  • The third level would replicate the current system, with 11 or 12 regional members elected for non-renewable two-year terms.

Other suggested reforms include making all Security Council seats elected or creating seats for regional bodies like the European Union or the Arab League; most experts say they are unlikely to be enacted.

What do the existing permanent members say about expanding the Security Council?

Experts say that while the five permanent members make public statements supporting expansion, they talk very differently in private. There's no chance any of the five will give up their vetoes, experts say, or share that power with other countries. "There's a huge gap between rhetoric and reality," Paul says. He says most experienced U.N. diplomats privately oppose expanding the council, arguing that a group larger than 15 members would be too cumbersome to get anything done.

What happens next?

The panel must submit final recommendations to Annan by December 1. Annan will then add modifications and circulate the report to member states for discussion in their countries and at U.N. forums. He will formally present the panel's findings to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2005. To be adopted, the reforms must be approved by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly. Experts say Annan has invested a sizable amount of his personal prestige in the reform project. "This is important to him," Orr says. "He wants to leave the organization [at the end of his term in 2006] in good shape to meet the new challenges of the 21st century."

What are the chances that reform will be enacted?

Some experts are hopeful. "This is an issue that's been batted around for a long time, but this time there's a lot of momentum," Orr says. "It could happen." Luers says the world body has been deeply affected by the terror attacks of the last few years and the bruising battles leading up to the war in Iraq. "I think Iraq was a shattering experience for many people," Luers says. "It made them realize that the world has changed." Paul says that the way events have turned out in Iraq--after initial U.S. resistance to a U.N. role, Washington sought the institution's help to organize upcoming elections--has given the organization greater legitimacy than it had before and shown that no other body can take over its role. "For all its faults, the world is better with the U.N.," he says.

What happened to previous reform efforts?

Experts joke that talk of reform at the United Nations pops up on a "seven-year cycle." Incoming secretaries-general tend to propose reforms; for example, when Boutros Boutros-Ghali began his term in 1992, he consolidated all the U.N. bodies dealing with social and economic issues into one department and eliminated a controversial research center, Paul says. Annan has also made changes to the structure of the secretariat--the U.N. body that carries out the organization's day-to-day work--including creating a post of deputy secretary-general. Secretaries-general are fairly "free to change the secretariat, but more major reforms, like those that change the budget, need member-state approval," Paul says.

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