Many experts say the United Nations must address critical issues if it is to continue to play a key international role in the years ahead. At a recent summit in New York, delegates focused on such issues as terrorism, genocide and nuclear non-proliferation.
The United Nations is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. One-hundred-fifty-one heads of state and government gathered in New York in September to mark the occasion and to discuss major reforms needed to make the world body more responsive to international crises.
However, many experts described the three-day meeting (Sept. 14-16) as a disappointment. They say member states agreed on the need for change, but provided few specifics. For example, the summit decided to enlarge the Security Council, but left details open to future talks. And U.N. members opted to replace the largely discredited Human Rights Commission with a new Council, but they couldn't decide on its membership.
Experts say another failure of the U.N. summit was its inability to agree on a definition of terrorism. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan wanted the summit to accept a definition of terrorism as formulated by a high level panel. The panel said "any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants."
Former Australian Prime Minister was a member of that blue-ribbon panel. While acknowledging it was important for summit participants to condemn terrorism, Mr. Evans says that action was not nearly enough.
"Yes, it's important to have a condemnation of terrorism, like it's important to have every Sunday from the pulpit yet another condemnation of sin," he said. "What matters, however, is to get acceptance that what terrorism actually is, the critical, central core ingredient of it is, violent action against civilians for politically motivated reasons.
"And what had to happen, what still has to happen, is getting acceptance, universally, in every city and in every village in the world, the notion that killing civilians is never justified, whatever the context, whatever the occasion," continued Mr. Evans. "It's like piracy or slavery in the 19th century."
Mr. Evans says summit participants failed to define terrorism, because some countries maintained that under certain circumstances, such as resisting occupation by a foreign power, you could target civilians.
Former U.S. National Security Adviser General Brent Scowcroft was another member of that high level panel calling for major U.N. reforms. He says it is essential to have a universally accepted definition of terrorism.
"It's important because as long as we don't have one, a lot of steps designed to deal with the issue of terrorism become impossible because you can't agree on what it is," said Mr. Scowcroft. "So just to carry out things, it is important to have some generally agreed definition of what it is."
Experts say another glaring failure of the summit was its inability to address the issue of nuclear non-proliferation. Analysts say U.N. member states were unable to agree on proposals to strengthen the non-proliferation regime at a time when countries such as Iran and North Korea want to expand their nuclear ambitions.
Mr. Evans says it is fortuitous that this year's Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its director, Mohammed ElBaradei.
"It's wonderful news, because it does help to bring the whole weapons of mass destruction/nuclear issue back to center stage where it has to belong," added Mr. Evans. "I think the agency has done a conspicuously outstanding job in holding the line on the issues of principle that are involved here, being determined in its willingness to pursue those countries that are misbehaving, but also to be even-handed and balanced about it and not engage in political crusades. The IAEA has an excellent reputation as does ElBaradei himself."
While unwilling to define terrorism or address the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, experts say U.N. member states agreed on an important principle: to intervene in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
Mr. Evans says that became known as "the responsibility to protect."
"And the principle has now been adopted that, yes, the front-line responsibilities for dealing with internal situations of this kind, does rest with the sovereign states themselves," he continued. "But if the particular sovereign state abdicates that responsibility, either through incapacity or ill will, then the 'responsibility to protect' the citizens of that country shifts to the wider international community. And ultimately, that responsibility can take the form, in really extreme situations, of a responsibility to intervene militarily, to stop the genocide or other disaster that's occurring."
Mr. Evans cautions, that the "responsibility to protect" is not a synonym for military action. He says any military venture must first get the approval of the U.N. Security Council.
General Scowcroft says the "responsibility to protect" is a sensitive issue.
"The 'responsibility to protect' is a very touchy point, because the United Nations was founded on the sovereign independence of its member states and indeed, the Charter itself, says the U.N. may not interfere in matters that are essentially within the jurisdiction of the member states," he explained. "And what we tried to do was frame it in a way that laid out more specifically what was the line between intervention and non-intervention. And what we came up with was when a country is unable or unwilling to protect the large masses of its people, then it is the mandate of the United Nations to intervene."
Experts say in the months ahead, the United Nations must address fundamental issues such as enlarging the Security Council, nuclear non-proliferation and defining terrorism in order for the world body to remain at the forefront of major international debates.