All the talk at the United Nations for the past year has been about reform at September’s World Summit. The campaign was ardently pushed by Secretary General Kofi Annan after the UN was ignored by the United States in its 2003 invasion of Iraq. Annan’s ambitious reform agenda, designed to make the UN more indispensable, centered on the Security Council’s role, genocide, nuclear threats, terrorism, pre-emptive war, human rights abuses, economic needs and UN management problems. Unfortunately, Annan’s crusade came to a jolting halt at the recent gathering in New York.
The unexpressed hope had been that the leading liberal democracies of the world, drawing on Annan’s proposals, would exchange their help in alleviating Third World poverty for the developing world’s acceptance of the security, human rights and UN management changes they wanted. This would mean passing some or all of the following reforms: authorizing more direct UN intervention to stop genocide, nuclear proliferation and terrorism; restructuring the UN’s lame Human Rights Commission; reorganizing the UN’s faulty internal management system; and expanding aid abroad. But all these ran up against barriers of one sort or another.
First, the UN got waylaid by a fracas over the issue of expanding the Security Council. For most of the past six months, the controversy converged on a subject peripheral to the North-South deal but far more glamorous to the media. One group of nations–Japan, Germany, India and Brazil–made a joint effort to get onto the Council. However, the African Union rejected the initiative, and China, one of the Council’s five veto-bearing countries, also objected to the quartet, especially to Japan. The United States, another permanent member, had reservations about Germany. If Japan and Germany couldn’t make it, it seemed unlikely that any other states could gain permanent membership. And even if any did, would they also get the veto? And would expansion impede the effectiveness of the Council? Because of these nagging questions, Annan eventually decided to put off the issue until December. It is now unlikely that Security Council reform will happen at all.
In the meantime, UN diplomats were patiently stitching together a forty-page reform package. As they made progress, though, George W. Bush suddenly appointed UN antagonist John Bolton as UN ambassador in August. The notoriously combative Bolton, despite being a late entrant into the fray, demanded more than 700 changes to the document, including elimination of all mention of the Millennium Development Goals the United States backed in 2000 to eradicate global poverty–the very reason for this summit–as well as all references to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, global warming and enhancement of the General Assembly’s powers.
Bolton’s deletions, reflecting the Bush Administration’s continuing hostility to multilateralism, reopened the debate over reforms. The smaller nations, resentful of Bolton’s intrusion, now jumped in with their own alterations. The unhappiness of those countries was especially acute over security, human rights and management proposals. The call for the UN to intervene in cases where a government may be committing massive human rights violations against its own people–the “responsibility to protect” provision–upset many weaker countries, who feared it might give the UN the right to meddle in their domestic affairs. Some smaller states were also troubled by a recommendation to replace the oversized and flawed Human Rights Commission with a reduced Human Rights Council. Systemic violators treasured the old setup, and poorer states were irritated by the fact that there would be fewer spots for them on the new council. There was also concern about a proposal to give the Secretary General more power over UN management, taking such authority away from the General Assembly. This could amplify the influence of big donors and diminish that of impoverished states. And some Arab nations opposed a redefinition of terrorism that would outlaw targeting civilians to intimidate governments, believing it would hamper legitimate Palestinian self-defense.