Global Policy Forum

Challenges 2005-2006:


By Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
December 28, 2005

After prolonged discussions and seemingly endless debates, the United Nations ended an uneventful year with no firm decisions on several politically sensitive issues, including the reform of the Security Council, the creation of a new Human Rights Council and the revitalization of the Secretariat's management structure.

"If there's one thing I would like to hand over to my successor when I leave office next year, is that it should be a United Nations that is fit for the many varied tasks and challenges we are asked to take on today," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters during his traditional year-end press conference last week. But will a lame-duck Annan succeed in restructuring the world body before he steps down in December 2006, and more importantly, can he help transform the United Nations into a politically effective body outside the U.S. orbit?

According to Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, "2006 will be a crucial year in determining whether the United Nations can reclaim its role as an independent actor on the world scene, or whether the virulent U.S. choice of either sidelining or undermining the global organization will prevail." She pointed out that while the United Nations has "great potential", it also faces "huge dangers". "The U.N.'s unprecedented whistle-blower protection, set in motion in the last weeks of 2005, represents a vital instrument for insuring U.N. accountability to its own Charter," Bennis told IPS.

But there is also the danger that the new regulations -- orchestrated by a former U.S. State Department heavyweight and now a high-ranking U.N. official -- could be used to encourage staffers with an anti-U.N. bias to turn on the United Nations, said Bennis, author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power".

As the year came to a close, a sharply divided world body could boast only two significant political victories in 2005: the creation of a U.N. Peacebuilding Commission and the establishment of a new and improved Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF). The Peacebuilding Commission is expected to assist countries emerging from conflict to achieve sustainable peace, while the CERF is aimed at rushing urgently needed resources to countries hit by humanitarian and natural disasters.

Taking a peek at 2006, Annan says he is hoping that member states will in the new year agree not only on an "effective and impartial" Human Rights Council (HRC), but also on a package of management reforms which will be ready in February next year.

Hillel Neuer, executive director of U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization (NGO) that keeps track of political developments in the world body, says negotiations on the proposed HRC "are being held hostage by repressive regimes that want to impede real reform". "They are afraid that their longstanding run of the place, their ability to sit on the Commission and thereby shield their own records of abuse from review, is about to end," Neuer told IPS. Although he did not identify any countries by name, Neuer said "their idea of reform would be a change in name only or, worse, the creation of an even less effective body". But he said that the majority of U.N. member states need to find the political will to defy these spoilers and create a credible, effective Council made up only of states with solid records of commitment to the highest human rights standards. The U.N. Charter requires nothing less, he added.

Perhaps the biggest single disappointment was the failure of member states to agree on a proposed expansion of the 15-member Security Council -- a proposal that has been kicked around for more than a decade but gathered momentum in 2005. Bennis says that Security Council reform, "long assumed to mean expansion of Council membership and perhaps constraints on the veto powers of the Permanent Five, is off the agenda".

The strongest opposition to any change in the veto powers came from the Big Five holding the veto, namely the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. "That was foreseen by many of us 10 years ago when the issue popped up, and again in 2004-2005 when the question returned to the top of the U.N.'s agenda," Bennis added. "I never believed the Permanent Five, especially the U.S., had any intention of limiting their own power either by adding more permanent representation from the disenfranchised South to the council, or by agreeing to limit in any way their use -- and abuse -- of the veto," she said.

A more realistic potential for this issue in the foreseeable future, she said, will come with the re-empowerment of the 191-member General Assembly, the highest policy-making body at the United Nations. "With greater political will, more creativity, and not a little courage, the Assembly can use 2006 to reclaim its central role as the most democratic agency of U.N. power," she noted.

Neuer was equally skeptical about the various proposals to expand Security Council membership. The World Summit in mid-September supported unspecified early reform of the Security Council and promised continuing efforts to achieve a decision to this end, he pointed out. "But no particular proposal has any traction at the moment. So it seems unlikely that we will see movement on this anytime soon," Neuer said. "Of course, the great powers are not keen to relinquish their privileges. But what has been interesting to see is that the middle powers are equally adamant about denying their neighbours any new powers, either," he added.

On management reform, Neuer said, the U.N. Secretariat has for too long lacked transparency and accountability. Ironically, these are two values of good governance the United Nations is supposed to be in the business of promoting. He said the now-defunct, Iraqi oil-for-food programme "is a prime example, but not the only one, of the terrible results that have flowed from this".

The U.N.'s culture of secrecy and non-answerability must change, he added. The new whistleblower protection policy is a step in the right direction, and the secretary-general has asked member states to approve further important changes, in particular the creation of an independent ethics office and an independent oversight committee.

Additional reform proposals and the results of the review, requested by the World Summit, of all U.N. programmes that are over five years old to identify outdated and unnecessary ones are expected in February. "Let's hope that the organization has learned the painful lessons of oil-for-food and that progress on this issue continues," he added.

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