United Nations

UN must not back away from reform challenge

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2005, 12:00am

A summit of world leaders in New York will be asked today to approve a blueprint for a United Nations that could meet the challenges of the 21st century. Predictably, the document has become a compromise between developed and developing nations that will leave no one happy.

It is hoped the final version will be more meaningful. The continued prevalence of conflict, violence and suffering show that - more than ever - a troubled world needs the effective multilateral approach to global problems that only the UN can provide.

The world body has suffered two grievous blows to its authority in recent times - one from without, and one from within. The first was the US invasion of Iraq without the backing of the Security Council. This struck at the peace mandate that is at the heart of the UN's existence. The second, last week, was the independent report on the Iraq oil-for-food programme which found mismanagement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan partly to blame for corruption involving billions of dollars. This provided ammunition to the world body's sternest critics.

Clearly, if the UN is to have the role in world affairs embodied in the original grand vision, it is badly in need of reform that will restore its authority and the respect of all its members. Today's summit was to be a new beginning. It was to consider a working document on global security including terrorism, human rights, extreme poverty and UN reform drawn up by Mr Annan.

The document has been emasculated by competing geopolitical interests. The developing nations have been left lamenting the outcome on trade and aid, while the United States and Europe have seen proposals on human rights and terrorism watered down. Developing nations have resisted important UN management reforms that would have given more decision-making power to the secretary-general's office and clipped their power in the General Assembly.

The uneasy relationship between the US and the UN since the invasion of Iraq has not made the process any easier. Indeed, US President George W. Bush's new envoy to the world body, John Bolton, is a scathing critic of the UN bureaucracy - demanding sweeping changes in Mr Annan's working proposals for reform.

Now, he is prominent among the diplomats trying to put a brave face on the document, describing it as an important first step towards more meaningful and sweeping changes. Given that UN members are being asked to accept their collective shortcomings in making the world a better place, that may be as much as we could realistically expect at this stage.

If the UN is capable of doing a better job in fulfilling its charter of resolving and preventing conflict and helping eradicate poverty and disease, then its members must continue to seek a way forward on reforms that will make it more effective.