The 61st United Nations General Assembly session opened this week, marking the end of what was to have been a year of reform. The reform mandate approved by world leaders at last September's 60th anniversary summit has been largely stymied, leaving the world body much as it was before.
Hopes were high one year ago when world leaders at the U.N.'s 60th anniversary celebration adopted a declaration outlining a sweeping year-long reform agenda. All agreed that the world body founded in 1945 was badly in need of updating for the 21st century.
At the top of the agenda was replacing the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission with a new body that would bar membership to the worst rights violators.
Other urgent reforms included bold new management initiatives that would allow the organization to move swiftly to meet new challenges.
There was even talk of expanding the membership of the Security Council to make it more representative, as well as establishing a Peace Building Commission to help countries trying to recover from periods of war, and settling a longstanding disagreement about the definition of terrorism.
To push this ambitious agenda, veteran Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson, Stockholm's ambassador to Washington, was tapped to take over as General Assembly president.
Eliasson has since assumed additional duties as his country's foreign minister.
Eliasson's year as assembly president ended Monday. As he returns to Stockholm, the reform agenda remains largely unfulfilled. In a farewell speech, Eliasson, in classic diplomatic understatement, spoke of "unfinished business."
"Our work is not finished. Many items on our reform agenda represent work in progress. We need to make extra efforts to ensure that the United Nations principal organs work effectively and harmoniously together," he said.
Veteran U.N. observer and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck says, while Eliasson brought energy to the General Assembly president's job, the results were disappointing. "This has not been a particularly glorious enterprise and the results have been fairly meager. Some of the most important issues, particularly in terms of management, have been sidelined for the moment. Some of the biggest ticket items, like Security Council expansion, have not gone anywhere. There have been a couple things, the Human Rights Council, but that has not gotten off to good start, unfortunately. The Peace Building Commission is another step forward but again it's had a shaky start in terms of substance. So when you compare this reform to past reforms, it probably is barely respectable," he said.
Professor Luck says a number of factors, including the emergence of an increasingly vocal bloc of mostly developing countries, made this a difficult time to attempt reform. "As the U.N. tries to reform itself, it illustrates how the problems it has as a universal intergovernmental organization with very broad agenda, and with the member states having a very broad set of priorities that don't always coincide. My expectations going in to this were low, and so far they've been fully confirmed. But that doesn't mean that the people who've worked so hard don't deserve a lot of credit for trying to swim upstream when the current is flowing very rapidly against them in terms of the general political divisions within the organization," he said.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment has been on human rights. The old Human Rights Commission lost credibility when chronic rights violators such as Sudan, Zimbabwe, Syria and Cuba were elected, and used their membership to shield themselves from criticism. Hillel Neuer of the group "U.N. Watch" says the new council's membership list looks much the same as the commission it replaced. "The new Human Rights Council was widely hailed as 'the dawn of a new era.' And indeed we all hoped that it would be. So far, however, unfortunately, it has been looking virtually the same as, if not in some ways worse, than its discredited predecessor," he said.
Eliasson's friend, former Swedish Foreign Mnister Hans Blix, speaking to a group of U.N. employees this month, questioned whether some of the most basic reforms are possible, given the sharply divided interests of the membership, and the inherently undemocratic nature of the world body. "The United Nations is not a perfect organization, has many democratic deficits. The General Assembly, where China has one vote and where some other small tiny entity has one vote, is not a democratic institution representing the world. The Security Council is not a terribly democratic institution, either. And moreover, all the big powers act in their own political interest. They are not really thinking in terms of world interest, and those who want to get in there it seems to me they want to be there to pursue their interest rather than do something for the world," he said.
But with all the flaws, U.N. critics and defenders agree that the world body is indispensable. Professor Luck, who counts himself as both a U.N. defender and critic, observed that the organization's future always seems to be hanging in the balance. On the other hand, he predicts it will endure because, in his words "you can't pull away from something you need so badly."