Outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has been pushing for reform of the institution throughout his decade-long tenure. In this report from Washington, Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at two reforms passed by the General Assembly, one having to do with peacekeeping and the other with trying to prevent acts of genocide and gross violations of human rights.
The United Nations is engaged in 18 peacekeeping missions around the world. More than 90,000 soldiers and support personnel are involved in places like Cyprus, Western Sahara, Georgia, Liberia, Haiti and Kosovo.
Often referred to as "Blue Helmets" because of their distinctive headgear, U.N. peacekeepers play a variety of roles, including monitoring peace agreements, supervising elections and helping provide reconstruction aid.
Former U.N. Under-Secretary General Brian Urquhart says the responsibility of U.N. peacekeepers is vital, but limited in scope.
He said, "Because one of the problems with the U.N. is that it's been very successful in peacekeeping, and then it has tended to leave the scene of the crime, which then reverts to some fearful form of violence or corruption or failure of some kind."
In an effort to expand the role of the United Nations in post-conflict areas, the General Assembly has created a new Peacebuilding Commission. The 31-member commission will expand the U.N. role beyond peacekeeping to assist countries in the very difficult transition from war to peace following a civil war.
Experts say this will mean helping nations in a variety of areas, such as reforming police forces, helping create a national army, making government institutions more effective, forming political parties and assisting in the creation of an independent and responsible media.
Analysts say, all of this will take time, but the creation of this commission is an important step in helping countries recover from devastating civil wars.
Experts say U.N. members also agreed on an important principle: to intervene in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing.
That principle is known as the responsibility to protect. And Nancy Soderberg, former alternate U.S. representative to the United Nations (1997-2001) says that is a revolutionary idea.
"The U.N. is founded on the basis of sovereignty, meaning that each country is responsible for its own affairs, and no country has a right to intervene in the internal affairs of another member. And that's enshrined in the [U.N.] charter, and it is very much how the U.N. drives. After the debacle of Bosnia, and, particularly, the genocide in Rwanda, the secretary-general said, 'we need to think again about what responsibility the international community has when things like this happen.' And, he pulled together the brightest minds in the world, and they came up with this new theory, which is the 'responsibility to protect' - which says, when a state is either unwilling or unable to protect its population, the issue of sovereignty yields to the responsibility of the international community to protect them," she said.
Analysts say, while the doctrine of the responsibility to protect has been accepted by the United Nations, the key issue is how do you implement it?
Michael Doyle was an adviser to outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
He said, "So, at the level of principle or doctrine, this is a good step forward. At the level of practice, the jury is still out. We have a case in front of us now called Darfur, where, whether it's technically, legally genocide or not is disputed. But whether horrendous ethnic cleansing - rapes, murders, all sorts of other abuses are taking place - is not disputed. And, so, we will see whether the Security Council steps up and fulfills these new responsibilities that have been identified for it by the entire membership. We don't know yet."
For the past three years, Sudanese forces and pro-government Arab militias have been fighting rebel groups in Darfur. Khartoum is accused of war crimes against the region's black African population. As of now, Sudan has prevented a U.N. force from entering Darfur.
Experts say it is essential for the international community to act now to put teeth into the new principle of the responsibility to protect.