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UN Rhetoric Heats Up Over Reform

The U.N. General Assembly has scheduled a debate this week on a proposal to add new members to the Security Council. The question of Security Council enlargement has revealed deep divisions among member states, and threatens to wreck plans for broader U.N. reform.

A group of former foreign ministers from Europe, Asia and North America has issued an open letter urging reform of the United Nations in four key areas.

Among them are restructuring the discredited U.N. human rights commission, establishing a peace-building commission, requiring universal acceptance of the principle that all states must protect their citizens, and creating a permanent caucus of democratic nations to break the stranglehold of regional groupings that have in the past blocked proposals on human rights and democracy.

The authors, including former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, say reform is necessary to allay growing concerns that the United Nations is no longer able to successfully address global challenges.

But the letter, published in the Wall Street Journal newspaper, makes no mention of the looming issue that is threatening to further divide the membership and derail all reform efforts.

The issue is how to update the most powerful U.N. body, the Security Council.

In the run up to the General Assembly debate, normally staid U.N. diplomatic language has become unusually heated.

Four countries, India, Germany, Brazil, and Japan, the so-called G-4, have submitted a plan that calls for increasing the number of council seats from 15 to 25. Under the G-4 plan, six of the new seats would be permanent, including two for Africa.

Pakistan, Italy and Mexico are leading a group pushing a plan that would add only non-permanent seats.

They oppose holding a debate on the G-4 proposal, saying the likely venting of heated rhetoric could destroy any chance for approval of a broader reform package when world leaders gather at U.N. headquarters in September.

Asked his opinion of the G-4 move to put their proposal to a vote, Pakistani Ambassador Munir Akram was uncharacteristically blunt.

"It is going to be damaging to the reform process, it is going to be damaging to the United Nations, and its going to be damaging to international relations in the regions concerned," he said. "But that is what is being forced upon us by the G-4. It's a confrontation that nobody asked for, it's the selfish interests of a few countries which is going to destroy this house."

But Ambassador Kenzo Oshima of G-4 member Japan flatly rejected his Pakistani colleague's assessment.

"That's their judgment," he reacted. "Everyone is entitled to have opinions. We will have a good debate."

Ambassador Oshima said the G-4 wants a prompt vote on their expansion proposal, possibly as early as next week.

"As soon as practically possible," he said. "It depends on what goes in the debate, and so its hard to tell."

Adding to the confusion, a third proposal has been circulated by the 53-member African group. The plan, approved at last week's African Union summit in Libya, calls for greater African representation than the other two proposals.

Algeria's U.N. ambassador, Abdallah Baali, just returned from the African summit, says he remains hopeful that the heated rhetoric will give way to a compromise on Council enlargement that will allow world leaders to act on a broad reform agenda when they gather in New York in September.

"Our fear from the beginning was because of this focus on Security Council reform and complexity of Security Council reform, we could put in jeopardy the whole reform process," said Mr. Baali. "We are not there, I hope we would still be able to make the reform succeed. As to Security Council reform, there is a question mark obviously, but we have a few weeks to go and we can still achieve something between now and September."

The three competing proposals have clouded prospects for Security Council reform. As the battle lines are drawn, many countries, such as permanent Council members China and the United States, are watching from the sidelines.

U.S. officials earlier said they favor adding "two or so" new permanent members, and acting U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson made clear that Washington's priorities are on the broader issue of overall U.N. reform.

"We have high priorities for this process, namely the Human Rights Council, management reform and the Peacebuilding Commission and that Security Council reform should not crowd out these other priorities," explained Ms. Patterson. "We have discussed this issue of course with members of the G-4 and with other delegations... We'll just see what develops over the next few weeks."

Secretary-General Kofi Annan said earlier this year he wants the issue of Security Council expansion settled before the September summit.

Changing the makeup of the Council would require approval of two-thirds of the 191 U.N. member states, or 128 countries.

G-4 diplomats say they believe they will be able to get the necessary votes, but sponsors of the other proposals are equally confident they have the support to block it.

The debate is set to begin Monday, and is expected to continue for about three days.