Recent studies and reports have concluded that the United Nations, as it reaches the age of 60, is in urgent need of reform. The latest report, an examination of the world body's failings in the Iraq oil-for-food program, paints a bleak picture of an organization bogged down by weak leadership, a lack of accountability and, in some cases, corruption. But reform has proven elusive. An attempt to enact a reform package at this week's 60th anniversary summit has faltered under the weight of vastly differing visions among member states about what the United Nations should be.
Paul Volcker, speaking to the Security Council on the U.N.-run oil-for-food program for Iraq, delivers a blistering verdict on the organization's failures.
"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 Volcker. "Instead, the problems are symptomatic of deep-seated systemic issues. Those issues arise in an organization designed 60 years ago for a simpler time, an organization then without large and complex operational challenges alongside its political and diplomatic responsibilities," he said.
Volcker's comments highlight the world body's weaknesses. But they also underline the extent to which the institution has evolved since 1945, when the United Nations was born out of the ashes of World War Two.
Today, the secretary-general is widely viewed as a sort of global diplomat-in-chief. And the United Nations has evolved from a conference site to a worldwide agency with powerful peacekeeping, counter-terrorism and disaster relief branches that could not have been foreseen 60 years ago.
It is perhaps no accident that there has not been another world war in the six decades since the United Nations was founded. But the need for a re-examination of the organization's role was never more evident than in 2003, when the Security Council proved unable to act on Iraq.
Following that failure, with the institution's reputation at a low ebb, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on the General Assembly to revive a long-stalled reform effort.
"Excellencies, we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded," said Annan.
Annan then named a panel to study reform. Armed with their recommendations, he went back to the General Assembly last March to lay out his vision for updating the world body for the 21st century. He urged world leaders to approve a reform package when they come to New York for a 60th anniversary summit.
"My hope is that world leaders, when they arrive in September, will be ready to take the decisions that are needed," said Annan.
Annan's proposals included enlarging the Security Council, creating a peace-building commission and a stronger U.N. human rights agency, agreeing on a definition of terrorism, and sweeping management reform. But almost from the beginning, most of the reforms seemed doomed, as member states squabbled over details.
With days to go before the summit, Washington's U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, told the Security Council that even the most basic management reforms suggested by Mr. Volcker were in doubt.
"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 U.N. and its programs by the Secretariat," Bolton said. "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 U.N. is fine," he said.
U.N. expert and Columbia University Professor Edward Luck says "business as usual" often wins out, simply because reaching agreement among member states is so difficult. He calls Secretary-General Annan's attempt to tie reform to the anniversary summit a misjudgment, and predicts the world body will muddle on, much as it is, for the foreseeable future.
"There's no fork in the road. There's no fundamental recasting of the organization," Prof. Luck said. "The U.N. has evolved in particular directions because that's the way the membership as a whole wanted it to be. It is not God's gift to mankind. It's a flawed institution that members are comfortable with," he said.
At the same time, there is clear evidence that the world body is rapidly evolving, in spite of the disagreements among members. Its role in organizing international cooperation on counter-terrorism and peacekeeping are but two examples.
Prof. Luck says it is sometimes easy to overlook dramatic evolution the organization has undergone since the charter was written in 1945. Luck points out that the founding document makes no mention of several concepts that are today considered among the world body's core principles.
"The word 'democracy' is not used in the U.N. charter," Luck said. "We have come to expect that countries ought to be democratic, and, I think, in many ways, we've won that battle internationally, in that, even countries that are not, go out of their way to pretend they are? The word 'representation' is not used in the charter, any more than 'democracy' is. But the organization has changed. It tries to reflect the world now, and the world, unfortunately, isn't always just the way you want it," he said.
Diplomats involved in negotiations on a summit declaration say the document is not likely to contain much in the way of substantive reforms. Debate on the main issues will continue throughout the next year, and probably long after, especially in areas such as strengthening human rights protections, and helping nations recovering from the ravages of war.