How the US wants the United Nations to reform

At the summit beginning Wednesday, the US will push for changes in the human rights arena and in management.

When President Bush speaks Wednesday at the largest gathering of world leaders in United Nations history, he will argue for major changes in a world institution that was conceived by the United States but has since become the object of much American skepticism - especially under the Bush administration.

Now the lone Gulliver in a land of many Lilliputians, the US has long had a contentious relationship with the world body. Many countries suspect the US wants the UN to operate as a legitimizer of its worldview - or they think the US just wants to disregard it.

The international gathering of more than 170 countries that begins Wednesday is supposed to approve changes that will make the UN a more effective and relevant institution for the 21st century. And the US, despite its frustrations with the UN, does have specific goals for reform that it believes are minimum "musts" to reverse a slide to irrelevance.

One key reform is a revamping of the UN's approach to human rights issues. Another is management reform. The US is pressing to concentrate more management responsibilities in a secretary-general's office endowed with new oversight powers and new officers - such as a chief operating officer who could focus on finances and personnel while leaving political duties to the secretary-general.

While the Bush administration has consistently said it does not consider this summit any last chance for reform, it is also likely to come under increasing pressure from Congress and others to look to other international institutions to address those issues if reforms are not forthcoming.

"For many months the US was standoffish from this reform process, which is odd, since reform of the United Nations is a US priority," says Lee Feinstein, an expert in US-UN relations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What the US is finding once again is that as maddening as it can be, the UN is a necessary forum for us - and it will work better if we work to get certain changes done."

But just hours before the summit, both issues remain blocked (as of this writing) by some developing countries that see such changes as draining power from the UN General Assembly.

For the US, replacement of the UN's politicized and widely discredited Commission on Human Rights is a chief example of what must change if, as Mr. Bush has cautioned at the UN, the international organization is to remain "relevant."

The current human rights commission "is completely broken," says Richard Grenell, spokesman for John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN. "It's the violators who are in control."

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, countries have sought membership in the commission not because they are committed to human rights, but "to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others."

Under a proposal first offered by Mr. Annan, the commission would be replaced by a smaller "human rights council." The principal change is that members on the new council would be selected by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

The change is intended to weed out countries that are notorious human rights abusers. In the past, countries with seats on the commission have included Sudan, where the Darfur crisis continues with what Bush has labeled as "genocide." Other countries with questionable human rights records that have been on the commission include Cuba and Libya.

"Other criteria [besides just a regional rotation or a General Assembly vote] have to be established," says Mr. Grenell. "There have to be some standards set."

The US wants a council of no more than 30 nations that would be closed to countries under UN Security Council inquiry for human rights violations.

The US has long been dissatisfied with the human rights commission. Now, the Bush administration is also under pressure from Congress and many conservatives to push for reform. The Christian right and other conservative groups have become more active in human rights issues, particularly in Sudan and North Korea. Congress is also requiring more action. The House voted earlier this year to cut UN funding if a long list of management and human rights reforms is not approved.

"Getting the human rights council would be a success for the Bush administration, because it would be something it could offer to its conservative base while portraying it as a more general success," says Nancy Soderberg, a former deputy US representative to the UN under the Clinton administration.

Still, she sees approval being held hostage by a group of "human rights violators" who have no incentive to approve meaningful change. "Much of the developing world continues to object to any kind of standards for [council] membership," she says. "They don't want to face more scrutiny over human rights."

Given that resistance to change, some experts suggest, the US should try to create a "community of democracies" that would promote international action among a group of like-minded countries, both developed and developing.

"No matter what happens [this week], the deeper problems of the UN are not going to be solved and, given that, I'd prefer to see the US move its emphasis to an alliance of democracies than to remain focused on a universal organization," says Joshua Muravchik, a UN expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

On human rights issues, for example, such an alliance would not have to deal with a dictator among its members. It could hold "more honest debates and investigations of human rights," Mr. Muravchik says.

But such meetings do not necessarily give the US the audience and diplomatic opportunities that the UN does, other experts note. For example, they say, China would not be included in a community of democracies.

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