The latest UN General Assembly debate of government leaders was preoccupied more than usual with the issue of security threats. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan attempted to inject a sense of urgency about the organization's capability of dealing with the new threats posed by terrorism and weapons proliferation. But there was a sense that any major initiatives will remain on hold until the situation in Iraq is resolved.
United Nations, 6 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For nearly two weeks, police barricades protected the street entrance to UN headquarters. U.S. Coast Guard ships prowled the waters of the nearby East River. Bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the hallways of the main buildings.
This year's UN General Assembly high-level debate, which ended on 2 October, had more than its share of security concerns. In a reflection of the security buffer outside, many of the leaders inside the assembly hall spoke about a world in danger. But continuing differences over U.S. policy in Iraq -- apparent in their speeches -- are clouding the prospects for concerted UN response to new threats.
Uppermost in many minds was the worst-ever attack on a UN facility just weeks before in Baghdad, which killed top diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello. That attack and the ongoing Security Council negotiations over the future of Iraq have heightened the debate over the UN's suitability in preventing wars and dealing with their aftermath.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the organization is at a crossroads. In the first of 190 speeches in the assembly, Annan urged reform of the UN's institutions -- especially the Security Council and General Assembly. "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 criticized the United States' preemptive-strike doctrine, which he called a challenge to the UN's founding principles. But he said the organization must show it can act effectively when member states have security concerns.
The secretary-general plans to form a high-level panel to advise how the 58-year-old organization can better respond to new threats to security posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
For Brian Urquhart, a founder of UN peacekeeping operations, Annan's speech raised the right points. But Urquhart said he's unsure whether UN members are ready to engage in meaningful reform. "I'm not sure, personally, that another high-level report will help. I think what you've got to do is get governments really worried about the present situation. I hope they are, but I'm not so sure," he said.
Urquhart, who has advised the UN Secretariat on other reform efforts, told RFE/RL that changes in the Security Council are essential.
There is a widely held view that the council's permanent membership should be expanded to include economic powers Germany and Japan. But discussions have stalled over issues like retaining veto power for the current five permanent members and whether to add permanent members from Africa and Latin America. Urquhart said the council's poor performance in the Iraq crisis and its late reaction to emergencies in Africa this year point to the need for operational changes.
"It seems to me that the main things they need to have are a reorganized Security Council, a far greater sense of urgency in the Security Council, and a sensitivity to the preoccupations of other countries, including the United States," Urquhart said.
Some observers believe U.S. President George W. Bush missed an opportunity in his speech to engage the UN on broader reform issues. Bush called for member states to move beyond their differences and help rebuild Iraq. But he defended the U.S. move to topple Saddam Hussein, saying it had made the world safer and preserved the UN's credibility.
Noting a mounting concern of many states, Bush said Washington would ask the Security Council to adopt a new antiproliferation resolution. The measure would require all UN members to set tough controls for safeguarding weapons of mass destruction.
But there is a sense that most projects will be on hold until the situation in Iraq is brought under control. That's a view shared by Henri Barkey, a former U.S. State Department policy planner who now chairs the international relations department at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. The United States, Barkey said, is now perceived as weak because of its difficulties in Iraq. That can undermine its efforts to rally support for other causes.
"In this kind of atmosphere it's not clear to me how we can come up with new initiatives that will be acceptable to everyone," Barkey said. The United States "has to somehow figure out a way of cleaning up Iraq, bringing it under control, bringing it on a track towards independence."
Washington has proposed a new Security Council resolution calling for a gradual handover of sovereignty to Iraqi authorities and an enhanced UN role. But Annan and some Security Council members want the transfer of power to be more rapid and explicit.
Any settlement of the Iraq issue, Barkey said, must also lead to an understanding among key UN actors about the collective use of force. "Clearly, Kofi Annan's speech the other day is also an indication that the UN itself feels that it will be left on the sidelines unless the UN spearheads a new consensus," Barkey said. "And clearly Kofi Annan understands that what the Bush administration essentially initiated with the Iraq war was a radical departure from previous ways of dealing with problem cases."
Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who will take over as NATO chief in January, was among many speakers who backed the call for institutional reforms. He said the General Assembly, in particular, needs to be overhauled. In his speech to the assembly, de Hoop Scheffer said the chamber's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was typical of its redundant and unwieldy agenda.
"Let us connect the General Assembly to reality," de Hoop Scheffer said. "Instead of dealing with 23 -- 23! -- resolutions, shouldn't we try to find our strength in a more focused central message, supported by all? A message that calls on both Israel and the Palestinians to put an end to the bloodshed and violence and to immediately implement the 'road map' as the only viable way to long-lasting peace?"
The assembly controls the budget and general programming of the United Nations. Its resolutions are not binding but are considered to reflect the will of the international community.
A number of UN reform activists are hopeful that a newly formed group of democratic states can be a catalyst for change at the United Nations. The group, known as the Community of Democracies, formed in Warsaw three years ago.
Foreign ministers from 12 of its states met on the sidelines of the General Assembly debate and issued a communique in which they pledged to form coalitions to support resolutions and other activities aimed at the promotion of democratic governance.
One issue the group is expected to address at the UN is the composition of the UN Human Rights Commission. Human rights watchdog groups have assailed the commission's work in recent years, saying states with poor rights records have been allowed to join in greater numbers and block initiatives. Libya chaired last spring's session of the commission, which failed to act on rights abuses in Chechnya, Iran, and Zimbabwe, among other places.
The director of human rights monitoring group Freedom House, Adrian Karatnycky, told RFE/RL he hopes the Community of Democracies can spearhead reform efforts on issues such as human rights. "It's logical that this should happen because, in effect, democracies now predominate in most regions of world -- and not perfect democracies, but states in which you have competitive elections, represent the majority of the countries in the United Nations," he said. "If those countries found some common purpose they really could improve the performance of the United Nations and its consistency on issues related to these basic liberal values."
Countries active in the group include the United States, Chile, Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, South Korea, India, Mexico, and South Africa.