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Security Council Reform Debate Ends Without Agreement

The 191-member United Nations has concluded two days of debate on its most contentious reform issue. That is, how to restructure its most powerful body, the Security Council. The question of adding more permanent Council members is the subject of a long-running dispute. This latest discussion ended the same way as all previous sessions, with no agreement in sight.

In a sense it is a classic battle between the haves and have-nots. When the United Nations was established 60 years ago, the Security Council membership reflected the post World War II power structure.

As the years went by, the world of 1945 faded into history. But permanent membership of the Security Council has essentially remained frozen in time.

The P-5 or permanent-five, as they are known, France, Britain, China, the United States and Russia are in a class by themselves. All others, regardless of size or influence, can at best hope to hold one of the 10 non-permanent seats.

That two-class system has sparked more than a little frustration among the have-nots. Discussions about righting the perceived injustice have been going on for years.

Even members of the P-5 agree change is needed, but the challenge is finding an acceptable formula.

As the world body's 60th anniversary approached this year, Secretary-General Kofi Annan suggested it would be a good time for reform. At least three proposals were put forward in the 59th General Assembly. But the debate that followed was so divisive that the question was set aside for the 60th assembly.

When formal discussions resumed, the United States and China served notice that, as far as they are concerned, those old proposals are dead. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said Washington would support only what he called a modest expansion of the Council.

"In these past attempts, we simply bit off more than we could chew. The debate in this chamber in July only highlighted the deep divisions among member states and paralyzed the overall reform effort. We believe it would be a mistake to return to that discussion," he said.

But Ambassador Bolton's argument met sharp rebuttals in the assembly hall. Some of the harshest criticisms came from Brazil, India, Germany and Japan, four countries that have joined forces in an effort to win permanent Council seats. Brazil's U.N. Ambassador Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg charged that a few countries are blocking the will of a nearly unanimous majority.

"A few countries, seeking to avoid any decision on this matter, take refuge on claims for consensus and on allegations on the disruptive nature of the issue. Their actions, though, only contribute to the perpetuation of current inequalities in the structure of the organization, and to the frustration of the aspirations of all members, for a more balanced distribution of power in the work of the Security Council," he said.

But despite the consensus for change, and the frustration of the have-nots, the outlook for reform remains dim. Russian Ambassador Andrey Denisov, who currently holds the rotating Security Council presidency, admits that the differences appear too great to bridge.

"Still the positions are very different, and we have had two different approaches. We need more efforts to make the position of difference get closer, otherwise it will be just the same as we had in spring and summer, when all these lengthy and tense discussions were absolutely fruitless, which is not what we want to have," he said.

The two-day Assembly debate ended on a quiet note, with diplomats painfully aware that little had been accomplished. General Assembly President Jan Eliasson, who has said he hopes to achieve reform before his one-year term ends next September,frankly admitted there had been a lack of progress.

"It is obvious views are divergent, in some cases strongly divergent, as to the modalities for reforming the Council, especially regarding the enlargement of the Council. This related to fundamental interests of members states," he said.

President Eliasson hinted there might be a push by some countries to force the issue, but gave few details. Ambassadors from countries seeking permanent Council seats have suggested they might attempt to bring the issue to a vote in the Assembly. For the time being, however, President Eliasson said the next step would be, what he called further analysis.