Building credibility at the UN depends on its ability to reform

If 2005 was the year in which even some of its sturdiest supporters feared that the United Nations was tottering on the brink of irrelevance, 2006 may be the year when it limps into greater credibility and utility.

Last year the UN was still laboring under the contempt of the Bush administration for the Security Council's lack of backbone in dealing with Saddam Hussein. The UN had been charged with waste and ineffective management. Its oil-for-food program had been investigated and found sadly lacking, with corruption at high levels. The UN was the butt of the late-night talk-show hosts.

But this year marks a trend in the Bush administration away from unilateralism, and in a quest for partners, with the UN seen as offering a new and constructive contribution to the implementation of US foreign policy. It is also a year in which the leadership at the UN has been trying to reinvent itself, shrugging off the painful past and striving for reform, change, and a new image.

The UN is a ponderous organization that cannot swiftly be set on a new course. But Secretary-General Kofi Annan is urging reforms, which, if approved, could most likely not become fully effective until after he has left his post at the end of the year.

Last week the UN announced the launch of a new $500 million disaster fund that could speed aid to the victims of major disasters such as the tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004 and the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that left millions of people dead or injured and homeless. The fund has already received pledges for about half the intended total from the US, Britain, Canada, and other nations, and will seek contributions from corporations and individuals. It will speed aid through UN agencies to bring food, medical, and other emergency needs to disaster victims. One of the most significant contributions of the UN over the years has been its humanitarian efforts around the world. These would be bolstered by the new UN fund.

Also last week, Mr. Annan proposed sweeping changes in the UN bureaucracy that would enhance the quality of its staff, simplify its procedures, and even outsource some of the services presently undertaken at UN headquarters in New York and its satellite operation in Geneva. Another goal would be to upgrade the corps of professionals supporting UN peacekeeping operations. The price for these improvements and modernization is some $510 million.

John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, who spearheads the Bush administration's campaign for UN reform, says the US wants to examine the proposals in detail, but they are in line with American requests and hopes.

However, dissent is likely to come to a head this week over another issue which bedevils the US-UN relationship. This is the future and composition of the UN's Commission on Human Rights. The membership of this commission has included such human-rights abusers as China, Cuba, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Libya, making a mockery of its purpose. Annan himself has proposed that the commission be abolished and replaced with something smaller that would be more effective. It should include, he feels, member-nations that would be committed to promoting and actively protecting human rights, one of the central missions of the UN. Instead of meeting in Geneva once a year for six weeks, as does the present commission, the new entity would meet three times a year and be more proactive in pursuing human rights violators. Member-nations would be screened, and if guilty of systematic human rights violations could be kicked off the new body.

But in the politicking that has gone on to bring this about, Annan's proposals have been watered down. The 53-nation commission would be replaced by a Human Rights Council, with a still unwieldy membership of 47 nations. Instead of being elected by a two-thirds majority as Annan recommended, members would be chosen by a simple majority of the 191-member General Assembly.

Five Nobel Peace Prize laureates, including former US President Jimmy Carter, signed a New York Times op-ed page piece lauding what was supposed to be the final draft of the proposal, but The Wall Street Journal in an editorial said the new council is "barely an improvement" over the existing commission. Some of the world's "worst dictators," said the Journal, could still become members. In the face of a US request for renegotiation, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, of Sweden, last week postponed a plenary session on the matter to this week. Everything hinges on the deliberations of those meetings.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary-general of the UN in 1995.

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