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Monday, 4 September, 2000, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
UN in a new millennium

By diplomatic correspondent James Robbins at the United Nations in New York

As the leaders of almost every nation on the globe converge on New York for September's extraordinary Millennium Summit, the future of the UN, particularly as keeper of the peace, will be determined by their collective will.

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

Secretary-General Kofi Annan
The UN, after all, is a club of member states, and cannot be any more effective than presidents and prime ministers, both the democrats and the dictators, allow.

The New York meeting represents the greatest concentration of political power ever seen: at least 150 world leaders are expected.

Their ability to make a difference will be determined by their ability to put aside differences. If the nations of the world cannot rise above ideology, hostility, suspicion and individual national interest to an unusual degree, they will find it difficult to set the tone which could launch far more powerful and effective peace-keeping in the years ahead.

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 task now is 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 form of peace keeping.

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 has called for changes in the way they are organised and resourced. It criticises the insistence on United Nations neutrality in situations where one side resorts to violence.

It says this can render peace-keeping missions ineffective and - at worst - can make the UN complicit in evil.

The UN has no standing army and the report calls for countries to take responsibility for the training and equipping of their own units. It suggests governments should also group together to provide contingents for UN missions which can 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 is also 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 now widely acknowleged to be unfair and unreasonable. After all, only five countries are permament members, and only they have individual vetoes to block any decision they don't 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, and the Security Council itself, as well as the wider membership, will discuss ideas for possible change during the Millennium Summit.

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 peope - 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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