UN leaders endorse modest reforms

President Bush called them 'first steps' in a speech to the General Assembly Wednesday.

The international summit going on here this week won't give the United States everything it wanted in the way of United Nations reform.

But despite widespread skepticism in Washington about the UN, the action plan for reform adopted by the General Assembly Tuesday afternoon does offer enough to keep the Bush administration interested in the world's largest international institution, observers say - and to keep the US pressing for further reforms.

"It's too bad the final document did get watered down, but this should still be seen as a positive - as long as this is the beginning and not the end of reform," says Marc Grossman, vice chairman of the Cohen Group in Washington and until recently the Bush administration's undersecretary of State for political affairs.

"What's going to keep this moving is the US, not just because the US is the country that provides a considerable portion of the UN budget," Mr. Grossman says, "but quite frankly because the US needs the UN to be effective in the world."

In addressing the General Assembly Wednesday as part of the UN's 60th anniversary, President Bush spoke firmly of the US commitment to the UN, but to a UN that is more accountable and transparent and thus more effective in the world. "The United Nations has taken the first steps toward reform," he said. "The process will continue in the General Assembly this fall, and the United States will join with others to lead the effort."

Agreement on a summit document that twins reform objectives with international development goals came after months of talks and several days of marathon negotiations.

But the final document is a shell of what UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan sought when he unveiled his reform plan in March. In the 35-page declaration, most specifics in the original texts on terrorism, development goals, nuclear nonproliferation, and human rights have been replaced with broad generalities.

Nevertheless, Mr. Annan called the document a "step forward." And John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, reiterated a position that US officials have offered for months: that the September summit would be a start but not the end of UN reform. "This is not the alpha and the omega, and we never thought it would be," Mr. Bolton said after the General Assembly endorsed the text.

Grossman sees a three-pronged fork prodding the UN to keep up reform: First, he says, "The US will continue to speak out for reform and keep the pressure up." Second, "The UN as an institution realizes it has to somehow deal with the implications of the Volcker report," which found gross mismanagement and corruption in the UN's oil-for-food program. And third, "Other countries have an interest in UN reform as well and not just in how the Security Council works."

The fact the summit document was stripped of most of its specifics is a disappointing failure to many leaders of independent international organizations - for example, to human rights advocates who condemn the human rights text as a sellout to countries that don't want increased pressure to improve their records.

But some experts insist there is some virtue for the US in a reduced document, in that it no longer makes specific references to international accords that the US does not support.

"It would have been a bigger problem than the watering down if the document had remained in its big, all-encompassing form and contained a lot of language the US did not agree with," says Helle Dale, a US foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

She notes, for example, that the original document referred specifically to the Kyoto accords on greenhouse gases and the International Criminal Court - two international agreements rejected by the US and which would have been "deal breakers," Ms. Dale says.

After initially seeking to excise any reference to the UN's "Millennium Development Goals" in the fight against poverty, the US finally accepted the wording. But it won the battle to limit any reference to a specific financial commitment by developed countries for international development.

That US victory - labeled by many development experts as an embarrassing and dangerous retreat from UN development goals for 2015 - suggests to some experts that the US will remain engaged at the UN only so much when it sees its interests at risk. "From the US perspective, the UN is from time to time a modestly important contributor to furthering US foreign policy. But if it is not willing to play that role, the US will simply bypass it," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "And that is going to confirm the suspicions of others that, for the US, it's either our way or the highway."

Mr. Carpenter says that is how the US approached the UN before the Iraq war - and he says the next test of that vision will be Iran and deliberations over its nuclear ambitions.

"The US will give the UN the opportunity to further US policy objectives," he says. "But if it doesn't, the US will find other options."

Others agree that the US will continue on the path of turning to international institutions to deal with Iran, but they see this path more in light of Mr. Bush's second-term desire to work more closely with global partners.

Some experts predict the US will continue to play lip service to the UN while turning its focus to other international institutions whose members are more like-minded with the US, or which are not encumbered by universal membership.

But the US still has a keen interest in working to make the UN more effective, even though many regional organizations that the US is part of may be closer to the ideal of clubs of working democracies - like NATO and the Organization of American States, says Dale of the Heritage Foundation.

"Other international organizations may enjoy more credibility with the US than the UN, but the fact remains that for many countries, the UN remains the standard of international legitimacy," she says. For example, she notes, "A lot of countries won't contribute to international peace-keeping operations unless they have the stamp of approval of the UN."

What that means, Dale concludes, is that "the US has no choice but to stick to [the UN] if it wants to be engaged in the world - and to get cooperation in furthering what it sees as its own interests."

Changes ahead at the UN

What is included - and isn't - in the 35-page declaration agreed upon by the General Assembly:

• A new human rights council, which will replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights. The specifics of the new council will be decided in the General Assembly - not in the summit document, as the US had proposed. But experts see the change as a step away from politics as usual at the UN.

• Creation of a peace-building commission, whose objective will be to focus on postconflict country development. The idea is to reverse the trend that sees as many as half of countries coming out of armed conflict lapse back into it within a few years.

Management reform. The summit document accepts the goals of more outside oversight and independent auditing of the UN and its institutions. The US will keep on that as a key to boosting the UN's effectiveness.

Mechanism for intervention. This concept is an effort to make it easier for nations to advocate a response when civilians are persecuted. Promoted by Canada, it calls for nations to consider intervening in cases of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Terrorism. The summit document condemns it "in all its forms and manifestations." But it does not provide a definition of terrorism that would condemn attacks on civilians and noncombatants, as Western nations and Secretary-General Kofi Annan wanted.

Development. Existing "Millennium Development Goals" are affirmed, setting timetables to halve poverty for the poorest of the poor. But the US won a battle to leave out a specific commitment by developed countries to giving 0.7 percent of their gross national product to finance international development.

- Reuters material was used in this report

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