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Last Updated: Monday, 6 October, 2003, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
Q&A: Future of the UN
Reform of the United Nations is back on the world agenda following a statement by Secretary General Kofi Annan that the organisation is at a "fork in the road." BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds examines the issues.

What did Kofi Annan mean?

The secretary general suggested that the UN is at a fork in the road because it must face the threats of international terrorism and the spread of weapons of mass destruction much more decisively.

He warned that if there was no collective action to forestall a threat (which the Security Council has the power to order) then member states might act unilaterally and that would be disastrous. The United States is already threatening to act if the UN does not.

After the 11 September attacks, a new body, the Counter-Terrorism Committee, was set up consisting of Security Council members. This could be built on and given its own staff.

Why is there a demand for reform?

The United Nations institutions were set up in 1945 in the aftermath of World War Two and have changed little since then. For example, the most powerful body, the Security Council, which can impose sanctions or order military action, is made up of 15 members.

Ten of these countries have a seat for only two years, but five have permanent seats and, more importantly, they have the power of veto through which any one of them can prevent a decision from being taken.

The five happen to have been the major powers in 1945 - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France. It is felt that this does not reflect the world as it is now.

Will the Security Council be enlarged?

There seems to be general agreement that there should be a larger Council, with more permanent members and a larger overall structure of some 20-25 members compared to the current 15.

The main candidates talked about or making their claims for a permanent seat are Germany, Japan, India, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. Indonesia is another possibility.

New members would need to be major players either economically or regionally and there would need to be a geographical spread.

What would happen to the veto?

It is unrealistic to think that the present permanent five would give up their veto. Nor are they likely to accept that others should have a veto as well. That is probably going to be the price of their agreement to any enlargement. So new permanent members might have to be satisfied with their enhanced status and accept that they will have a voice but not a veto.

Would reform give the UN more teeth?

Reform would not necessarily give the UN more teeth in the sense that it would be given more power. Procedures would still have to be followed. But it might make the UN more effective by enabling it to act more quickly and efficiently.

There is no magic wand, though. So much depends on the political will of the major powers and that problem will remain.

Why not concentrate more on problems like poverty?

This is exactly what the UN is trying to do. It had a major "Millennium" conference in New York in September 2000 which issued a declaration of aims. The intention is to show that the UN is tackling the real day-to-day issues affecting millions of people around the world for whom crises like those in Iraq are not particularly relevant.

The declaration set out a number of goals. For example: "To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the world's people whose income is less than one dollar a day." Another is: "To have, by then, halted, and begun to reverse, the spread of HIV/Aids, the scourge of malaria and other major diseases that afflict humanity."

Of course, the UN cannot do that by itself. It is up to member states.


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