Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recent call for sweeping U.N. reforms opens the possibility of changes that not only focus more strongly on core U.N. mandates but improve the way the United Nations does business. Annan's call for adoption of his entire slate of reforms as a comprehensive package, though, is wishful thinking.
The most he can hope to do is to influence, perhaps strongly, the world leaders who will gather in September for a unique international summit on the global community's Millennium Development Goals. Annan's attempt to shape the agenda for that debate should prove helpful, but it still will be a debate.
Annan rightly focuses on the key U.N. priorities of poverty and development, international security and human rights. But he also targets structural U.N. reform as well, including changing the powerful Security Council from its current membership of post-World War II powers to more regional representation for a new geopolitical era.
Many of the proposals reflect U.S. interests, but some do not. For example, Annan laments -- without specifically naming the United States -- the lack of American buy-in to the Kyoto Accord on global warming, and calls for wider participation in new agreements extending that accord's greenhouse gas reduction goals beyond its 2012 expiration. And a call for greater leveling of the world trade playing field will draw some opposition in this country.
Council on Foreign Relations U.N. expert Lee Feinstein also cautions that Annan's reaffirmation of an earlier "Millennium" agreement -- one that calls on developed nations to make international development assistance contributions equivalent to .7 percent of their gross domestic product -- is wrongly based. Foreign development aid, he believes, should be based not on statistical measurements but on needs and the ability of the receiving nation to absorb and properly distribute the assistance.
A major stumbling block for Annan's push for the complete package, though, may come in the effort to change the Security Council. Annan shows no preference between two existing proposals, one that expands permanent membership and another that adds new tiers of temporary members. But U.N. analysts say some nations that have been pushing for membership are hinting privately that they may not back other reforms unless they get it.
Some of Annan's proposals deserve solid support. There is a call, for example, for replacing the organization's Geneva-based Human Rights Commission with a smaller standing Human Rights Council elected by the General Assembly -- a move that could end the travesty of nations like Sudan or Libya chairing the commission and using it as a shield for their own human rights violations.
Annan also wants a U.S.-backed definition of terrorism that condemns attacks on civilians and, if agreed to in this context, could speed a future international pact on combating terrorism. He also wants a right of "challenge inspections" where nations are suspected of violating nuclear non-proliferation treaties, better U.N. guidelines on use-of-force decisions to minimize divisions like the one that occurred over Iraq and a new "peace-building" commission to provide an international nation-building parallel to the current U.N. peacekeeping commission.
There are good points to the package, but each will have its own debate. The next major step in those debates occurs at the September summit, and the outcome there will help determine the relevance and efficiency of the United Nations of the future.