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Friday, 22 December, 2000, 11:38 GMT
Analysis: UN is the sum of its parts

By diplomatic correspondent James Robbins

The future of the UN, particularly as a keeper of the peace, depends on the collective will of its member states.

The occasion of the third millennium presents a timely opportunity for the only global organisation... to identify the challenges that it will face in the future

Secretary-General Kofi Annan
It is, after all, a club which cannot be any more effective than presidents and prime ministers - both the democrats and the dictators - allow.

Its ability to make a difference rests on their ability to put aside ideological differences, hositilities, suspicions and individual national interests.

The United Nations has a battered image, and is often blamed for almost every disaster on the planet. Its positive achievements - preventing potential wars and conflicts, restoring peace after conflicts and building democracy - are often eclipsed by more spectacular failures.

The UN Millennium Summit in New York in September 2000 aimed to redefine what the UN can realistically do in the world, and give it the money, human resources, and political support to make it possible.

The peacekeeping challenge

After the collapse of Communism, the UN had to shift from its traditional style of peace-keeping to a far more interventionist approach.

This was a response to the rapidly changing nature of conflicts: they are now much less often between states, but within countries. Civil war is the greatest threat, and often the hardest to stop.

Now the UN more often has to attempt internal policing over rebel movements. These rebel movements, of course, are not members of the UN, and they are not likely to respond to the sort of political pressures which can often be applied to erring governments.

The UN's success in the 1990s was very mixed. Peacekeeping missions were a success in Namibia, Mozambique, and El Salvador and, at least partially, in Cambodia.

But the UN's operations in Bosnia, Rwanda and Somalia were often a disaster, failing to stand up to and prevent appalling massacres, amounting in Bosnia and Rwanda to genocide.

Ideas for the future

A major independent study of UN peace-keeping operations called for changes in the way they are organised and resourced. It criticised the insistence on the UN's neutrality in situations where one side resorts to violence.

It warned that this could render peace-keeping missions ineffective and - at worst - could make the UN complicit in evil.

The UN has no standing army and the report called for countries to take responsibility for the training and equipping of their own units. It suggested governments should also group together to provide contingents for UN missions which could be sent much more quickly and effectively to trouble spots.

The report was commissioned by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, and drawn up by a panel of 10 led by a former Algerian foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi.

Security Council - the case for change

There has also been growing pressure for root and branch reform of the UN's most powerful decision-making body, the Security Council.

It is on the basis of Security Council Resolutions that member countries are obliged to change course, or stop certain actions. Breaches of these resolutions are often the basis for armed intervention by the UN, or by others seeking to enforce the will of the Security Council.

But the share-out of power on the Security Council is widely acknowledged to be unfair and unreasonable. After all, only five countries are permanent members, and only they have individual vetoes to block any decision they do not like.

The five, broadly the first nuclear powers, are the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

Other countries have temporary membership of the Security Council on a rotating basis. But Latin America, Africa , and Asia (apart from China) do not have a single permanent seat at the very pinnacle of power.

Many countries believe the time for change is long overdue.

But it is hard to see radical change being agreed quickly. Agreement requires the present five to accept a dilution of their powers.

UN - past and future

The United Nations was established by 51 countries in 1945, in response to the horrors of the Second World War, and the political failures which failed to prevent it.

When the UN was born, the world's total population was 2.5 billion.

There are now more than double that number - 6 billion people - living on the planet, and the member states of the UN have almost quadrupled to 188.

The founding Charter of the United Nations talked of "the scourge of war". The task of finding ways to put an end to that scourge is as vital today as it was in 1945.

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