UN on precipice of critical reform ... or irrelevance

It may not be make or break for the United Nations, but its upcoming General Assembly session will be critical in deciding if the UN is to fulfill its founding expectations as a significant force for peace and democracy, or if it is to totter into irrelevance.

The latter would be a crushing disappointment for Americans, a majority of whom, polls show, support the UN, and whose government is one of the most, if not the most, influential members of the organization.

Happily, there is the promise of constructive reform this fall. It is triggered by three factors.

One is the call for such reform by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who himself declaring the UN to be at a crossroads, appointed a prestigious international panel to make recommendations. Reporting last year, the panel found fault with many UN agencies and operations, and made sweeping suggestions, including enlargement of the Security Council now dominated by the veto-wielding, permanent big five: the US, Britain, Russia, France, and China. Mr. Annan largely embraced his panel's recommendations, but went significantly beyond them in the area of human rights. In particular, he urged scrapping the much-criticized UN Human Rights Commission, which has inexplicably included among its members nations such as Cuba, Libya, and Sudan, which give minimal observance to the human rights of their own citizens. Its replacement by a new entity truly dedicated to improving human rights would perhaps do more than anything to convince UN critics that it's cleaning house.

A second factor working for reform is the blistering findings of the Volcker commission last week about the maladministration of the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq. The inquiry, chaired by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, found the program's director, Benon Sevan, guilty of accepting kickbacks from Iraqi oil sales, and another UN official, Aleksandr Yakovlev, of taking bribes in exchange for confidential bidding information. This, with other violations in the program uncovered by the commission, is sullying the UN image and fueling momentum for change.

A third, and particularly meaningful, factor in this climate for reform is the Bush administration's support for the UN provided such reforms take place. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, now firmly in control of the diplomatic conduct of US foreign policy, is making clear the US wants to see the UN become more effective, not made extinct. Ambassador John Bolton, now waging a charm offensive in the early days of his appointment, is directed to implement that policy.

Though the Bush administration was obviously bitter over the UN's earlier failure to enforce a string of UN resolutions against Saddam Hussein, its support for the UN was clearly signaled recently by its opposition to a move in Congress to cut back America's UN dues.

Earlier this year, six foreign ministers, or former foreign ministers, of the US, Britain, Italy, Canada, Spain, and Thailand (Madeleine Albright, the late Robin Cook, Lamberto Dini, Lloyd Axworthy, Ana Palacio, and Surin Pitsuwan) issued a call for support of many of the reforms now under discussion. In addition to replacement of the Human Rights Commission, which seems likely to take place, they urged new measures to support the spread of democracy, which coincidentally is the hallmark of President Bush's second-term foreign policy. They also argued for a doctrine termed the "responsibility to protect," an argument for UN intervention in countries whose people are in grave danger because their governments lack the ability or will to protect them. "Sovereignty cannot be allowed to shield mass atrocities [as in Sudan]," they argued.

The highly political question of Security Council expansion remains uncertain of resolution. Japan, Germany, India, and Brazil are all candidates. The US would probably support a permanent seat for Japan, but not for Germany.

A bipartisan June report on the UN that was chaired by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate majority leader George Mitchell declared that "until and unless it changes dramatically, the United Nations will remain an uncertain instrument, both for the governments that comprise it and for those who look to it for salvation."

Next month UN members will have an extraordinary opportunity to remove that uncertainty. It will be a defining moment in UN history.

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

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