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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March 2005, 18:00 GMT
Time to turn talk into UN reform

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

UN headquarters in New York
The UN's most radical reforms ever are proposed
The task of converting ambitious talk about reforming the United Nations into action is now moving into the delicate and difficult decision-making stage.

The UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has laid out his ideas in front of the General Assembly in what could be seen as the start of the negotiations leading to a summit of UN heads of state and governments in September.

It is generally felt that this is the year of decision for the UN, which has been reeling from the rows over the US-led invasion of Iraq and from the corruption in the Iraqi oil-for-food programme.

Reform has the dual challenge of re-establishing confidence in the UN itself and of re-engaging its largest member, the United States.

Mr Annan called for radical reform, including expansion of the Security Council this year, new rules on when military action can be used, reform of the UN's human rights body and a convention against terrorism next year.

Read key findings and see graphs about the BBC World Service poll on UN reform

He is drawing on two reports delivered to him over the past few months and which he had previously welcomed.

These were the recommendations of the High Level Panel on reform of UN policy and institutions in December and the proposals of the Millennium Project in January.

The first called for an expanded Security Council, proposed a new doctrine of intervention where a government failed in a "responsibility to protect", outlined a "peace-building commission", urged reform of the UN's Human Rights Commission and offered a definition of terrorism for general agreement.

The second laid out a plan for fulfilling the goals of the Millennium Declaration, which set a target of cutting world poverty in half during the next decade.

'New consensus'

The Secretary General has endorsed many of the proposed reforms.

"There is a yearning in many quarters for a new consensus on which to base collective action," he says in his report, which he calls In Larger Freedom, a favourite phrase of his intended to capture his vision of the UN.

Kofi Annan
Kofi Annan has been personally criticised by some

"A desire exists to make the most far-reaching reforms in the history of the United Nations, so as to equip and resource it to help advance this 21st century agenda," he states.

He argues that the security of both rich and poor countries is intertwined.

This is seen as an effort to persuade the United States in particular that it is in its interests to have a strong UN.

New Security Council

"If we act boldly - and if we act together - we can make people everywhere more secure, more prosperous, and better able to enjoy their fundamental rights.

"The rich are vulnerable to the threats that attack the poor, and the strong are vulnerable to the threats that accost the poor.

"Whatever threatens one threatens all," he writes.

Mr Annan has recommended an expansion of the Security Council to make it more representative, but will not choose between the two models offered by the High Level report.

These models both envisage an expansion to 24 members, but the first model would have six new permanent seats (though no new vetoes) and the second eight new middle-ranking seats with four-year, renewable terms.

He accepts that the UN Human Rights Commission needs reform and proposes that member states that violate human rights should not serve on the Commission. It should also be a much smaller group.

He proposes that an anti-terrorism convention already under discussion be drawn up by September 2006. This would be based on a definition of terrorism that has yet to be agreed.

Without us [the US] the UN will fail. And if it fails, we will be among the many losers
Richard Holbrooke
Former US Ambassador to UN
Since the convention would seek to outlaw suicide bombings, the wording is crucial since some states do not want resistance to occupation to be a crime.

The High Level group, in what some of its members regard as a significant achievement, defined terrorism as "any action that is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants, when the purpose of such an act, by its nature or context, is to intimidate a population or to compel a government or an international organisation to do or abstain from doing any act".

Mr Annan also listed a series of measures to address internal corruption and lack of oversight of UN contracts in an effort to placate critics in the United States, some of whom have called for his resignation.

One idea is to buy out older UN personnel to make way for younger officials.

The next few months will see intense and, no doubt, contentious debate.

Debate in US

In the United States, there is still hostility to the UN and Mr Annan's own position has been weakened by the oil-for food programme, in which his own son has been the subject of inquiry.

UN peacekeepers in Bukavu
The UN may have new powers of intervention
Recent hearings by the House of Representatives International Relations Committee reflected the strong arguments in the United States for and against the UN.

The former American UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Democrat, who negotiated an end to the Bosnian war, said: "Without us the UN will fail. And if it fails, we will be among the many losers."

But another UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, in a terse statement, said that "only the officers and functionaries of the UN" could "restore confidence in the United Nations".

She was especially critical of the Human Rights Commission.

Lord David Hannay, British representative on the High Level Panel and another ex-UN ambassador said: "It is very important now that there be a serious negotiation. We have had the debate now for three months."

Lord Hannay, who has just returned from a visit to Washington, said he thought the Americans were taking the issues "very seriously."

He did not want the debate to centre too much on the Security Council.

"We must not allow this great white whale of international diplomacy to displace all the water in the sea, though it is particularly important," he commented.

Tough times for the UN
28 Feb 05 |  Americas
Annan defends United Nations role
10 Feb 05 |  Americas
Last chance saloon for UN?
01 Dec 04 |  Americas
Support for UN reform increases
24 Sep 04 |  Americas
Profile: The UN Security Council
29 Dec 04 |  Country profiles

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