March 23, 2005

March 23, 2005 | Commentary on

Annan in search of a legacy

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is a man in search of a legacy. A legacy, however, is something you build up over time, like an edifice carefully constructed, action by action, decision by decision. Ultimately, it adds up to a record for history to judge. Unfortunately for Mr. Annan, there is a very real possibility that his legacy at the helm of the United Nations will be an organization that has been riddled with corruption, financial scandals, mismanagement and outright abuse.

In New York on Monday, Mr. Annan took steps to leave a more positive legacy that he may be hoping would deflect attention from a flawed tenure. He unveiled a much-anticipated package of reforms, designed, so he told the U.N. General Assembly, to "bring the organization into line with the realities of the 21st century." The secretary-general also invoked Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms of the Soviet Union - "glasnost and perestroika" - as a description of what he wants to achieve. The problem with that analogy is, of course, that the Soviet Union turned out to be unreformable and even tually collapsed.

Mr. Annan will be lobbying for his reform plan between now and the General Assembly in September, unless countries knocking on the door of the Security Council manage to get a special session called before then to consider expansion of the Council. Mr. Annan is building on the work of the High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, an eminent persons group, which in November produced the report "A more secure world: Our shared responsibility."

Among Mr. Annan's proposals is expanding the U.N. Security Council from 15 to 24 members, which could be good news to countries like Germany, Japan, Brazil and India, who have been lobbying for permanent seats on the council. (Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already endorsed a seat for Japan, presumably as a way to bolster Japan's engagement in international affairs, a goal sought by the Bush administration.) Expanding the Security Council, however, will surely open a Pandora's box. While the council in its present form does not reflect the world of the 21st century, it is already unwieldy and rife with political conflicts. It is a flawed body, and enlarging it is not likely to make it any more functional.

A major section of Mr. Annan's plan is devoted to a broad vision of collective security. This is a wide-ranging agenda, which will need further analyzing. For instance, creating a doctrine for international intervention in failed states should be treated with the utmost caution, violating, as it does, the principle of sovereignty.

On the other hand, giving real teeth to non-proliferation efforts through the International Atomic Energy Agency's verification protocol could help us deal with states like Iran. Establishing a new Peacekeeping Commission might also be helpful, provided it were intended to set and implement standards for U.N. peacekeepers, who have recently come under fire for horrendous human-rights abuses in the Congo and elsewhere.

On the question of international development, Mr. Annan has regrettably bought into the idea of a global development goal of 0.7 percent of gross national income from developed nations. That would neither be in the interest of developed or developing countries, as free trade and the rule of law remain the primary drivers of development.

On one score, Mr. Annan is absolutely right - the abolition of the Commission on Human Rights. The commission suffers, as his report states, from "declining credibility and professionalism." There is currently no mechanism to bar countries with appalling records on human rights, like Sudan or Cuba, from sitting on the commission where they make a mockery of its mission. Mr. Annan would replace the commission with a smaller Human Rights Council under the General Assembly. Whether that would function any better depends on the membership criteria applied.

Mr. Annan is asking for an up-or-down vote on his package of proposals, which he would like to see adopted as a whole. This is not likely to happen. Meanwhile, other proposals for reform are in the works. This summer, yet another set of reform proposals will be forthcoming here in Washington from the congressionally mandated Task Force on the United Nations.

Real reform would mean a tough approach to accountability, transparency and anti-corruption efforts, and U.N. Ambassador-designate John Bolton is just the man to lead such an endeavor. At the very least, we should hold the U.N. secretariat to the same standards we demand of our national governments.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies of the Heritage Foundation. 

About the Author

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

First appeared in The Washington Times