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Working for UN Benefiting All

The United Nations (UN) is in desperate need of reform to adapt itself to the needs of a changed world situation. 

The world's largest multilateral mechanism, founded after World War II, does important peacekeeping work all over the globe. But its failure to rein in rampant unilateralism in today's global community is enough to warrant systematic and structural changes.


Particularly since the United States led a war against a sovereign state, Iraq, without a UN mandate, making the world body more impotent than ever, we could not help but ask: In a world that has become "unipolar," what role should the United Nations play?


Fortunately, a comprehensive blueprint to render the UN fit for the challenges of the 21st century was made public by a high-level panel early this month.


The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, made up of 16 eminent personalities from different fields of expertise and representing all continents, was appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the wake of the US-led invasion of Iraq, in an atmosphere of deep misgiving at the damage to the UN's authority and credibility.


Headed by former Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, the commission was entrusted to assess the major threats to international peace and security and to make recommendations to strengthen the UN, in terms of both policies and institutions, so it can provide universal collective security in the 21st century.


Annan will also boil that lengthy list down and provide his own version next March, which will then be considered by heads of state at a meeting prior to the General Assembly session next September.


The landmark report offers a sweeping and coherent set of proposals on what would be the biggest changes since the UN's founding in 1945.


Its 101 recommendations, covering a broad spectrum of issues, from war to poverty, revamping the Security Council and a restructuring of the UN bureaucracy, are expected to steer the world body through any future global crisis.


Among the most significant and awaited recommendations is the expansion of the Security Council from its current 15 members to 24. Not unexpectedly, in an indication of the difficulties lying ahead, there was lack of unanimity even in this small group of renowned specialists insofar as expanding Security Council, the UN's key decision-making organ, is concerned.


As a way out, the panel has suggested two alternative models as a basis for discussion by the member states.


One proposal is to add three new non-permanent members to the 10 currently rotating two-year members, and six new permanent members to the Council.


The six newly added permanent seats will enjoy no veto powers and will be allotted to two nations from Asia, two from Africa, one from Europe and one from the Americas.


The other proposal would create a new category of eight semi-permanent seats that would be regionally distributed with renewable four-year terms.


Both proposals are aimed at enlarging the Council to command greater respect, especially in the developing world, by bringing its membership closer to the realities of today's world.


Another very significant aspect of the report is the reference to Article 51 of the UN Charter that deals with the rules governing the use of force in self-defense to deter imminent threats, which offers guidelines to the Council to decide when to authorize the use of force.


The US doctrine of pre-emptive strikes gets short shrift here as the report warns: "Allowing one to so act is to allow all."


The panel has stressed that no state has the right to use force preventively when the threat is latent but not imminent. It also argues that if the use of force is needed, it should only be a last resort and should be authorized by the Security Council.


Notably, the panel has tried to define terrorism, which has had no universal characterization over the past three decades.


Some UN members have argued that any definition must include the use of armed force against civilians by states, as well as by private groups, and some -- especially Arab and Muslim states -- have insisted that the definition must not override the right to resist foreign occupation.


Though the panel members point out that international law as it stands is much clearer in condemning the large-scale use of force against civilians by states than by private groups, they also agree that "there is nothing in the fact of occupation that justifies the targeting and killing of civilians."


It will be interesting to see the response of the member states to this point when they meet next September to discuss the report, which is crucial for the UN to develop a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy.


The report also contains a host of practical proposals to prevent nuclear proliferation, improve bio-security and make the UN itself more effective, notably in conflict prevention and keeping the peace.


Above all, it clearly spells out the interdependence of the current world, in which the destinies of peoples and the threats they face are interwoven.


Not only is a threat to one nation a threat to all, but failure to deal with one threat can undermine the defense against all others.


It thus sets the basic tone for collective security decisions and calls for collective action.


"The yearning for an international system governed by the rule of law has grown," it said. "No state, no matter how powerful, can by its own efforts alone make itself invulnerable to today's threats."


The comprehensive system of collective security outlined by the report is expected to help the body, whose authority has been seriously dented by a string of unilateral actions of some of its members, tackle threats and conflicts, and address the security concerns of all countries.


Few people who read this report doubt that making this world more secure is indeed a shared responsibility, as well as a shared interest.


The hope is that the debacle over the Iraq crisis, which prompted this report, could end up with the UN emerging stronger and being reshaped to face the challenges of the present day.


The report provides a starting point for realistic discussions about the future of the world body and puts the ball firmly in the court of the world's political leaders.


Reform will be painful and all will be required to compromise.


But one thing is certain. The world would be very much worse without the UN, whose avowed goal is to wipe out the scourge of war.


The key instrument through which the world of order will try to deal with threats from the world of disorder will remain in the UN.


Whether the vision of the high-level panel could be converted into reality depends crucially on whether the governments of the UN's members, particularly its most influential member, can be bound by the international rule of law.


It would be unrealistic to expect a perfect UN in the imperfect world that we live in.


The UN can only be as good as its member states want it to be and only as effective as its members allow it to be.


(China Daily December 17, 2004)

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