UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — CHANGING its charter to add more members to the Security Council was once expected to be the UN's biggest reform during its 50th anniversary this year.
Yet by this month, when the original founding document was taken out of the United States National Archives and put on display here, reform had become merely a distant possibility.
Most of the UN's 185 members agree that the 15-member Council, dominated by the five veto-wielding victors of World War II, needs a larger and more balanced membership.
Order on the Council
Yet UN members disagree on which and how many more Council members to add. For now, the Council is taking a more modest step. It is trying to involve more members in its work and do more of its business in public.
Some diplomats insist that Council reform will come.
''There are a lot of conflicting cross currents,'' says Sir David Hannay, Britain's ambassador to the UN, ''but one day the Security Council will be enlarged it will happen.''
Other analysts are less sure. ''Some very heavy-duty political deals are going to have to be made,'' a UN official says.
''It's a completely political decision, and the members are nowhere close to making it,'' he adds. ''I don't see any formula now that would be acceptable to all parties.''
''I wouldn't say it [enlargement] will never happen, but it's certainly not going to happen this year,'' agrees Jeff Laurenti of the United Nations Association-USA, a private research group.
Major mechanical hurdles lie ahead. Any change in the UN charter requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly, consent of the Council's five permanent members, and ratification by two-thirds of all UN members.
''It's very important that something be done [to expand the Council], but it's very difficult to do it,'' confirms Louis Sohn, a leading expert on UN law at George Washington University in Washington. In his view, the UN should find a way to broaden Council membership without actually changing the charter.
He suggests, for instance, that each of the current 10 nonpermanent seats rotate between the two most important nations in each region, and that the nation awaiting its turn at a two-year term be allowed to participate in discussions but not the votes.
Council members are addressing some of the frustrations of the broader membership by sharing Council information more widely and listening to more members' opinions.
Open meetings at which non-members of the Council may testify are becoming more common. The Council has begun for the first time to meet with troop contributors whenever peacekeeping mandates are up for renewal. The Council president, in a practice begun by Britain last fall, regularly briefs all interested UN members on Council actions and its agenda. This so-called transparency suddenly is the Council's new buzz word.
''The real issue in transparency is whether the people outside the Council can get reliable information on what's happening inside,'' says the UNA's Mr. Laurenti.
During the cold war, the Council held most of its fiery debates in public, but steady vetoes blocked most efforts to act. In recent years, the Council has sprung into action with new embargoes and peacekeeping ventures, but its consensus decisions usually are reached behind closed doors.
Public meetings pushed
France and Britain, Council members that some nations once hoped would step down in favor of a single permanent European Union seat, are leading the push to conduct more Council business in public. The two have received particularly enthusiastic support in that effort from New Zealand and Argentina.
Changing Council procedures is every bit as important as expanding the group's membership, says Colin Keating, New Zealand's ambassador to the UN.
''It doesn't matter if you increase the Council's size to 30 members if you don't change the culture of the Council and the way it operates,'' he explains. In his view, the Council's growing power and a widely perceived need for more effective checks and balances in the UN system explain in part a new tendency by some members to ''take their foot off the accelerator a bit'' on Council expansion.
Yet the search for the right membership formula continues. The UN charter mentions both geographic balance and contributions to global peace and security as criteria for Council membership.
The Clinton administration favors permanent seats for Japan and Germany, both major contributors to the UN budget, and agrees to three new nonpermanent seats for representatives from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Though Japan has taken no public stance, Germany wants veto privileges as long as any other members have them. Few expect any of the five permanent members to part with the veto voluntarily. However, the Commission on Global Governance, a group of senior world statesman chaired by Sweden's Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson, suggests in a new report that the five use the veto only in extreme cases and give it up altogether by the year 2005.
Brazil, India, and numerous others also want permanent seats. Developing nations are unlikely to approve the addition of two more industrial powers unless one or more of their own also gets new representation. Just this month the Organization of African Unity, for instance, said it would seek two permanent seats on the Council.
Who gets the seats?
The 10 nonpermanent members of the Council are chosen in regional caucuses and elected to two-year terms by the General Assembly. The largest nations with the most regional clout tend to be reelected most frequently. Some 123 states, two-thirds of the UN membership, have served on the Council only once or not at all.
Italy is promoting a plan widely endorsed by many of the UN's smaller members. No permanent members would be added, but the number of nonpermanent seats would be doubled. Ten would continue to rotate among the larger, more influential states in each region, while the other 10 would be reserved in effect for the many small and mid-sized nations who rarely get a turn.
''Countries are going to vote yes or no according to whether this is going to bring some benefit to them or not,'' insists Francesco Paclo Fulci, Italy's ambassador to the UN.
In the end, no nation wants to be shortchanged in the scramble to climb aboard a larger Security Council. A General Assembly working group on Council expansion meets frequently to analyze member views and is to recommend specific changes to the Assembly next fall. For now, members agree on very little.
Unless many more signs of compromise begin to surface, the Council may have to settle for democratizing its methods rather than its makeup.