Why UN reform effort could fizzle

An overhaul was unveiled this month, but Annan's term is almost up - and suspicions dog the reform effort.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

This was to be a year of reform of the United Nations. But what some global leaders have called "the opportunity of a generation" - to better match the preeminent global institution with the challenges of the 21st century - risks crumbling into little more than a dashed hope.

Despite President Bush's challenge to the UN to be "relevant," and even after the weaknesses exposed by the oil-for-food scandal, old tugs of war are slowing momentum at a crucial moment in the UN's calendar.

Already, some countries see reform's principal promoter, Secretary-General Kofi Annan, as a lame duck: A new secretary-general will be elected later this year. A bigger impediment still is that even more countries harbor old suspicions about those pressing for reform - in particular the United States. These countries also feel scalded by so-far unsuccessful attempts to reform the powerful Security Council.

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"The reforms on the table really get to the meat of the matter, which is changing an institution envisioned for the post-World War II period to work in a very changed world," says Edward Luck, a UN expert at Columbia University in New York. "The challenge now is that after so much attention to expanding the Security Council, this package sounds like leftovers - when it's really the meat and potatoes of reform."

Hopes for the reforms were buoyed by last week's approval of a new human rights council. It replaces the discredited human rights commission - a change world leaders had demanded last fall. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson says that getting the human rights issue done opens the way to focusing on the big management questions.

But even the human rights reform, which is less bold than some powers including the US had advocated, suggests the difficult road ahead on other issues - especially those that the power-jealous General Assembly of 191 countries considers power grabs by dominant members.

South Africa, for example, is already warning of efforts to bypass the Assembly with reforms that would concentrate more power in the secretariat and Security Council, where developed countries dominate. South Africa leads the "Group of 77" developing countries that holds particular sway in the General Assembly.

Proposals focus on management

When Mr. Annan unveiled his overhaul package to the General Assembly earlier this month, he outlined 23 initiatives in six areas that he said focus on urgent management reforms.

Under leadership reform, for example, Annan calls for the job of deputy secretary-general to be expanded and elevated to become something like the general manager of the secretariat. Since the oil-for-food scandal, which cast a black cloud over his management skills, Annan has often noted that the "SG" is expected to be both the world's top diplomat and manager of its largest international institution, an almost superhuman task.

Other proposed reforms include:

• Improving and tightening UN procurement of goods and services.

• Making staff mobility a prerequisite for employment and a condition of promotion.

• Relocating and outsourcing some costly services, such as translation.

• Streamlining the budgetary process and expanding the secretary-general's authority to redeploy posts and funds.

What Annan's recommendations do not include is creation of the post of chief financial officer. That was a key recommendation of the independent inquiry committee, headed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, that investigated where the oil-for-food program set up for Iraq went wrong. Annan says the need for such a post is "obviated" by other financial oversight reforms he proposes.

Still, Annan's package received at least initial encouraging words from the US. And that is good, reform proponents say, because a UN transformation needs strong support from the world's only superpower.

"This set of reforms identifies the big difference between the UN today and [upon its founding] in 1945, because now it's at least as much a doer as it is a convener" of forums and conferences, says Lee Feinstein, an expert on the UN at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

Annan notes that the UN has evolved from an organization mainly holding conferences in New York to one focusing on development and health. Moreover, its $10 billion budget goes overwhelmingly to support more than 80,000 peacekeepers currently deployed around the globe. "This reform could strengthen some of these 'doing' activities," Mr. Feinstein adds, "but the truth is that a lot depends on the US and how much it puts into getting this done."

Ambivalence toward the US

Yet many countries are ambivalent about the American role in the institution, especially after the US was perceived to bully its way into a war with Iraq that the UN did not want.

"The context for this debate is the huge asymmetry in power in the world between the US and the rest, and it has the potential to bring everything to a standstill," says Mr. Luck of Columbia. "It's a situation that leaves the US between a rock and a hard place," he adds, "because the world wants the US involved but also accuses it of trying to dominate the UN if it is too supportive or changes are too radical."

Suspicions of the US are not limited to developing countries. Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, says a lack of US engagement in the reform process leads to speculation that some US officials "want to produce a UN failure to demonstrate that the UN can't reform - and thus should be abandoned."

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