One of the largest gathering of world leaders in history is being held in New York this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. Secretary General Kofi Annan had planned the meeting as a forum for achieving radical reform of the institution. But the event is turning out to be a lot less than expected.
When Secretary-General Annan announced the anniversary summit six months ago, he proposed an ambitious agenda. He urged presidents and prime ministers to come to New York prepared to enact a wide-ranging series of reforms.
"Some of those decisions are so important they need to be taken at the level of heads of state and government," he said.
But with the opening of the anniversary summit just days away, the secretary-general admitted that his grand plan had been reduced to a proposed summit declaration that amounted to little more than a general declarations.
"I hope they don't get watered down to the point where they became meaningless. I think some delegations have been engaged in tactical blocks," said Mr. Annan.
The centerpiece of Mr. Annan's reform package was an expansion of the powerful Security Council. But the idea quickly ran into fierce opposition, including from permanent members China and the United States.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior adviser on reform, Shirin Tahir-Kheli effectively put the issue to rest in a speech to the General Assembly in July.
"Let me be as clear as possible. The United States does not think any proposal to expand the Security Council, including one based on our own ideas, should be voted on at this stage," said Shirin Tahir-Kheli.
With Security Council enlargement effectively dead, work focused on Secretary-General Annan's other priority issues. They included replacing the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission, which in recent years has included as members such perennial rights violators as Sudan, Cuba and Libya.
Other proposals included an overhaul of U.N. management procedures, establishing criteria for the use of force by one country against another, and giving the world body authority to intervene in cases where a nation fails in its responsibility to protect citizens against genocide.
But as negotiations began in earnest on a final outcome document, it became apparent that in almost every case, the nations were not united enough to reach agreement.
To make things worse, just a week before the summit, Secretary-General Annan was further weakened by fresh revelations that he had presided over widespread corruption and mismanagement in the U.N.-run Iraq oil-for-food program. After an exhaustive 18-month inquiry, oil-for-food investigator Paul Volcker concluded that the world body's credibility had been damaged.
"To some degree the organization has been weakened. That's why reform is so urgent," he said.
A long-time U.N. critic, Republican Senator Norm Coleman, went a step further. Senator Coleman, chairman of a committee conducting its own oil-for-food investigation, questioned whether an embattled Secretary-General Annan was the right man to lead the reform charge. He reiterated his call for Mr. Annan to resign.
"If the guy leading the charge is stained with a record of incompetence, of mismanagement, of fraud, it's going to make it very hard for him to do the heavy lifting required," said Mr. Coleman.
With Mr. Annan beset by oil-for-food charges, and disagreements among member states on almost every point in his reform proposal, the text of the summit outcome statement began to shrink. On the eve of the gathering, with diplomats working round the clock, the document had shrunk from 39 pages to fewer than 20.
U.S. mission spokesman Richard Grenell likened the final outcome statement to a nicely wrapped gift box with nothing inside.
"The analogy of the U.N. reform document is a nice big bow on a box," he said. "But the box is empty. We have to have a whole box of reform. Tying a ribbon on it, we can't even tell what color it is, or how to tie the bow."
Failure to agree on at least some substantive reforms will be seen as a further embarrassment for the secretary-general.
Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, who will preside over the high-level event in his capacity as president of the U.N. General Assembly, says it is clear that the goal of using the summit as a moment for reform has failed.
"Already everybody realizes that there is much work to be done in implementation and follow-up of what we come up with," he said. "Reform is not created overnight. It is a process. But what we want to do is speed up this process. The UN is in great need of reform."
Looking back on the six months since secretary-general Annan called the reform summit, many diplomats and veteran U.N. watchers say it has highlighted the organization's flaws, putting a spotlight on the deep divisions among member states.
U.N. expert and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck says Mr. Annan misjudged the mood of the member countries following the crisis created by the Security Council's failure to agree on the use of force in Iraq.
"It doesn't seem that the best time to start reform is when there's a major political crisis," said Mr. Luck. "In fact, it seems to me he was putting the cart before the horse, because you can't get major institutional reform unless you have a rather good political climate, and a fair degree of trust and common views among the membership. When they have very different views, when they are deeply divided, they can't agree on fundamental structural reforms. Never have they been able to agree on those things when they were deeply divided."
As presidents and prime ministers began arriving in New York for the anniversary celebration summit, the mood among diplomats was gloomy.
Secretary-General Annan postponed a news conference at which he had planned to trumpet progress on reform. It was a clear admission that the ambitious plan he set forth six months earlier is in shambles.
This week was supposed to be the moment of decision for the most sweeping package of reforms of the United Nations organization since its inception 60 years ago. But the reaction of the membership, as summed up by a senior diplomat involved in the negotiating process, is "this may be a flawed institution, but we are willing to keep it the way it is."