Page last updated at 20:47 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 21:47 UK

Diplomats renew UN reform push

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

File photo of the Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, October 2006
The victors of WWII still hold the Security Council's permanent seats

Sixty-three years after the birth of the United Nations, a push for reform of the Security Council - whose five permanent members still wield the most power - is once again under way. A meeting on this issue was held on Thursday at UN headquarters in New York.

Inside his elegant Manhattan townhouse, Italy's ambassador to the UN, Marcello Spatafora, has been hosting a series of dinner parties dedicated to the topic of Security Council reform.

Russia, Britain, France, China and the US, as the victors of World War II, have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, the body charged with maintaining international peace and security.

The P5, as they are known, have the all-important power to veto decisions.

Italy is currently serving as one of the 10 temporary council members, who do two years and then leave.

'Less impact'

"The council is getting more and more efficient," says Mr Spatafora, "but at the same time there is the risk that we are getting more and more irrelevant on the ground. We have less and less impact.

"The Security Council is more involved, from Myanmar to Sudan, from Somalia to Ethiopia... we make a lot of resolutions, a lot of statements, but what's the impact?"

Ambassador Augustine Mahiga of Tanzania is even more blunt.

I think that member states have come to terms with the fact that it's now or never
Augustine Mahiga,
Tanzanian ambassador to the UN

"Two-thirds of the agenda of the UN Security Council is on Africa. So the key decisions are being made for Africa by the UN Security Council, and by the permanent members where Africa is not represented."

Even the permanent members of the council agree there should be change of some description - but what?

The Kafkaesque-sounding open ended working group has been meeting for 15 years and discussing expanding the council's membership.

Two years ago, reform came tantalisingly close - and slipped away again.

What usually scuppers agreement is inter-regional rivalry.

Pakistan does not want to see India get a permanent seat, China does not want Japan to get one, and so on.

Alternative solutions

Mr Spatafora says there is a way round this.

"We could make a reform centred on regional seats. That would be much less divisive than a reform centred on national seats that bring along with them national jealousies."

Downtown from the Italian ambassador's residence, another attempt at getting reform off the ground is being overseen by Germany.

Germany's ambassador to the UN, Thomas Matusek, says that for starters, Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe should get more seats.

Nigerian soldiers with the joint UN-African Union mission to Darfur, March 2008
Much of the UN Security Council agenda is on Africa

"We believe you can find a compromise, an interim solution, and then see if it works and then decide what you're going to do in the future."

That means thorny questions like which countries get the power of veto, and how long they have their seats for, would be decided down the road.

So plenty of diplomatic activity, but is Security Council reform actually going to happen this time?

Diplomats predict that nothing concrete will be decided this side of the US election - the attitude of the next US administration will be an important part of the equation.

However, Ambassador Mahiga of Tanzania says: "The chances are better than ever before. There is a new dynamism, a new momentum, and I think that member states have come to terms with the fact that it's now or never."

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