Those conservatives who think that “UN Reform” means the dissolution of the United Nations are now calling for the resignation of Kofi Annan. They cannot forgive the organization or its secretary general for being proven right about Iraq. Indeed, none of them were exactly friends of the UN even before that.

Sadly, the dust they are raising about the alleged UN oil-for- food scandal obscures the importance of a report that Annan has just delivered on how the world, and the UN, should cope with the threats of the new century. The report, A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility, was prepared by a high-level panel Annan appointed a year ago. The report’s recommendations need approval from two-thirds of the whole membership and, above all, of the five current permanent members of the Security Council, each of whom has the right to veto any changes in the UN Charter.

Many people will focus on what the report says about which countries should be on the Security Council. But the panel concerned itself more with the far more important question of what the Council, General Assembly and Secretariat should be doing. In brief, the report says that in the face of global threats, whether from poverty, plague, terrorism or aggression, the only solutions are global, collective responses. Indeed, much of the report is an appeal to member states to implement the commitments they’ve already made on such issues as disarmament, development aid, HIV/AIDS and developing-country access to Northern markets.

To some extent, the panel was a rescue operation for some of the essential concepts that Annan wants embedded in the organization by the end of his second term, in 2006. One of those is the concept of humanitarian intervention. Annan asked at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica–to gross and systematic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” That question was obscured by September 11, which at US insistence gave terrorism prime place on the global agenda, along with the invasion of Iraq. The invasion also did much to confirm the fears of many governments about the cynical expediency of both the “war on terror” and humanitarian intervention–which George W. Bush and Tony Blair retroactively invoked when faced with the failure of their first excuse, Iraqi weaponry.

The report tries to reconcile these fears and threats and goes a long way toward addressing rational US concerns. It offers, for example, a reasonable working definition of “terrorism” for the first time, rescuing the term from those who invoke freedom-fighter status to excuse atrocities and from those in Washington who use it as a pejorative term for any dissent from their imperial project.

People and governments who genuinely want to avert civil wars and similar man-made catastrophes will welcome the panel’s proposal for a peace-building commission tasked with monitoring and averting impending crises that could lead to social and national breakdowns.

The report concludes that pre-emptive operations against imminent threats may well be necessary and legal–agreeing with Blair that humanitarian intervention is already inherent in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights–but not if they are unilateral. The report reiterates UN Charter Article 51, forbidding the use of force except in self-defense or with Security Council authorization and with a set of criteria that would prevent aggressive countries from using humanitarian excuses. In an implied rebuke to the unilateral US action in Iraq, it points out, “Allowing one to so act is to allow all.” The report also takes the global community to task for its tardiness in responding to Darfur and for having allowed recidivist human rights violators like Sudan to crowd into the Human Rights Commission.

But if the rest of the world is to continue to respect the Security Council’s powers to legitimize force, the report argues, its membership must be more reflective of the modern world, with representation for countries like Japan and Germany, which were excluded in 1945, and for the developing world. The report warns, however, that this expansion should not be at the expense of the Security Council’s effectiveness. Recognizing that it is politically impossible to take the veto away from the existing permanent members, it recommends against giving it to new members. It also calls attention to the existing, albeit often overlooked, provision in the Charter that says that members, whether permanent or temporary, should be chosen with “due regard being specially paid, in the first instance to the contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

With the difficulty of consensus in mind, the report offers two alternative solutions: either six new permanent and three new temporary members (who would sit for two years, as at present) or an additional eight “semi-permanent” members (who would sit for four years) and one new temporary member. While Japan, Germany, Brazil, India and South Africa are often mentioned as suitable candidates for new permanent seats, there are other aspirants prepared to filibuster them, not to mention countries like China and the United States that weigh applicants by how often they have lent them unconditional support lately. One could wish that the better-intentioned members like Germany, rather than waste too much effort on a diplomatic push for a permanent seat, would use their self-evident credentials to lead other members toward implementing the most important part of the reforms, those that depend on states living up to their pledges and international obligations.

The report argues, with Annan’s backing, that “capable and responsible states must be on the front line” against global threats. Sadly the state with the most capability shows signs of growing irresponsibility as a global citizen. If only to insure Annan’s cooperation in the Iraq project, its President seems to be tacitly supporting the throwbacks in Congress baying for Annan’s blood. It’s time for the Democrats and the increasingly embattled rational wing of the GOP to insist on a constructive engagement with the rest of the world in general and with the United Nations in particular, both on this report and on reform of the UN.