UN reform confronts 'irrelevancy'

Fending off critics who claim it has grown "irrelevant," the United Nations this week released "the most comprehensive blueprint for change" in its six decades.

The report outlines expansion of UN Security Council membership from 15 to 24, and suggests that the "nightmare scenarios" that mix terrorists with weapons of mass destruction may justify preventive action "before a latent threat becomes imminent."

In a world body badly bruised by failure to fully enforce 12 years of resolutions against Saddam Hussein and the US decision to invade Iraq without Council approval, this will spur needed debate, analysts say.

"There's recognition the world security situation has changed," says Terence Taylor, director of the US office of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Yet the obstacle to real reform remains unchanged, say Taylor and others: the decisive veto that the five permanent Council members - the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China - will neither relinquish nor share.

"You're not going to have a major power acting in contravention of its national interest," says Mr. Taylor.

That self-interest, embodied by the veto, will determine if the Security Council acts or doesn't act when the next crisis emerges.

Nevertheless, the recommendations produced by a blue-ribbon panel of former diplomats and world leaders may represent a stride forward.

The report endorses Council proactivity in the face of global terrorism, genocide and ethnic cleansing, and "soft threats" like poverty, HIV/AIDS and environmental degradation. It seeks to define "terrorism," a traditional source of UN disharmony. And from Washington's perspective, the reference to "latent" threats comes close to the "grave and gathering threat" the Bush administration applied to Iraq.

The UN Charter has always allowed for self-defense against "imminent" attack, but not against a suspected "threat." This report lays out five "criteria of legitimacy" for using force: seriousness of the threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means, and balance of consequences. But it reaffirms the need for Council authorization, which carries the weight of international law.

Some critics are already pouring cold water on the report.

For example, they say, all five criteria are open to partisan interpretation. Consider the statement: "Force, if it needs to be used, should be deployed as a last resort." Who determines whether all means have been exhausted? Any of five veto-wielding nations may decide otherwise.

"The devil is always in the details," says Brett Schaefer, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "If I were the US, I certainly wouldn't support these ambiguous actions, because it's actually a recipe for preventing Security Council action."

On this point, ideological foes find some common ground. "One fundamental problem of the Council is that its inner club doesn't want any rules to govern their action," says James Paul, of the left-leaning Global Policy Forum, which advocates UN reform. "They want 'ad hoc-ism' - to do whatever, whenever."

To be adopted, the report will require two-thirds support of the 191 member-states when the UN General Assembly convenes for its annual session next fall.

Annan is particularly embattled today:

• The Iraqi oil-for-food scandal has embroiled his son, Kojo, for pay he received from a company involved.

• His point man in the Palestinian territories, Peter Hansen, was recently quoted suggesting Hamas members may be "on the UN payroll."

• And UN staff unions are in open revolt against some of Annan's lieutenants for charges ranging from sexual harassment to favoritism.

Some US conservatives are clamoring for his resignation. "Of course he'd like to see reforms, but he needs a diversionary tactic and this is a wonderful way to do it," says a UN insider.

The panel proposes an expansion that includes either six new permanent members - with no veto - or new regionally distributed seats renewable every four years. That would boost membership from Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Muslim world.

But critics say adding more voices at the table means more debates, more lobbying, more gamesmanship - and less action.

"Yes, it will make it slower, but ... it will be more representative, will boost the ego of the other continents, and make them happier by opting them in," says Yusuf Juwayeyi, the former UN ambassador for Malawi.

While the veto of the "Permanent Five" will continue to dictate how and when the Council responds to crises, two other factors also look unlikely to change: the widespread lack of political will among UN member-states to act against friends and neighbors - regardless of the transgression - and the vital role the US plays in UN success.

But the US is not expected to embrace any UN reforms that would dilute its influence there or constrain its ability to act unilaterally.

"The United States should exercise its moral authority to work through the UN and really find a way to forge these solutions to common problems," says Suzanne DiMaggio, of the UN advocacy group United Nations Association of the USA. "It's not that I'm not holding France, China, and Russia to the same standard, but the US is a special case, as the world's only superpower. It's beholden upon us to be a leader."

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