A report due out this week will suggest ways to re-tool the United Nations to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned a panel of eminent persons to recommend a way forward last year after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The panel has come up with two possible options for tackling the politically-charged question of expanding the Security Council.
In his annual speech to the General Assembly last year, Secretary-General Annan suggested the United Nations was no longer working the way its founders intended. Speaking just six months after the invasion of Iraq, he said it was time to examine whether the world body was still relevant.
"We have come to a fork in the road," he said. "This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded… Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then, or whether radical changes are needed."
Soon after he spoke, Mr. Annan named a high-level panel to recommend change. Among the group's top priorities: how to reconstitute the Security Council to better reflect 21st century realities.
Former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun was named to head the 16-member committee. As he took up the job, he admitted the focus would be on the short-term.
"At the end of the day, I think we would have to confine ourselves to focus on the real immediate issues …," he said. "We have to try to focus on the fundamental causes of failure of the U.N. system to take collective action or make a collective response to quote, unquote, threats to international peace and security."
The panel's year-long effort has yielded a 60-page document. Diplomats who have read it say it includes suggestions on basic rules about when the use of force would be legitimate, as well as a definition of terrorism, something that in the past has proven elusive.
But when the report is published Thursday, all eyes will be on the politically-charged issue of revamping the U.N. body most closely involved in questions of peace and security - the Security Council.
Those who have seen it say the report offers two options. Both involve expanding the Council's membership from 15 to 24 members. Each scenario envisions six members from each of four regions - Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
But who those countries would be, and whether they would be permanent, non-permanent or semi-permanent members, are questions the report leaves open. Neither option would grant veto power to any of the new members.
The four countries that have banded together to lobby for permanent Council seats - Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil - have already rejected that idea, saying it would create a new tier of second-class members. They want equal status with the five current permanent members.
Another potential stumbling block is the question of who would get the permanent seat from Africa. At least three countries - Egypt, South Africa, and Nigeria - have laid claim to the seat.
The potential battle among African countries is only one of several issues that could present complications. China is known to be cool to the idea of admitting Japan as a permanent member. Italy has spoken out against German membership, Pakistan opposes India's candidacy, and Argentina and Mexico are among Latin American countries with reservations about Brazil.
Many diplomats and U.N. observers say such regional rivalries make it unlikely that any expansion proposal could be approved. They note that, according to the U.N. charter, any change would require ratification by the legislatures of two-thirds of the member countries, including all five permanent members.
As he took charge of the eminent-persons panel last year, Anand Panyarachun acknowledged that updating the world body is a long shot. But he said he was holding out hope.
"I cannot afford to be a pessimist," he said. "I like to look ahead with a certain degree of optimism… The credibility of the United Nations is at stake."
Diplomats and U.N. watchers say the controversy over Security Council expansion is likely to dominate the debate about how to update the world body. David Shorr, an expert on U.N. issues at the Stanley Foundation, fears that other important issues might be drowned out by the expansion debate.
"I really worry that all discussions about makeup of the Security Council will overshadow and take much needed attention from those issues, which are after all the goals and principles of the U.N. charter," he said.
Publication of the eminent-persons report is expected to touch off a nine-month debate about changing the world body. The plan is to have the debate culminate next September in what Secretary-General Annan envisions as a summit of world leaders at the opening of the 60th General Assembly session.