There are signals that a top-level panel appointed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan is close to consensus on expanding council membership.
Annan formed the panel in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The war -- justified as a preemptive or preventive attack -- badly split the council. Annan called on the panel to help the council better cope with the issue of preventive war in the future.
The work of the panel has generated new hope among four countries -- Germany, India, Japan, and Brazil -- for an expanded role on the Security Council.
It's not clear what changes are under way but talk is of expanding the council to 24 members. The five permanent members -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France, and China -- would remain in place, but be joined by a group of semi-permanent members which could serve for a renewable term of four or five years.
Germany's UN Ambassador Guenter Plueger says officials from the four countries are meeting on the sidelines of the assembly to discuss ways of crafting a new resolution in the assembly. "The establishment of the panel, the reform efforts of President [Julian] Hunte for the General Assembly, all this has created a new momentum for reform and I can't say whether that will succeed but at least we have a chance, I think, next year to have another try at reform," he said. "If we succeed I think it's good for the UN. If we don't, we won't be suffering from that, but the UN will suffer and that can't be in anybody's interests."
The panel's stress on Security Council membership is encouraging to international law experts like Anne-Marie Slaughter, the dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. "It suggests that the various members of the panel, all of whom are talking to their governments, see membership reform as part of an overall discussion about how the United Nations can best meet a set of new security challenges," she told RFE/RL. "That's striking. They didn't have to go down this road. In fact, the way the mandate of the panel was ultimately drafted they could simply focus on new threats."
Panel members include former U.S. national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Russian Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov, as well as representatives of the other three permanent Security Council states. They will deliver their recommendations to Annan by 1 December. He will then to put forward a set of proposals for the General Assembly meeting in 2005.
Any amendment on restructuring the Security Council would require approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly. That must include all five permanent council members.
Although Security Council reform has generated the most discussion, the panel's most important task is to deal with preemptive attacks. This has taken on more urgency following statements by Russian officials asserting their right to mount such attacks against Chechen terrorists.
Princeton University's Slaughter said she believes there needs to be a new doctrine guiding the council. "We need a collective doctrine of whether we call it preemption or we call it early authorization of coercive measures -- or I would prefer calling it prevention -- but making it clear that that really means the Security Council being seized of an issue early and using a whole range of diplomatic and economic measures backed with the threat of force if necessary to try to put out a crisis before it really flares all the way," Slaughter said.
Annan has met with the panel several times to stress the need for dealing with the preventive-war issue, according to his spokesman, Fred Eckhard. "He clearly wants them to address the issue of preventive war, which, in the case of the invasion of Iraq, was a very divisive action within the Security Council and raises questions of the charter and international law in a fundamental way," Eckhard said.
But even if the panel unites behind a new preventive-war doctrine, it is unlikely the United States would accept UN restraints on acts it sees as necessary to protect its national security.
Annan and U.S. President George W. Bush will address the assembly on 21 September. Bush also plans sideline meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.