The United Nations is considering major reforms to make it more effective as it tackles difficult international issues. A recent summit in New York looked at those changes.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations. It was created as a post-World War II international organization to - in the words of its founding charter - "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war."
Since 1945, its membership has grown from 51 to 191 nations. Its responsibilities, in addition to trying to maintain international peace and security, have grown to include, among other things, human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, development assistance, and fighting poverty and disease worldwide.
Last September, 151 heads of state and government met in New York to mark the U.N. anniversary and discuss major reforms that would make the world body more suited to address the problems of the 21st century.
But many experts say the result of the three-day summit (Sept. 14-16) was a disappointment. Two of those experts are former U.S. National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft and former Australian Prime Minister Gareth Evans.
"It was very disappointing at the end of the day, particularly given the high level of expectations which existed back in June after the long preparatory process," said Mr. Evans. "We had, after all, three big things coming together this year. We had a very widespread perception of the need for change. We had a very carefully drafted agenda for change, covering both the development and the security side of the house and, of course, we had the big opportunity for change with the 60th anniversary and all the summitry and high expectations associated with that. So to finish with as limp an outcome as we did was, I think, very disappointing indeed."
General Scowcroft and Mr. Evans were part of a high-level panel mandated by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to come up with major reforms of the world body. The panel came out with its recommendations earlier this year, but these were watered down during the special September summit. Both men say the U.N. system of agreeing by consensus to major issues inevitably brings about an outcome where the lowest common denominator prevails.
The U.N. summit did recommend replacing the discredited Commission on Human Rights with a Human Rights Council. General Scowcroft says that is a step in the right direction.
"The problem with the old one, the Human Rights Commission, was it had gotten to the point that it was controlled by cliques of nations who traded off votes for each other and you ended up, for example, like Libya chairing a Human Rights Council. Now that is a travesty," he said. "So the attempt was to transform it so that it could no longer be controlled by anti-human rights participants."
But Mr. Evans says summit participants did not go far enough.
"There was no agreement at all on anything other than the Human Rights Commission should be replaced by a Human Rights Council. Well, big deal, until we know who, what, when, where and how it's going to operate," he commented. "All that is the subject now of a lot of negotiation in New York and all available indications are that those negotiations are not going very well."
Mr. Evans says there are a number of developing countries that, in his words, are desperate to avoid close scrutiny by an effective human-rights body and are blocking an agreement.
Both men believe one of the glaring failures of the U.N. summit was its inability to agree on reforming the Security Council.
General Scowcroft says expanding the Security Council is essential.
"It is important because many of the countries of the world feel that the Security Council is really owned by a very narrow group of states and that most of the world is unrepresented. And so they resent it and tend to resist its edicts," commented General Scowcroft. "So the attempt is to open it up somewhat."
For his part, Gareth Evans says by not expanding, the Security Council continues to reflect the world of 1945 and not the world of 2005.
"You just cannot have the exclusion of countries like Japan, and India, and Brazil and anyone from Africa from this particular body and expect to have an institution which will be fully respected and its edicts fully observed in the future," he said. "I am afraid that authority is going to seriously erode over time and not be worth its name. So we do have to move on this, but getting there will be nightmarishly difficult."
Summit participants did not approve a plan proposed by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to expand the Security Council from 15 to 24 members. The final summit document simply said member states support early reform of the council.
Analysts say one positive outcome of the high-level meeting was the creation of a peace-building commission. Mr. Evans says the new body will assist countries in the very difficult transition from war to peace following a civil war.
"What the peace-building commission is all about, is mobilizing the institutional resources of the international community: the U.N. programs and agencies, the international financial institutions - the [World] Bank and the [International Monetary] Fund - the major bilateral donors, the regional organizations, the affected countries themselves - to basically, have a mechanism, hopefully under the wing of the Security Council, which will put in place a sustained, coherent plan for the follow-through in this post conflict, peace building stage," summarized Mr. Evans.
Mr. Evans and General Scowcroft agree that whether it is enlarging the Security Council or naming members to a new Human Rights Council, these reforms, and others, must be enacted soon in order for the United Nations to continue to play a vital role on the world stage in the years ahead.