December 9, 2004

December 9, 2004 | Commentary on

U.N. Reforms Unlikely

Last week, yet another group of Eminent Persons reported to the U.N. secretary general on cleaning out the Augean stables of the United Nations. Such reports come around periodically, usually when the secretary general in question starts contemplating his historic legacy. Meanwhile, huge international expectations build up around the much-anticipated pronouncements of the group.

Here is a bet that those over hyped expectations will be defeated yet again, and that "A more secure world: Our shared responsibility - Report of the Secretary General's High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change" will lead to little more than international recriminations and blame-shifting.

The endeavor grew out of Secretary Kofi Annan's deep frustration over the way the run-up to the Iraq war was handled in the United Nations, and his disapproval, oft expressed, of the U.S. decision to go to war.

Accordingly, the document attempts to "put forward a new vision of collective security, one that addresses all the major threats to international peace and security felt around the world" in the words of panel chairman and former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun. It's a tall order, and not surprisingly, strong reservations about the U.S. action are implied in much of the document.

Now, you even don't have to be an "eminent person" to recognize that the United Nations stands greatly in need of change. It is a major weakness of this report, unfortunately, that no mention whatsoever is made of the festering sore of corruption manifesting itself in the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal. Failure to recognize the damage done will certainly undermine the authority of Mr. Annan, whose resignation is now being widely called for, including by Sen. Norm Coleman and a number of members of Congress.

Given that the panel was able to stretch the definition of "security" to include issues such as the environment and public health, HIV/AIDS, etc., one would have thought that administrative reform to make the United Nations a more accountable and credible organization would also have been in order. But no.

"Our job was to look at the state of the world today on peace and security, compared with 1945," says panel members and former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft. Back then, the United Nations had 51 founding members. Today, 191 members sit in the General Assembly. In 1945, as the world came out of World War II, preventing conflict between states was the overriding motivation.

It is certainly true, as Mr. Scowcroft argues, that today, states are interdependent as never before, and our borders far more porous. Globalization has brought us growing trade, but also problems like international terrorism, transnational crime, smuggling, and more intangible and intractable threats.

Among the major recommendations of the 101 on the to-do list are: No actual change to U. N. Charter Article 51, which relates to national security, thankfully. This had been advocated by France and Germany to narrow the definition of self-defense. The panel instead does recognize a need for "preventive action," even in the absence of an "imminent" threat. This action, though, is recommended only with Security Council approval.

Also recommended is a Peacebuilding Commission to study the prevention of genocide and humanitarian disasters, like the one currently unfolding in Dafur, Sudan. With the deplorable track record of the United Nations in Sudan, Kosovo and Rwanda, it is clear new thinking is needed, and this may be a good first step.

On the 800-pound gorilla of U.N. reform, enlargement of the U.N. Security Council, the report punts. It recommends enlargement to 24 seats, though with no increase in the veto-carrying seats, and it includes two models. One provides for six new permanent members; the other proposes eight four-year renewable seats. Candidates are already lining up, among them Germany, Japan, India, and Brazil. Considering the political sensitivity of enlargement, it could -- and maybe should -- be that that no change will ever actually be feasible.

There is currently no leader or government inside the United Nations either possessing or willing to spend the huge amounts of political capital necessary to achieve real reform.

Mr. Annan is sorely wounded and may have to step down, and real pressure will only be applied through the U.S. Congress, which holds the purse strings of 22 percent of the U.N. budget.

We here in Washington cannot even manage to agree to cut the federal workforce, no matter how great the dedication of the occupant in the White House to principles of smaller government. And that is just a question of domestic politics and local interests within the United States. Imagine the towering challenge for reformers where national interests, global fiefdoms and diplomatic pork are involved. In other words, don't hold your breath.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times