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UN: Still Haunted By Iraq, UN Hosts Summit On Reform

Heads of state and government from more than 170 countries will gather in New York on 14-16 September with the aim of reviving the United Nations. The summit on UN reform is an opportunity for leaders to affirm an agenda to fight global poverty, as well as to restore ties damaged by the war in Iraq. Fallout from the UN's handling of the Iraq oil-for-food program was echoing through UN headquarters just days before the summit's start. And differences over issues ranging from weapons proliferation to human rights were clouding a key document.

Washington, 12 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched the reform effort two years ago after the U.S. invasion of Iraq raised serious concerns about the organization's role in global security.

But speaking in the UN Security Council last week, Annan expressed doubts about the will of member states to agree on a blueprint for reform ahead of the 60th anniversary summit.

“Next week’s summit gives world leaders a golden opportunity to enact such a reform," Annan said. "But the negotiators are leaving it perilously late. There is a grave danger that the opportunity will be missed.”

The setting for Annan’s comments was significant. He spoke just moments after accepting responsibility for deep administrative failings uncovered in the former UN-run humanitarian program in Iraq.

The chief of the commission investigating the program, former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, spoke of system-wide problems and urged major management reforms. The commission’s recommendations reinforced goals set by Annan himself earlier this year.

The reform agenda has evolved into a grand bargain in which developed countries were asked to commit to aid goals to reduce poverty and disease and disarmament pledges. In exchange, developing countries were called on to agree to proposals including a definition of terrorism and a revamped human rights institution.
"I don't understand how adding 10 or 11 more members makes the [Security Council] more effective. There are deep divisions within the council, but those divisions do not disappear just because you pack it with a lot more countries." -- analyst Edward Luck

But there are concerns about a lack of consensus on the main reform document to be presented at the summit or that a final paper will be too weak to matter. The U.S. delegation, led by Ambassador John Bolton, has proposed changes that would remove what are seen as legal commitments in areas such as humanitarian intervention and development aid.

An official with the humanitarian group Oxfam International, Nicole Reindorp, told reporters the summit could be a failure if such changes are made to the main document.

“We are very worried that there will be tradeoffs between development commitments and wording on responsibility to protect, and trading off between poverty and the protection of civilians in this way is a lose-lose situation for millions of people, millions of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people," Reindorp said.

The concept known as "responsibility to protect" aims to create an obligation to prevent genocidal or ethnic cleansing campaigns. Countries such as Russia, Pakistan, Egypt, and India have opposed it, saying it would allow foreign intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. Washington prefers to stress the role of the UN Security Council in authorizing collective action to stop atrocities.

Meanwhile, many UN experts say it was a mistake to include Security Council expansion in the reform effort because it has sharply divided UN members. There are three competing proposals to expand the council by as many as 11 members to make it more representative.

Edward Luck, an expert on the council who teaches at Columbia University, told RFE/RL that it is misguided to equate simple council expansion with reform of the way it works.

"The problem with a large expansion is that every [entity] that I know of in the UN system and every intergovernmental body that has been enlarged and enlarged has become weaker and weaker and less relevant," Luck said, "so I don't understand how adding 10 or 11 more members all of a sudden makes the council more effective. There are deep divisions within the council about things like Iraq and some other crises, but those divisions do not disappear just because you pack it with a lot more countries."

Another subject encountering difficult discussions is the proposal, widely backed in the West, to replace the maligned UN Human Rights Commission with a smaller Human Rights Council. The dispute centers over criteria for membership. There has been opposition to toughening the body by Cuba, Belarus, and other states often criticized by rights watchdogs. (See also, "Rights Commission, Buffeted By Criticism, Starts New Session.")

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, told reporters last month it will be hard to establish criteria for membership.

Any member state should be eligible, Arbour said, but should be commited to rights monitoring and other undertakings.

"There are lots of countries who have ratified everything and comply with nothing," Arbour said. "Ratification is a positive step if you take seriously the obligations you undertake so I believe that criteria for eligibility are not frankly going to yield any good results."

Even without a strong reform document, the summit offers an opportunity for discussions on a range of important security and development issues.

On 12 September, for example, U.S. and Georgian officials took part in a signing ceremony affirming a $300 million U.S. aid pact with Georgia.

Iran is expected to present a new proposal for resolving the crisis over its nuclear program. There will be a flurry of discussions involving countries on the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency concerning the prospect of referring Iran's case to the Security Council.

Iraqi leaders are to hold discussions on help for the upcoming referendum on Iraq’s new draft constitution and subsequent elections.

If Washington is able to find common ground with most of its allies and there are no major disagreements, the summit could be seen as successful, says Simon Chesterman, who directs the Institute for International Law and Justice at the New York University School of Law.

“What we’ll look back on this summit as, I think, is as a halfway point perhaps in the process of both reconciliation between traditional allies, a reexamination of the role of UN both as an organization that facilitates development assistance but also plays a role in issues of peace and security," Chesterman said. "And potentially, I suppose, it could be the basis for normative changes people are looking at -- in particular a terrorism definition, human rights council, a peace building commission.”

The proposed peace-building commission would help countries emerging from conflict. Another recommendation contained among reform proposals is for a democracy fund to be run by UN staffers. U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to announce an initial donation to the fund in his address on 14 September.

See also:

"UN: EU Promotes Ambitious Aims Despite U.S. Skepticism"

"UN Future Clouded Amid Hopes For Reform"

For RFE/RL's full coverage of the United Nations, see "News And Features On The United Nations "