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The UN — Teetering on the Brink?

Is the lack of compromise by UN member states eroding international security?

September 2, 2005

Is the lack of compromise by UN member states eroding international security?

What if the world’s leaders held a UN reform summit — and there was no UN reform? Surely with all the preparation that goes into such high-level meetings, this couldn’t happen. Or so you’d think.

But with just two weeks until the start of the global summit in New York, the world leaders’ draft statement covering everything from development to terrorism to UN management reform is in deep trouble.

The stakes here are exceptionally high. At stake is the effectiveness and relevance of the world community’s primary instrument for improving the well-being and security of the world’s inhabitants.

The wide-ranging agenda for reform was ambitious from the outset. Secretary-General Kofi Annan knew when he launched the UN reform effort in late 2003 that the task at hand was to restore the world body’s vigor and credibility. He asked a panel of eminent statesmen and women to take stock of today’s security threats — and to recommend what should be done to confront them.

Once the ball was passed to the UN’s member states, the exercise became a test of international solidarity in the face of today’s threats.

After the controversy raised by John Bolton’s nomination, the diplomatic world watched eagerly to see if the new ambassador would live up to his combative image. Recent developments seem to confirm this depiction, but the appearance is slightly deceiving.

There is too much at stake for Ambassador Bolton to undermine UN reform here in the final hours. There have been too many statements from President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the importance of the UN reform process for them to let it fall apart. Moreover, neither of the two stand to gain from a foreign policy debacle at this point.

And yet, the Bush Administration used a high-risk strategy by raising so many concerns over the draft statement so late in the game.

To be sure, the hardest bargaining often comes at the end of a negotiation and the draft summit communiqué is no exception. But picking over every word of a 39-page document jeopardizes the delicate political balance of the deal — and threatens to unravel the most sweeping set of reforms in decades.

After all, even though Bolton’s arrival was delayed due to U.S. domestic politics, it wasn’t as if the Bush Administration was without representation in New York. The U.S. delegation to the United Nations has a staff of over 100 professionals and was surely working in close cooperation with its bosses in Washington.

Circulating a full alternate version of the text with all the edits which the United States would like to see was, at a minimum, a serious tactical error. (This is why media reports cite the figure of 750 U.S. proposals. It includes every comma or word change sought.)

While U.S. officials portray this as standard operating procedure, it fostered the perception that Washington is asking for the moon and not ready to compromise. Through extensive personal outreach to his colleagues, Ambassador Bolton is working to counter this image, but such perceptions cost wasted time and effort.

Meanwhile, a number of other countries are indeed trying to keep the reform package from being adopted.

The document in question was drafted by a diverse team of UN ambassadors, under the leadership of General Assembly President Jean Ping, who hails from Gambia.

To their credit, it includes significant advances on nearly every major UN agenda item. It remains intact after three months because drafters have been collecting input informally. More formal negotiations among a rump group of 32 nations started this week.

The draft document proposes that the UN’s discredited Human Rights Commission be replaced by a newly constituted Human Rights Council, and it calls for establishment of a new Peacebuilding Commission to help keep countries that have been racked by violence from slipping back into the abyss.

The document contains the strongest ever statements on terrorism and the need to respond forcefully to genocide and ethnic cleansing. There is a renewal of the global compact between developing and developed countries to reduce global poverty.

The reform package also includes significant measures on the management of the UN, which has been so badly tarnished by the Oil-for-Food and sexual abuse scandals.

Unfortunately, each of these reforms is coming under assault, especially from a handful of countries that would prefer to keep the United Nations a debating society.

Diplomats from Algeria, Cuba, Egypt, Iran and Venezuela claim to speak for the developing world, yet many governments in the global South disavow the positions supposedly taken on their behalf. (Russia and Pakistan have also been active in raising objections, but have hinted that they could join consensus if some of their concerns were addressed.)

Developing countries no doubt have legitimate concerns regarding development, disarmament, human rights and management reform — and there could be substantive exchange regarding all these provisions.

While the governments in question may have other progressive elements to their foreign policy (and some of them are stellar contributors to UN peacekeeping), their agenda in this context is to keep international decision-making as diffuse as possible. They resist any new mechanisms that serve as alternatives to the UN General Assembly, where all 191 countries have seats, and the debates often drone on inconclusively.

One ambassador from the developing world told me that when he attends discussions of these issues, the pressure from the obstructionists is relentless and difficult to fend off. He pled for other ambassadors to also come to meetings and share the burden.

For some issues, the preferred tactic is just delay. For example, opponents of a new Human Rights Council seek to postpone key issues, fully aware that the diminished political attention after the summit would likely doom the entire proposal.

The United Nations works best when nations actually unite, rather than getting stuck in an infinite loop of predictable arguments.

Any political body is bound to have its share of finger-pointing and jockeying for position, but at the United Nations this game is carried to another level entirely.

We will soon see whether world leaders can break out of the confrontational politics that has often paralyzed the UN — whether they can focus on the problems of poverty, human rights and terrorism, rather than on each other.

The key to global security is a stronger UN where nations unite around a comprehensive agenda dealing with all the threats and opportunities of today’s world. Peace and security, development and human rights are all intertwined and cannot be attained independent of one another.

As Kofi Annan’s High-Level Panel put it, “What is needed today is nothing less than a new consensus between alliances that are frayed, between wealthy nations and poor. The essence of that consensus is simple: We all share responsibility for each other’s security.”

To meet their own needs, nations must be willing to embrace the priorities and concerns of others. In other words, compromise is not merely a diplomatic virtue, it is an essential building block of security.