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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 September 2005, 21:34 GMT 22:34 UK
UN staggers on road to reform
Paul Reynolds
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

"Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded."

UN soldiers in Sierra Leone in 2000
The UN could get greater powers of intervention

The words are those of the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to the General Assembly in September 2003.

The assembly has now approved a draft document to be formally approved in a summit of world leaders at the UN this week.

The member states of the UN have decided which road to follow.

It is the path of least resistance - the easier-looking fork in the road, leading to minimal reform.

The deal

A grand bargain is at the centre of the debate. The success of the whole enterprise depends on whether both sides of the bargain are kept.

On the one side, the richer countries have agreed to help the poorer reach certain goals to reduce poverty and improve health and education. These are the Millennium Development Goals.

On the other the poorer countries agreed that a reformed UN should have greater powers of intervention in the affairs of member states, especially failed states - hitherto off-limits under the principle of non-intervention unless a country represented a security threat to its neighbours.

A new principle is laid out - the "responsibility to protect".

A state failing in this responsibility - Rwanda during the massacres for example - could expect intervention.

At the same time, a new peace-building commission will be set up to help failed states emerge from chaos. This is designed to complement the intervention principle by offering help as well.

The new powers of intervention are weaker than reformers had wanted. But they do represent a shift in UN philosophy, though it all depends of course on how it operates in practice.

A new Human Rights Council will monitor human rights abuses.

This, too, is weaker than some Western countries demanded, especially in stopping the worst offenders from joining it, but it replaces the heavily criticised Human Rights Commission.

Reform of the UN management is also promised. This was one of the top American demands following the scandals of the Iraqi oil-for-food programme.

However, an expansion of the Security Council has proved too contentious to be agreed and will have to be taken up later.

Reviving the UN

The idea is that a re-invigorated UN will play a much greater role, answering the cries of the poor as well as meeting the concerns of those, like the US and Britain, who want it to act more decisively against such modern threats as international terrorism.

This would end the argument that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter
David Hannay
Former UK ambassador

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, asked the Security Council to pass a separate resolution urging states to act against "incitement to terrorism" - and all its 15 members unanimously agreed.

If reform fails, then the UN is condemned to become even more of a backwater of incessant discussion and disagreement. And the US - accused by its critics of undermining the UN and arguing itself that it is the UN that must change - will not be persuaded to re-engage.

The issue of terrorism is a good illustration of the problems involved in getting an agreement at this summit.

The problem was the definition of terrorism.

There have been a number of UN resolutions against terrorism in general and against specific acts, such as hijackings and bombings, but a clear and agreed definition has been lacking.

The suggestion of a high-level panel, which made a list of recommendations for reform, was that everybody should now sign up to a definition and it offered its own, drawing on previous resolutions:

"Any action, in addition to actions already specified by the existing conventions on aspects of terrorism, the Geneva Conventions and Security Council resolution 1566 (2004), that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population, or to compel a government or an international organisation to do or to abstain from doing any act."

One of the members of that panel, Lord David Hannay, a former British UN ambassador said: "This would end the argument that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

(The Geneva Conventions now outlaws attacks aimed only at civilians and Security Council Resolution 1566 passed last year condemned "all acts of terrorism irrespective of their motivation".)

Draft text

The draft text for this summit, drawn up by a core group of negotiators, picked up the panel's language with an addition. It said that such an action "cannot be justified on any grounds and constitutes an act of terrorism".

This definition would cover actions of both governments and terrorist organisations but still leaves room for interpretation. For example, governments could declare they were not intimidating a population but seeking wrong-doers. Terrorists could argue that civilians are soldiers out of uniform.

But it is about as close as the international community is likely to get to a definition.

However, this went too far for some. They thought that some acts of violence could be justified. Islamic countries wanted a reference to the right of peoples to resist occupation. This would cover, for example, acts carried out by Palestinian resistance groups.

This in turn was seen by some Western states as an attempt to justify terrorism.

In the end, no definition was agreed though terrorism "in all its forms" is condemned.

There is supposed to be a Convention on Terrorism next year. These latest negotiations indicate that the talks then will be as hard as they are now. Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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