2005 was touted as a year of reform at the United Nations, but little has been accomplished. As the year comes to a close, the future of badly needed reforms is in doubt.
Reform has been a perennial buzzword at the United Nations for more than a decade. Everyone accepts that an organization born out of the ashes of World War II must be modernized to meet the challenges of a new century.
But reform efforts have come and gone. Every few years, a new initiative is announced, only to end in stalemate, as would-be reformers stumble over the realities of finding common ground. Diplomats and bureaucrats regularly remind each other that, in an organization of 191 member states, there are bound to be widely differing views.
Still, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan told world leaders in April to come to a September anniversary summit prepared to enact sweeping reforms, there was a glimmer of hope.
The organization was reeling from a series of scandals. Perhaps the most damaging were revelations of corruption within the U.N.-run Iraq oil for food program.
An inquiry led by former U.S. central bank chief Paul Volcker concluded that unethical and corrupt behavior by U.N. staff had helped former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein subvert the humanitarian program. Mr. Volcker said evidence of systemic management failure had weakened the world body's reputation, and highlighted the urgent need for reform.
"We don't believe our conclusions can be dismissed as simply reporting aberrations in one program, or something that can be smoothed over with patchwork changes," said Mr. Vlocker. "Instead, the problems are symptomatic of deep-seated issues. Those issues arise in an organization designed 60 years ago for a simpler time."
Despite Mr. Volcker's warning, the September summit came and went, with nothing more than a statement promising action on reforms. Those promises addressed a number of U.S. priorities, including a radical overhaul of U.N. management practices, as well as abolishing and replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission.
On the eve of the summit, the newly arrived U.S. ambassador, John Bolton, expressed exasperation at what he considered the organization's entrenched resistance to reform.
"We note the call by Chairman Volcker for greater auditing and management controls, including an independent audit board, stronger organizational ethics, and more active management of the UN and its programs by the Secretariat," said Mr. Bolton. "We have over the past several days been pushing for exactly that, only to meet resistance from dozens of countries who are in a state of denial, countries which contend that 'business as usual' at the UN is acceptable. We need to reform the UN in a manner that will prevent another oil for food scandal. The credibility of the UN depends on it."
The failure of the summit to take a more forceful stance left reform advocates disappointed. A bipartisan Congressional Task Force headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called it a missed opportunity.
Ambassador Bolton followed up with a suggestion that approval of the next two-year U.N. budget might be linked to the adoption of reforms.
"What we proposed in order not to disrupt the work of the United Nations was an interim budget of three [to] four months, during which time the members of the General Assembly could consider its recommendations on reform."
That idea set off alarm bells within the U.N. bureaucracy. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned that the interim budget proposal could prevent the world body from carrying out its vital functions.
"The business of the U.N. is not reform," said Mr. Annan. "The business of the UN is carrying out the mandates the General Assembly and the Security Council have given us, so that business must continue. And we should not take any initiative that not only risks the reform, but also the ongoing activities."
As the year drew to a close, a few reforms were approved. Among them was establishment of a peacebuilding commission aimed at helping countries trying to recover from war.
But the most difficult issues were still in dispute. There was no agreement on creation of a new human rights body, or on comprehensive management reforms favored by the major contributor countries.
Ambassador Bolton, however, said he is determined to succeed. "I remain concerned that we are not making the kind of progress on reform that we need to make," added Mr. Bolton. "And we're going to continue to press the issue vigorously. It's a high priority for the administration."
It is also a high priority for the U.S. Congress, where several members have threatened to withhold at least part of the 22 percent U.S. share of the U.N. budget.
With that in mind, diplomats at U.N. headquarters say the reform debate is certain to continue throughout the coming year. But notwithstanding the determination of a tough-minded U.S. ambassador, and impatient lawmakers in Washington, as 2005 gives way to 2006, the outcome is unpredictable.