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2003 & Beyond: Wounded UN Looks For Ways To Rebound, Reform

  • Robert McMahon

After a year in which it was dismissed, maligned, and brutally attacked, the United Nations is in the midst of soul searching about its role in maintaining world peace. The U.S. move to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, carried out despite strong opposition among UN membership, exposed deep rifts on the UN Security Council and raised questions about its ability to act against new threats. RFE/RL's UN correspondent reports on how the organization is attempting to reform.

United Nations, 17 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations ends one of the darkest years in its history at what Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called a fork in the road.

The war in Iraq damaged the UN's reputation. Its future stature may rest on its ability to rebound from events in New York and Baghdad.

Earlier this year, UN Security Council deliberations on the disarmament of Iraq broke down in acrimony. The United States in March led a coalition to topple Saddam Hussein without explicit Security Council approval.

In August, as the United Nations was carving out a role as a political broker in post-Hussein Iraq, terrorists attacked UN headquarters in Baghdad. It was the worst-ever attack against a UN facility, killing 22 staffers, including top envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was also the UN's high commissioner for human rights.

Annan opened the General Assembly's annual debate the following month with an appeal for member states to work together to build a democratic Iraq. More broadly, he said it was time for major decisions on UN reform. "I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental policy issues and other structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them," he said. "History is a harsh judge. It will not forgive us if we let this moment pass."

Annan said the organization's 191 members must decide whether to proceed with the collective security mechanisms founded in 1945 or decide on radical changes.

He raised alarm at the U.S. doctrine of preemptive strikes. But he also called on the Security Council to discuss how to mount collective action against new kinds of threats, such as terrorist groups armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Mustapha Tlili, the director of the United Nations Project at the World Policy Institute in New York, says Annan's speech summed up a dilemma caused in part by overwhelming U.S. power and its ability to act independently. Tlili told RFE/RL that UN members must find a solution that keeps Washington engaged in UN affairs:

"The interest of humankind is really in the balance, and it's not simply a matter of military arrangements, of peace and security. Because if you condemn the UN to irrelevance, it's the whole set of issues -- economic, social, humanitarian -- that go by the wayside. So, how to keep the U.S. involved in the UN? This is the big question," Tlili said.

For their part, U.S. officials stress the importance of the UN -- as a partner in Iraq, in fighting terrorism and a range of nonsecurity issues.

Earlier in the year, Washington questioned the credibility of the UN after failing to gain support for war in Iraq. But in the post-Hussein phase, the United States has repeatedly returned to the Security Council to confer legitimacy on its activities in Iraq. It has had mixed results.

In October, the Security Council voted unanimously to approve a U.S.-sponsored resolution seeking to expand international support for Iraq. But France, Germany, and Russia said they had reservations preventing them from pledging peacekeeping troops or further funds to Iraq.

Meanwhile, UN foreign staff remain outside Iraq, in part because Annan is awaiting clear directions from the council on the UN's role. It is not yet clear whether UN experts will return in time to guide elections, projected for early next summer.

The Security Council's continuing difficulty in uniting on Iraq signals troubling divisions. That's according to Michael Glennon, professor of international law at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. "The problems are deep and structural, and they're not problems with the architecture of the UN system," he said. "They're problems with the international community and rifts within the international community based upon differences of opinion on fundamental values."

Bulgaria's ambassador to the UN, Stefan Tafrov, whose country departs the Security Council next month after a two-year stint, believes there is a healing process under way on the council. He told RFE/RL that he did not see a major divergence in values on the Security Council over Iraq. But there is a clear need, he says, to improve its method of handling such crises.

"Divisions in the trans-Atlantic community are the worst thing which may happen to the Security Council. Situations like the one in Iraq should not be repeated. It's detrimental at the end of the day not just to the trans-Atlantic community, to my continent, to Europe, but also to the whole international community. Lessons should be learned and mechanisms should be updated to avoid what has happened," Tafrov said.

Security Council reform is among many issues that will be reviewed by a new expert panel Annan formed last month. The 16-member panel is to report back by next year's General Assembly on ways to confront challenges ranging from combating terrorism and weapons proliferation to eradicating poverty and safeguarding human rights.

The Security Council, the General Assembly, and little-known bodies such as the Economic and Social Council will all come under scrutiny by the experts, drawn from a wide range of disciplines.

One member of the panel is Nafis Sadik, a doctor from Pakistan who has been Annan's special envoy on HIV/AIDS in Asia. She says the panel should look at how issues such as disease, poverty, and rapid urbanization contribute to global instability and how they can move higher on the global agenda.

There have been many panels on UN reform, and member states have been notoriously slow in acting on some of their recommendations. Sadik told RFE/RL that the panel can draw on the setbacks of 2003 to lend fresh urgency to the need for reform. "A lot of things have already been said. I think the thing is to pull out from each of these the things that are relevant today and maybe try to link more of the social and economic agenda to the security agenda," she said. "So, have [short-term solutions] but also look at the longer-term and medium-term issues that will take much longer to address, but if addressed properly and consistently may avert situations like we've had in Iraq and other places."

Aside from the preoccupation with Iraq, UN officials say Afghanistan will be a crucial test for the will of member states. International promises of aid and security have fallen short for Afghanistan as it approaches a crucial period in its political reform. Without a muscular show of international security forces outside of Kabul, UN officials say, Afghanistan's first-ever presidential elections next year will be threatened.
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