A clock starts ticking this Thursday for major reform of the United Nations. That's when a panel of 16 prominent leaders, appointed last fall by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, will recommend how to overhaul an institution that's been particularly adrift since the US-led war in Iraq.
If the 191-member General Assembly takes the experts' report to heart, it will then move to change the UN Charter next fall to better reflect the needs of the 21st century rather than the post-1945 world of its origin.
The UN is only as effective as its member states want it to be, and Mr. Annan hopes this report will help goad them to arrest the slide of the body's effectiveness and address the need to face a new reality.
With the world facing threats such as Islamic terrorism, biological weapons, and AIDS, Annan realizes the UN has "come to a fork in the road."
One cornerstone of the UN will not change. The panel is expected to stick to the original idea that a core group of large or rich nations should have more say on an expanded Security Council than the vast majority of nations. The question is: Which large nations deserve a permanent seat? Two complex formulas are likely to be recommended. Either one will make some excluded big nations unhappy, probably causing reform to falter. That would be an unfortunate outcome.
This size-makes-right principle is designed to provide an incentive for the big powers to remain as UN players, especially the world's lone superpower, the United States. Its military has so dominated all others since the collapse of the Soviet Union that twice in the past six years it has bypassed Security Council approval and collected a number of other partner nations to intervene in troublesome states (Yugoslavia and Iraq).
Both Annan and the US have been moving toward a doctrine of preemptive action, but for different reasons. The US sees such action as necessary to protect itself from terrorist-prone states. Annan, however, asks if the UN should militarily intervene when a state is failing or causing great harm, such as in Sudan's Darfur.
The panel is likely to side with Annan, and may rely on a Canadian document called "The Responsibility to Protect" that lays out specific steps for how the UN should intervene to prevent large-scale loss of life that's either "actual or apprehended."
The task of rejuggling the Council's membership and making the UN more assertive on security threats won't be easy. But a new global consensus for the UN is needed, and one that's forged by and for all nations.