Global Policy Forum

It's Crunch Time at the United Nations


By Terje Roed-Larsen*

International Herald Tribune
June 3, 2005

We live at a time of unparalleled potential to tackle humanity's most searing problems: poverty, disease, injustice, war. But the headlines are not encouraging: AIDS killed three million people in 2004. The international community remains on the sidelines as thousands die in Darfur. North Korea develops nuclear weapons. The world is divided over the legality of war against Iraq. Against this background, Secretary General Kofi Annan has put forward a set of bold reform proposals to make the United Nations a more effective instrument to combat the scourges of the 21st century. The question now is whether UN member states can agree on a critical mass of these reforms before they meet at a summit in September.

This past month, I participated in several closed-door retreats outside New York with diplomats representing dozens of countries to discuss the secretary general's proposals. I left these informal gatherings both encouraged and alarmed. I was encouraged to see diplomats from all continents engage in uncharacteristically frank debate on the key issues of the day and explore ways to strengthen the capacity of the United Nations to fulfill the development promise, tackle major security threats and promote human dignity. At the same time, I grew alarmed by the pressures of time. Many issues remain blocked, and these blockages could start to unravel progress that had been delicately reached in other areas.

The most hopeful signs are in fields of longstanding UN endeavor. Take development. There is growing willingness among all states to move from words to action on commitments made at landmark development summits, such as the Millennium Summit in 2000 and Monterrey in 2002. Several donor states have laudably announced "road maps" to more than double their development assistance to 0.7 percent of their gross national product by 2015, or even go further.

There is also progress in the area of armed conflict. Most governments have expressed support for recommendations to strengthen key UN capabilities for mediation, humanitarian response and peacekeeping. One of the most promising proposals is for a Peacebuilding Commission to improve the quality and coherence of international support for countries recovering from conflict.

Unfortunately, there is less progress on what some call the "new security agenda." Leaders accept that a new vision of collective security is needed, but have not yet taken the necessary steps to realize it on issues like terrorism or weapons of mass destruction.

Take terrorism. For years, the UN General Assembly has argued over its definition, which has undermined the UN's moral authority to address the issue. The secretary general has now proposed elements of a working definition, and there is some progress: States now largely agree that resistance against occupation cannot include killing civilians. But divisions remain over the question of "state terrorism," despite international legal instruments that robustly address how states behave under war and occupation.

Even more urgent is revitalizing the regime for nonproliferation and disarmament. At last month's review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, recalcitrant states hid behind each other and behind debates over process, to avoid confronting the hard issues. Meanwhile, there are still 27,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and North Korea's announced withdrawal from the treaty, together with undeclared Iranian enrichment activity, hint at real risks that more states could go nuclear.

Many diplomats also have yet to grasp the fundamental reality that today's threats - whether poverty, war, disease or terrorism - are interconnected. Any strategy that treats them as though they were separate will fail. In September 2003, Kofi Annan argued that the United Nations was at a fork in the road, a moment "no less decisive than 1945." Since then, public confidence has declined steeply, with intense scrutiny of the UN oil-for-food program, sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and divisions over Iraq.

The United Nations cannot remain relevant if its members fail to agree on issues that are of the greatest concern to their publics. If the challenges that concern us the most - from the fight against AIDS to ending civil wars to nuclear proliferation - are not met collectively, they simply will not be met. The secretary general has set the agenda for reform. UN members must carry it forward. Either they reinvigorate the United Nations for the 21st century, or they will become yesterday's men.

About the Author: Terje Roed-Larsen is president of the International Peace Academy. He was previously UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.



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