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March 20, 2005

UN Reforms are Pro-U.S.
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

Today Kofi Annan will recommend a series of major reforms to the UN, based on the work of a High Level Panel he put to work last year.  What's startling about Annan's agenda is just how pro-U.S. it is.  In a sense this is no surprise.  The U.S. has been attacking the UN (and even calling for Annan's ouster) for years.  Given its dependence on US financial and political support, its natural for Annan to pander.

Yet the US seems blind to the attempted courtship.  In considering the reform proposals, according to a U.S. Ambassador American officials are focusing on blocking what they don't like, for example criticizing the addition of a new Under-Secretary post in an organization they view as bloated.  But if the U.S. fails to get behind at least some of what Annan has put forward, it will be a colossal missed opportunity.  This is true not only for the favored rationale of UN proponents - that what is good for the UN is good for the U.S. since the organization is indispensable to the advancement of U.S. policy goals.  It's also true because the proposed reforms will enhance U.S. influence within the UN - a fact not lost on developing countries, several of which are criticizing the reforms as too pro-U.S. But with the imprimatur of Annan and his panel, these ideas stand a real chance of getting passed.  The question is whether the Administration can put aside its disdain for the UN long enough to take a hard look at what Annan is proposing and recognize just how beneficial much of it would be for the U.S.

One of Annan's key proposals is to  replace the UN's corrupt Commission on Human Rights (made up of countries like Cuba, Libya and Sudan) with a smaller Human Rights Council directly elected by the General Assembly based on human rights related criteria.  Here Annan is looking to break the strict country-by-country rotation scheme that some of the UN's regional groups use to designate representatives to UN bodies.  Under that system, egregious human rights and security violations are no bar to membership in the Human Rights Commission or Security Council. 

Reform of the Human Rights Commission would be a major victory for the U.S.  With the regional groups out of the way, the Council would be a great place for the Community of Democracies (COD), a group formed for the express purpose of strengthening the hand of the world's democracies within international bodies, to field a slate of candidates.  This could turn the UN's Human Rights apparatus into a real force for civil liberties and political rights around the world, something its never been.  This move could also be the beginning of the end for the UN's existing regional group structure, and a blow to the anti-Western, anti-U.S., anti-Israel forces that it favors.

Annan has also proposed doing away with another longstanding outrage within the UN system, its failure to agree on a definition of terrorism.  The problem has been the Islamic Conference’s longstanding insistence that terrorism in the name of national liberation is not terrorism at all.  Annan has flatly rejected this limitation and is calling on the UN to quickly draw up an anti-terror convention that would cover violent acts by an occupied people against civilians.  This would be a major step for Israel which has long protested the UN's failure to recognize Palestinian acts of terror

The Bush Administration has de-emphasized the UN's role in the fight against terror on the basis that the organization cannot be trusted.  But the UN has certain unmatchable assets when it comes to combating terror, including the universality of its membership and the credibility it holds in parts of the Asia, Africa and the Mideast where the U.S. is deeply unpopular.  The proposed UN Terrorism Convention would help target countries that are outside the reach of voluntary treaties and draw in nations that would not volunteer to cooperate with the U.S.

Annan also proposes a host of other measures, some concrete and others that are more conceptual.  His early-retirement plan for staff is a no-brainer to help clear the place of dead wood.  Adoption of a "responsibility to protect" innocent civilians from genocide and humanitarian crisis might be of marginal value in the debate now raging over Darfur, Sudan.  Sad to say, while Annan has been fine-tuning his reform recommendations, the UN is failing yet another major moral test by failing to act in Darfur.  This, much more so than oil-for-food or sex scandals involving peacekeepers, is what makes it hard for even the UN's staunchest defenders to maintain that the UN is more than a feckless talkshop.

It will be interesting to watch how the Administration approaches the run-up to the September Summit.  Will John Bolton call the shots and, true to his reputation, make it his business to define the U.S. agenda in terms that virtually no other country will join?  Or will Condi Rice and her newly appointed special adviser on reform, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, try to work with others to get something done?  There's a lot for the US to gain from Annan's proposals, provided the Bush Administration can hold its nose long enough to examine them.


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