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UN Reform: Where to Start? - 2003-11-05


The United Nations is in need of reform. Everyone it seems - agrees on that. But how to do it? That's the tough question the world body faces as it tries to re-invent itself to meet the challenges of the 21st century. In search of an answer, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has appointed a blue-ribbon panel from 16 countries and six continents. But achieving meaningful reform won't be easy. Many say it is impossible; the competing interests are just too great.

On the 38th floor of the U.N. building, where the Secretary-General sits, there is a clear sense that the world body needs not just a tune-up, but a major overhaul. That feeling seems to transcend the entire building, down to the ground floor, where tourists from all over the world come to get a glimpse of the world body's inner workings.

"What concerns me is that it doesn't seem capable of resolving conflicts that appear to be taking place in the world. Or not anyway with the agreement of everybody involved," says Chris Whitby who is visiting from London. "That would be my concern, that it doesn't seem to have power to make decisions we would like it to."

Others, such as 25-year-old Bulgarian student Yavor Chorbadzhiev, think something must be done to curb the influence of the big and powerful countries. "They should give more rights to small countries, because now only big countries have all the possibilities here," he says. "The United States, France, Germany, Russia, they decide everything."

Fifty-eight years ago, when the United Nations was founded out of the ashes of world war, it had 51 members. Today, it has 191, enough diversity so that there seems to be an opposing view on every issue. That is both the reason everyone agrees reform is necessary, and the reason it may prove to be impossible.

As the current General Assembly session began, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a fundamental re-think of the U.N.'s role. He said recent disagreements over Iraq had shaken the international system to its foundations, and questioned the Security Council's relevance. "We have been discussing the reform of the Security Council, for example, for more than a decad," says Mr. Annan. "But I think in the current climate lots of leaders have been concerned about the state of the international peace and security architecture and would want something done about it. I think the Iraqi crisis brought this to the fore."

But how can the Security Council be reformed? Could, for instance, the five veto-wielding permanent members be persuaded to give up their special status? And if, as Secretary-General Annan suggests, the council is expanded, what formula would be used to decide which countries would be added and which left out? Moreover, wouldn't expansion only complicate the already difficult task of forging a consensus?

During the recent General Assembly debate, several countries made it clear that they will insist on a greater voice in U.N. affairs. In his address, Japan's Deputy Ambassador Yoshiyuki Motomura, served notice that Tokyo expects recognition of its status as a world economic power. "Japan has repeatedly expressed its intention to continue to work actively for the realization of Security Council reform, and would like to assume greater responsibility as a permanent member of a reformed Council," he says.

Revitalizing the other main U.N. body, the General Assembly or GA as it is called in the headquarters building, is an equally daunting challenge. As South Korean Ambassador Kim Sam Hoon said during the recent debate, the 191 GA members have 191 different ideas about how to go about it. "When member states put their parochial interests over the collective common good of the organization, the process of GA reform cannot move forward," he says. "Meanwhile, there are too many sacred cows standing in the way of GA reform."

The United States, meanwhile, has its own internal debate on U.N. reform. The Heritage Foundation, which often reflects the Bush administration's views, issued a set of recommendations last month suggesting that the Security Council is obsolete and should be replaced.

In his speech to the General Assembly last month, Deputy U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham avoided any direct criticism of the world body. But he left little doubt of the administration's view that the United Nations must do more to live up to its potential. "It will not be easy or simple," said Mr. Cunningham. "But it will be our enduring legacy if we succeed in making the United Nations a more effective and dynamic institution that may one day come close to fulfilling the goals for which it was created."

With such a wide variety of opinions, Secretary-General Annan's blue-ribbon panel on reform has an unenviable task. It must take a concept that was designed for an earlier age and redefine its relevance for a new reality. And that's the easy part. The panel must then persuade 191 competing voices to put aside their own interests for the greater good.

Many believe it will take a miracle for them to succeed. But if they fail, the United Nations could go the way of its predecessor, the League of Nations. The hard work is about to begin.

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