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UN: Annan Calls For Fundamental Changes

  • Jeremy Bransten

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking at a press conference yesterday summing up his annual report to the General Assembly, said the United Nations must make sweeping reforms if it is to regain its lost authority in the wake of the Iraq war. Annan said the divisions caused by the Iraq crisis had shown the need for "real change" in the way the Security Council operates.

Prague, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Kofi Annan, the normally soft-spoken United Nations secretary-general, has issued a bold appeal for radical reform of the world body.

Annan's call is contained in his annual report to the UN's General Assembly, which he presented at a news conference in New York yesterday.

In that report, Annan says the United Nations and other world institutions must be fundamentally reorganized to effectively cope with the challenges of our day: war, terrorism, poverty, and human rights.

Annan does not mince words. In his report, the UN secretary-general criticizes the UN Security Council, established in the wake of World War II, as undemocratic and outdated. For years, practically all UN countries have agreed that the Council must somehow be expanded beyond its five veto-carrying permanent members and its 10 rotating nonpermanent representatives. But nearly a decade of discussions has so far proved fruitless.

Annan says the war in Iraq exposed deep divisions within the Council. He warns that "unless the Security Council regains the confidence of states and of world public opinion, individual states will increasingly resort exclusively to their own national perceptions of emerging threats and their own judgment on how best to address them."

More importantly, Annan told yesterday's news conference that not only is the Security Council split on key issues such as the postwar setup of Iraq, but the entire membership of the United Nations cannot agree on most questions facing the world today -- putting into question past agreements, such as the Millennium Declaration adopted by the UN General Assembly in the year 2000. That declaration pledged cooperation to carry out improvements on security, development, poverty, and human rights issues across the world.

"Events have shaken the international system. I am not even sure whether the consensus and the vision that the Millennium Declaration expressed are still intact. Member states have been sharply divided about some of the most fundamental issues that this organization was set up to deal with," Annan said.

Annan, in an indirect swipe at U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, criticized unilateralism as part of the problem.

"I think all states need to take more account of global realities and of each other's views and interests. They must set a higher priority on finding common ground and agreeing on common strategies rather than striking out on their own," he said.

Annan, who hails from the West African nation of Ghana, also said some countries' single-minded obsession with terrorism was overshadowing more important concerns in large parts of the world: poverty, local wars, and human rights abuses. He criticized the world body's response to massacres in Liberia and the Congo as "hesitant and tardy." He also called for a renewed commitment to legitimate international intervention, and asked Western countries to honor their three-year-old pledge to provide peacekeeping troops.

Although Annan's call for major reform at the United Nations is put forcefully in his report, many of the points underscored by the secretary-general are not new.

Marc Cogen, professor of international law at Belgium's Ghent University, agrees with Annan that the United Nations' structures, created in 1945, need major updating -- especially the Security Council. When picking new permanent members to the Security Council to create a more equitable structure, Cogen says two factors should be weighed: a country's population size and its democratic credentials. Large, democratic powers such as India and Brazil, he believes, should have permanent membership, as they fulfill both criteria.

Cogen says one of the problems with the current United Nations -- one of the sources of its impotence and diminished prestige in places such as the United States -- is the fact that many countries are awarded plum posts not by virtue of their accomplishments but because of back-room politics.

"If we look upon the United Nations today, we notice that countries like Syria and Libya -- that are violating human rights, that are no democracies -- are able to man several organs of the United Nations and this is detrimental to the credibility of the UN system too. So this is a matter of policy and qualified membership," Cogen says.

Annan lamented the slow pace of decision-making in the current United Nations. Wouldn't expanding the number of permanent members on the Security Council further slow the process? Cogen argues that given the proper reforms, such as abolishing the permanent members' sole right of veto, greater representatives need not mean more gridlock. Cogen cites the European Union as an example.

"We have some experience in Europe, with European integration, of solving unanimity by a gradual process of qualified majority voting. I would suggest that the United Nations take advantage of the experience of the European Union to go ahead, step-by-step, by making a decision [to switch] from unanimity to a mechanism of qualified majority for some matters. So there are a lot of possible scenarios to have a step-by-step approach to solve this problem," Cogen says.

Another fundamental problem with the current United Nations, says Cogen, is the position of the secretary-general himself -- something Annan did not include in his report.

Cogen tells RFE/RL that when the United Nations was created in 1945 as a postwar successor to the defunct League of Nations, the founding states decided to maintain the tradition of having the body's leader be a respected civil servant. That was a mistake, Cogen believes, and he says that in order to raise the profile of the UN, the organization's head must be more than a competent and respected bureaucrat.

"When the United Nations came in as a successor in 1945, it took over the civil servant concept. And Mr. Kofi Annan is the prototype himself," Cogen says. "Kofi Annan rose as a civil servant through the ranks of the United Nations, to finally become the secretary-general. I think the world needs a well-known political figure at the head of the UN to give guidance and direction and to be the face of this organization."

Whatever becomes of the current United Nations -- whether it is reformed or continues to lose its standing -- one thing is clear, according to Cogen. The world, for the foreseeable future, needs a global body to help resolve global problems. But priority must be given to encouraging and rewarding democracies to a far greater degree than the current UN does, Cogen says.

"We see that democracies are spreading, even in places where they didn't exist before, like in Africa. An example is South Africa. South Africa was a problem state. Now, in the post-apartheid period, it is a young but flourishing democracy -- with some problems, but it is a democracy and it should be given credit. So I'm not pessimistic about democracy. Look, if the United Nations itself does not give the example to favor these democratic states, then what hope is there for the world that democracy is the regime that is recognized all over the world?" Cogen says.

The UN secretary-general has written to 191 world leaders asking them to attend the UN General Assembly meeting in two weeks' time to debate its priorities. U.S. President George W. Bush, French President Jacques Chirac, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are among the leaders that have accepted the invitation.