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UN: World Body Must Reform To Confront New Threats

  • Robert McMahon --> UN Security Council A high-level panel has recommended sweeping institutional reforms of the United Nations, including an expansion of the UN Security Council and new mechanisms to aid failing states. The panel, commissioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says the 60-year-old world body is inadequately equipped to cope with new dangers confronting the international community. Panel members stressed that "soft threats" such as poverty and disease can be as destabilizing as those posed by conflict, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction.

United Nations, 1 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The 16-member United Nations panel, formed in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, urged wide-ranging reform in the way the UN confronts global threats.

The 95-page report, released yesterday, contains 101 recommendations on how to deal with new threats. Significantly, it stressed that Security Council consent should be required before any member state takes preventive action against a threat seen as nonimminent.

A senior UN official who briefed the media said the report was not passing judgment on the legitimacy of the Iraq war but seeking to build consensus for coping with future security threats.

The report defines a wider scope of threats that could justify military action, including states committing genocide. It also recommends that the Security Council take tougher measures to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear proliferation.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters that Secretary-General Kofi Annan plans to focus his remaining time in office on carrying through the report's recommendations.

"His efforts to overhaul this organization are reaching a climax with the release this week of the high-level panel report. He'll take the last two years of his mandate to try to get as many of those recommendations implemented as he can," Eckhard said.

Annan is due to report to the UN General Assembly in March with recommendations drawn from the panel.

The panel calls economic development the basis for a collective security system because it can help states confront almost every kind of threat. It recommends spending $10 billion dollars annually to combat HIV/AIDS and completing global trade talks by 2006 to reduce poverty in developing countries.

The report includes a definition of terrorism, which has eluded the UN General Assembly for a decade. It describes terrorism as any action "intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or noncombatants" with the purpose of influencing governments or international organizations.

The definition is considered significant because of the diversity of the panel, which includes the head of the Arab League, Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa. Arab states have generally argued for exemptions in defining terrorism in the case of attacks against "foreign occupation," to exclude Palestinian suicide bombers.

The panel also accused the UN Human Rights Commission of abandoning its goal of promoting rights to focus instead on protecting members such as Cuba and Libya from allegations of abuse. It recommended expanding the commission and appointing experts to it rather than diplomats.

Edward Luck, an expert on the UN Security Council and professor at Columbia University, told RFE/RL he was impressed by the scope of the report. Luck said it recognizes the unprecedented interconnectivity of the world.

"I think the whole idea of the panel is that we have common interests and common threats here and some may look like they strike one part of the world more than others, but in the end with globalization and interdependence they all do come together. My sense is that's the right way to think about it," Luck said.

The report recommended an expansion of the Security Council from 15 to 24 seats to be more representative of regions and emerging powers. But in a reflection of divisions among panel members it offered two models -- one providing more permanent seats without vetoes and the other creating a category of renewable four-year seats.

Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India are among the countries seeking permanent seats.

Luck, who has advised the UN on council reform in the past, says there is a danger that an expansion could impede the functioning of the council.

"You can't have 24 states do the kinds of tradeoffs and the kinds of consultations that are required to work towards an agreement among the major powers. There are times having additional members can be very helpful. They can be sort of the conscience of the organization and they can raise issues that the permanent ones don't want to focus on. But the larger the number, the more countries are going to feel marginalized on the council," Luck said.

There was no immediate response to the report from the Bush administration, which has criticized the Security Council for failing to enforce its own resolutions on Iraq's disarmament.

Elizabeth Cousens is an expert on nation-building issues and vice president of the International Peace Academy, a nongovernmental research institute. She tells RFE/RL that the report addresses many U.S. national security concerns. U.S support of the reform effort, she said, is essential.

"I think they have made a case that should be very persuasive in the U.S. but really depends on whether the U.S. sees a strengthened multilateral framework as able to respond to the security threats that it may feel uniquely matter to it," Cousens said.

Washington is expected to scrutinize the proposals dealing with pre-emptive use of force. The UN Charter permits the use of force in two cases: under Article 51, in self-defense if an attack occurs; and under Chapter 7, if authorized by the Security Council, in the event of a breach of or threat to world peace.

Under customary international law, a preemptive strike in self-defense has also been permitted where an attack is "imminent."

The panel rejects an expansion of the scope of self-defense under Article 51. It calls instead for the Security Council to consider authorization of action against certain types of threats seen as urgent but not imminent. That could involve terrorist groups on the verge of acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Cousens says the panel's report affirms the responsibility of states to be what she called "first responders" to a range of security threats. The 191 members of the UN, she says, can now show how committed they are to real reform.

"I think this is a critical moment for the UN as an institution and for the entire membership both in the short term and in the much longer term and the question is how bold and, in a sense responsible and responsive, the membership is in seizing this moment," Cousens said.

Panel members included former U.S. National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, former Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister and ex-head of the World Health Organization.