Under fire, the UN looks to retool

The General Assembly begins debate this week on Kofi Annan's 62-page report aimed at changing the body.

The UN General Assembly begins debate this week on a reform package that its author, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says aims to restore UN credibility and relevance, and underscore the link among human rights, development, and security.

Mr. Annan's 62-page reform report, called "In Larger Freedom," contains scores of recommendations for the post-9/11 world, though four proposals dominate. Three of them have endured years of contentious, inconclusive debate - expanding the UN Security Council, defining terrorism, and increasing foreign aid. The fourth is the lone fresh proposal - scrapping the UN Commission on Human Rights for a new Human Rights Council.

Despite Annan's fall deadline, any change to the 60-year-old body faces an uphill battle. National self-interest and age-old arguments may again derail reform. And critics say changes to the UN need to go beyond process and procedure.

"I think a lot of this talk about UN reform conceals the absolutely basic problem of how can the UN make serious decisions about really serious crises," says Brian Urquhart, a former UN under secretary-general for special political affairs, referring to failures in places like Bosnia and Rwanda a decade ago, Darfur and Congo today. "It's a political hot bun, and nobody will touch it. They know perfectly well that if they bring it up, it will create far more darkness than light."

There are perhaps no greater UN critics than at the White House. President Bush has nominated John Bolton - who once said, "If the UN secretary building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference" - to be its UN ambassador. But in any reform proposal, the role of the US - the UN's largest donor, its most influential member, and the world's lone superpower - will be key, experts say.

"Nothing in the international system changes unless Washington is happy with it," says James Paul, executive director of the UN watchdog Global Policy Forum. "In a wide-ranging report like this, everyone looks over their shoulder to see what the reaction in Washington is."

Each of the four main proposals has backers and critics, and finding common ground will be the challenge for the General Assembly this fall:

Expand the Security Council. The 15-member council is empowered to sanction war, dispatch peacekeepers, and impose sanctions. But it is accused of reflecting the geopolitics of 1945. The permanent five members (P-5) - the US, Britain, France, Russia, and China - each wield a veto over any Council action. There are 10 rotating, two-year seats that do not have veto power.

Most countries, especially those in the southern hemisphere, want council expansion. Annan has proposed two options, both adding up to 24 members. One would add six new permanent seats, while the other would expand and lengthen the rotating seats.

The leading frontrunners for permanent seats are Japan (the UN's second-largest donor), Germany, India, and Brazil. However, China, and to a lesser extent South Korea, opposes Japan's candidacy due to historical tensions. Some 22 million Chinese have reportedly signed an anti-Japan petition, raising the specter of veto by Beijing. Germany, meanwhile, is opposed by Italy, which would be alone among European powers without a seat. India, the world's second-largest country, is opposed by its neighbor and rival, Pakistan. And Argentina and Mexico contend that Portuguese-speaking Brazil should not represent Spanish-speaking Latin America.

Africa and the Islamic world also demand permanency. Egypt, South Africa, and Nigeria vie for an African seat, but Arab officials urge the creation a permanent but rotating seat reserved for the Arab world.

Define terrorism. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter," goes the age-old refrain. Much of the rhetoric has been deployed in support of the Palestinians, the Kashmiris, and others, in the name of "liberation movements" or resistance to foreign occupation. But there is less tolerance of certain tactics since 9/11, especially suicide attacks against civilians.

Annan has been at the forefront, stating in this report: "Any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians...."

Little movement on the issue is expected unless a definition is broadened. Algeria's UN ambassador, whose country is currently the lone Arab member of the Security Council, has suggested clarification so "that terrorism and the right to resist foreign occupation should not be confused."

Raise foreign assistance to 0.7 percent of GDP. First proposed at the UN in 1972 and reiterated at numerous summits since then, the target has yet to be fully implemented. The benchmark is one prong of a poverty-reduction effort known as the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. Only a handful of countries have hit the benchmark.

This is one issue that Washington - seen as generally supportive of other proposed reforms - will probably resist. The US dedicates as much as 0.18 percent of GDP to foreign aid. But defenders say the figure neglects other forms of US assistance, like military aid or funding for international organizations.

"What amount the US contributes ought to be up to the US taxpayer and their representatives, rather than an unelected bureaucrat in the United Nations," says Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Shelve the UNCHR. The 53-member human rights commission has fallen into disrepute in recent years. Human rights violators like Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, and Zimbabwe are current members of the commission; Libya chaired it two years ago.

Annan has proposed starting over with a smaller Human Rights Council. But critics note the refusal to set criteria for membership. Groups like Human Rights Watch say they'll push members to offer open invitations to UN human rights investigators.

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