Annan's legacy will be shaped by reform effort
Sixty years after its founding, the United Nations is facing its biggest credibility crisis. More than ever before, internal deadlock is keeping the organisation from fulfilling its prime mandate - preventing deadly conflict - while recent allegations of official corruption and misbehaviour have gone right to the top echelons of the organisation.
Nothing short of sweeping reforms in the UN structure will be able to save it from an impending irrelevance. Secretary-General Kofi Annan knows this. His report on proposed fixes was released this week, setting the stage for urgently needed debate before world leaders meet at a UN summit in September.
Doing away with the widely derided Human Rights Commission, expanding the Security Council, pushing for fresh consensus on when military force can be used and for an international definition of terrorism are all on Mr Annan's agenda. He has also called for a review of overlapping and sprawling UN programmes, as well as strengthening internal oversight.
A new peace-building body would help build institutions and reinforce treaties. Inability to follow through in this area has brought some of the UN's most tragic failures of the past decade and a half.
Mr Annan's endorsement of comprehensive change is encouraging. Questions remain, however, about how far the reforms will be allowed to go. Resistance is likely to be strong from member countries that stand to see their influence diluted, as well as from those who have benefited from a sprawling bureaucracy that has long guaranteed 'jobs for the boys', as one of Mr Annan's aides has put it. Much will depend on Mr Annan's determination and persuasive abilities.
As much as this is a make-or-break year for UN reform, it is equally so for the secretary-general's legacy. Nearing the end of a 10-year mandate, Mr Annan is expected to announce his retirement soon - not before assuring the changes are meaningful, it is hoped.
High on the list must be attempts to forge broad international agreement on terrorism and the use of pre-emptive force - areas where lack of agreement has eroded the UN's authority. Agreement here would be a big achievement. This week's report backs some of the recommendations submitted to Mr Annan by outside advisers in December. On the question of pre-emptive military force, Mr Annan agreed that it is sometimes a necessary reaction to imminent threats, genocide or other crimes, but that stringent and transparent tests must be applied.
Implicit in all this is reviving a central role for the Security Council in applying these tests and approving any military action. Reforming the Security Council to make it work better, not bypassing it, is the appropriate response, he says.
The challenge of Security Council reform, however, cannot be underestimated. The two formulas now on the table add varying numbers of permanent and non-permanent members, but both propose boosting membership to 24 from the current 15. Neither proposal tackles the main reason the grouping is so dysfunctional: five of its members wield veto power over all resolutions, ensuring that the body has become a tool of power politics, not a weapon of peace. Mr Annan's report does not even mention this issue.
Expanding membership alone might put a more slightly democratic face on the council but will do little to improve its effectiveness. The report did leave the door open for other ideas on Security Council reform to be considered; we hope they will be.
Mr Annan's report is sprinkled with references to the internal management problems the UN has faced in recent years. It also includes promises to increase accountability and streamline the organisation. Such systemic reforms are essential. The world still very much needs the UN. But only a strong, healthy UN that commands moral authority can hope to carry out its sweeping mandates to provide security and aid development.