There has long been talk to fix anachronisms of the UN system rooted in the post-World War II power structure. But fresh momentum for change comes from a recent report issued by a panel of 16 prominent figures formed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The panel issued more than 100 recommendations for making the UN more effective. The main thrust of the report is that in an era of increasing interconnectedness, the UN cannot treat issues such as terrorism, civil war, or poverty in isolation.
The panel's research director, Stephen Stedman, said it was trying to convey a sense of urgency about the need for a new security consensus at the UN.
"The fact of the matter is that there are a number of things that make it absolutely urgent that you make this place more efficient, more effective, and more equitable on how it provides collective security for everyone," Stedman said.
Annan has vowed to follow through on many recommendations. He will outline his own reform plan in March, which would help set the agenda for the September summit on carrying out the UN Millennium Development Goals.
There were signs by the end of 2004 that UN member states were prepared to move forward on two divisive issues: expanding the Security Council and agreeing on a workable definition for terrorism. The panel offered two options for expanding the council to 24 members, and Germany, Japan, Brazil, and India have gained support in a campaign to make them permanent members.
The report also includes a definition of terrorism that says targeting civilians can never be justified, including in situations of resistance to an occupying army. The fact that the panel included Arab League chief Amr Moussa has raised expectations for a long-sought comprehensive convention on terrorism.
But amid reform efforts Annan could be confronted by new details about UN mismanagement of the oil-for-food program in Iraq. There are eight investigations of the program, including an independent UN inquiry led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
Volcker is due to make his first report in January and will then share internal UN audits with investigators in the U.S. Congress. The head of one U.S. congressional inquiry, Senator Norm Coleman (Minnesota, Republican), has called for Annan to resign because of his failure to immediately turn over requested documents and poor handling of the program.
U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Danforth on 9 December offered Annan qualified support, but added it was crucial that all allegations into fraud be investigated.
"We are expressing confidence in the secretary-general and in his continuing in office," Danforth said. "We're also saying that the investigation is critically important, that there is cloud over the United Nations, there's no doubt about it, that the only way to dispel the cloud is to let the sunlight in, and that means a thorough investigation."
Many UN states have expressed support for Annan, saying the charges by some U.S. legislators are unfair.
Romania's UN ambassador Mihnea Motoc, in an interview with RFE/RL, expressed a widely held view that Annan is crucial to the reform effort and could be sidelined by the oil-for-food inquiry.
"We all want to see the organization as such and its leader, the secretary-general, not hampered and not impaired in their driving force role expected in the context of promoting reform," Motoc said. "So we need them to be able to fully focus on what is largely perceived as exceptional window of opportunity for transforming the organization."
It is not yet clear how the United States, the UN's biggest donor, regards the reform plan. Experts on UN affairs say the reforms address U.S. priorities like improving the UN's capacity on counterterrorism, nonproliferation, and state building.
Parag Khanna, a senior analyst at the U.S.-based Brookings Institutions, told RFE/RL that the panel's proposal for a permanent UN peace-building commission -- to guide countries through postconflict reconstruction -- would take advantage of one of the UN's strengths.
But Khanna said the need for multiparty coalition diplomacy to deal with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs also points out some of the UN's limitations.
"The UN is probably not the best place to be coordinating all global counterterrorism efforts because it requires the kind of nimble diplomacy and quick response time and things like that that the UN simply can't deliver at this point in time," Khanna said.
The reform process is also likely to involve deep discussions about the UN's human rights mechanisms, in particular the 53-member human rights commission that meets once a year in Geneva. The panel's recommendation to open up the flawed commission to all 191 UN members was met by criticism from some human rights watchdogs.
The UN representative of Human Rights Watch, Joanna Weschler, told RFE/RL the UN General Assembly's 191-member rights committee this year has been even less effective than the human rights commission. The human rights commission in April set up a monitoring mechanism for Sudan but the General Assembly committee last month voted to defer action on a resolution meant to pressure Sudan to improve conditions in Darfur.
"Six months later, you have the [General Assembly] putting a gag order on itself in the midst of what some describe as genocide," Weschler said. "What is going on? It is really, really, really serious."
Sudan could prove to be a test of whether the world body is committed to the types of actions called for by the high-level panel. Nearly a year after UN officials labeled Darfur the world's worst humanitarian situation, the Security Council has appeared impotent in bringing the violence there to a stop.