December is shaping up as a month of confrontation at the United Nations. The world body is facing a self-imposed deadline to agree on a series of reforms that are widely seen as long overdue. But the issues are sensitive, and the stakes are high. The atmosphere is increasingly tense as the deadline approaches with no compromise in sight.
In the halls of the U.N. headquarters building in New York, there is talk of a showdown. One veteran observer has warned of a "train wreck" as the 191-member states struggle to meet an end-of-year deadline for agreement on an array of controversial reform proposals.
Probably the most contentious of the proposals is aimed at modernizing the U.N. management structure. It would vastly increase the secretary-general's authority over the U.N. bureaucracy and budget. Much of that authority now rests with the General Assembly.
A group of more than 130 smaller countries has objected, saying the proposed reforms would take away what little voice they have in how the world body operates.
The urgent need for a management overhaul was highlighted by the Volcker Commission inquiry into the scandal-plagued U.N. oil-for-food program. Chairman Paul Volcker said his investigators concluded that Saddam Hussein had taken advantage of lax U.N. administration to thoroughly corrupt the humanitarian program.
"This last report reinforces and underscores the need for fundamental and wide-ranging administrative reform," said Mr. Vlocker. "That to me is the central point that emerges from this inquiry that extended over 18 months."
Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, has been leading an aggressive campaign for reform since he arrived last August.
Frustrated at the slow-pace of reform talks, Ambassador Bolton this month suggested that approval of the next two-year budget might be withheld in favor of a quarterly budget, pending agreement on reform. That suggestion prompted a warning from Secretary-General Kofi Annan that, if enacted, the proposal could throw the U.N. budget process into chaos.
"You need the budget for us to be able to plan ahead and carry out our work, and if you do not do that, you really have no basis of even asking the member states to contribute and you may create a serious financial crisis for the organization," said Mr. Annan.
But Ambassador Bolton defended the partial budget idea. He noted that so-called "continuing resolutions" are often used by the U.S. Congress to keep the government running while budget disputes are settled. He called it an example of creative thinking at "a time of crisis" at the world body.
"We have got to find a way to do something other than business as usual, on the budget and other things," said Mr. Bolton. "Business as usual has gotten us to the stage where we need a revolution of reform, and business as usual is not going to accomplish that revolution, and we simply should not do what we have done before because that is the way we have always done it."
The man charged with shepherding through a reform compromise is General Assembly President Jan Eliasson. The veteran Swedish diplomat has promised progress before the end of the year, and says he is optimistic a consensus can be reached by December 20, when he is due to fly home for Christmas.
Despite a cold, President Eliasson recently briefed reporters for nearly an hour on the status of negotiations in five key areas of reform. But when asked about widely held fears among diplomats that the whole process might collapse, his voice gave out.
ELIASSON: "It is not intentionally that I am losing my voice (COUGH). First, diplomats are not by nature optimistic, but president of the General Assembly has to be optimistic."
REPORTER: "…no consensus?"
ELIASSON: "I cannot speculate about that. I have to be optimistic. We will talk about that between the 15th and 20th of December when we see where we are in those intense negotiations."
Columbia University Professor Edward Luck, a veteran U.N. observer, warns of a possible "train wreck" if negotiations fail. In a telephone interview, the former president of the United Nations Association of the United States said fallout from a failure could further weaken American support for the world body and could prove an embarrassment for reform advocates, including Secretary-General Annan.
"If we can't get a decent package on management issues, there will be a great temptation on Capitol Hill and maybe the Bush administration to start withholding funds, which would exacerbate the U.S.-U.N. relationship, exacerbate the feelings between the U.S. and a lot of other member states, weaken our position within the organization and make the temptation to look elsewhere to get the job done more tempting than usual, so there could be the beginning of a downward spiral that could be quite negative," said Mr. Luck.
Professor Luck says the deeper problem is that too many countries resist change, because they like the status quo, even with all its inefficiencies.
"There are countries unfortunately that would prefer mediocre management of the organization as long as the General Assembly kept more control, because they do not treat this as a management issue, but a political issue, which is not surprising because everything around the United Nation is political," he added. "Right now, there is so much micro-management from the General Assembly that it is really crippling the U.N. We have seen this with the oil-for-food scandal, where everyone points the finger to someone else, when at the end of the day, no one was in charge and that is why so much of this corruption was able to leak into the system."
With weeks to go before the deadline for agreement, there is still a widely held belief that at least some face-saving agreement will be found, thereby avoiding a crisis and moving the process forward a step or two.
But even optimists agree the root of the crisis is likely to remain. Secretary-General Annan's chief of staff Mark Malloch Brown recently summed up the issue nagging diplomats' as they search for a solution. He told a reporter "in a way, this is setting the outcome of whether the United Nations matters or not in 10 years time.