By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
If the report of the high-level panel on reform of the UN is followed up with action, the
United Nations might be saved.
A new direction for the United Nations?
It is a big if.
The report has recommended a historic shift away from the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of a member state unless it was about to or had attacked another.
It has proposed the principle that if governments fail in their "responsibility to protect" their citizens, then the UN has a duty and a right to intervene.
British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell called it the "Rwanda never again" clause.
But it might also apply to failing states that might breed terrorism, famine and other disasters.
The worst scenario would be a state that allowed terrorists to get hold of nuclear weapons.
The report also wants an enlarged Security Council of 24 members to represent the world rather better than the current system does.
Anand Panyarachun (Chairman), former Prime Minister of Thailand
Robert Badinter (France)
Joao Clemente Baena Soares (Brazil)
Gro Harlem Brundtland (Norway)
Mary Chinery-Hesse (Ghana)
Gareth Evans (Australia)
Lord David Hannay (United Kingdom)
Enrique Iglesias (Uruguay)
Amre Moussa (Egypt)
Satish Nambiar (India)
Sadako Ogata (Japan)
Yevgenii Primakov (Russia)
Qian Qichen (China)
Nafis Sadik (Pakistan)
Salim Ahmed Salim (Tanzania)
Brent Scowcroft (United States)
However, the five current permanent members would retain their vetoes with no new vetoes being allocated.
It has a number of other recommendations including a definition of the concept of "threats" that goes way beyond the threats of war to include social, environmental and medical disasters. And it has no hierarchy of threat. All are relevant.
There is also a useful definition of terrorism, which is said to be an act "intended to cause death or seriously bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants".
This definition alone could end many wrangles about who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter and thereby clear the way for collective action.
Taken together, the report of the 16-strong panel addresses the two big problems facing the UN as an organisation - its relevance and its structure.
A transformed world
Its relevance has been brought into question not only by the Iraq war, when it was in the final analysis ignored by the United States.
UN troops are often criticised for not being allowed to intervene
Before that, we had Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia and others where it failed to act in time, and now we have Darfur.
Its structure grew from the desire of the victorious powers in World War II to stamp their authority on the world.
The world has since changed but the UN has not.
The idea is to make it easier for the UN to act - though only according to guidelines - and in that way make it less likely that member states will feel the need to act alone.
A Peace Building Commission would be set up by the Security Council to monitor dangerous trends.
The guidelines for action, especially armed action, would be five in number: the threat has to be defined, the purpose has to clear, it can be a last resort only, the means have to be proportionate and the consequences examined.
The report has surprised some people by its boldness.
Lord David Hannay, the former British ambassador to the UN, was one of the panel members.
A skilled, traditional diplomat, who still writes everything with pen and ink, was pleased to be able to say: "We have avoided 'blue skies' thinking where everything was up in the air, but this is imaginative and new. It is the biggest makeover of the United Nations since it was founded."
Lord Hannay said that intervention would still not be easy in a crisis.
"There is no push button mechanism," he said, "It will be done on a case by case basis.
There is no magic potion to ward off paralysis in the Security Council, but this would make it easier for the council to come to a conclusion
Key role of US
One big question, perhaps the biggest, concerns the attitude of the United States.
Changes to the Security Council, for example, need a Charter change and that requires a two-thirds vote in the General Assembly, plus ratification by two-thirds of member states and acceptance by all veto holders.
That means the US Senate would have to agree.
There is currently great hostility to the UN in some American circles.
Part of it has to do with the scandal of the oil-for-food programme, which the UN administered for pre-invasion Iraq.
One example: Robert Novak, a commentator who is close to right-wing thinking in Washington, wrote recently about the anger towards the UN and its Secretary General Kofi Annan personally.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, he quoted a new Republican Senator from Minnesota, Norm Coleman, who is leading a Senate inquiry into the oil-for-food scandal:
"Mr Coleman is not pursuing a right-wing vendetta against the world organisation.
He was a born and bred liberal Democrat from Brooklyn before the claustrophobic liberalism of Minnesota's Democratic Farmer Labor Party compelled him to become a Republican in 1996...
"He had no anti-UN mind-set when he embarked on his investigation.
" 'In seeing what is happening at the UN,' Mr Coleman told me, 'I am more troubled today than ever. I see a sinkhole of corruption.' "
With such a background, getting the high-level panel's recommendations accepted in Washington will not be easy. Yet without the United States, the UN will be small fry.
"We all recognise that the UN needs the US and that the US needs the UN," says
David Hannay. "For the UN to be effective, the US needs to be on board."
He added: "We are not doing this to placate the US.
"People forget that in 1945, the United States was even more dominant, yet it helped set up the UN."
He is therefore not pessimistic. "This report will be difficult to sink," he concluded.