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Historic moment for United Nations
Sacramento Bee


August 29, 2005

At an extraordinary session of the U.N. General Assembly starting Sept. 14, world leaders will try to achieve a historic turning point, 60 years after the institution's founding and at a time when it has never been more controversial. The odds against success, regrettably, are long.

On the agenda in New York is reform of the United Nations to make it more relevant in a new and challenging age and, perhaps most difficult, to amend its rules to make it more effective. A set of reforms to be presented has just been challenged by the Bush administration, which demands extensive changes before a final vote.

Even if negotiations can resolve the issue raised by this 11th-hour U.S. intervention, fundamental questions remain: Can the United Nations be saved? If so, how? And just what is the United Nations? The short answers: (1) uncertain; (2) with great difficulty; (3) not so obvious as it may seem.

So many people, especially many Americans - including John Bolton, the new U.S. ambassador who has proposed last-minute changes on behalf of the administration - have thought of the agency as something to be manipulated or coerced into following U.S. policy prescriptions. A House bill passed in June threatens to cut by half the 22 percent U.S. share of the U.N. budget unless the world body adopts more than 40 U.S.-favored reforms. That bill is unlikely to become law, but it's a familiar example of an outmoded approach.

There was a time when the United Nations willingly followed the U.S. lead.

In 1950, for example, the Truman administration won Security Council backing to use military force to repel North Korea's invasion of South Korea. That happened because the Soviets were boycotting the council over its refusal to seat the new Communist government in China and thus couldn't cast a veto. Then-U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie called the invasion "war against the United Nations." And the three-year conflict that followed, at least officially, pitted the United Nations against Communist North Korea and, eventually, Communist China.

How the world has changed. In 2003, the Bush administration failed to persuade the Security Council that Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime posed such a threat that force was needed to remove it. Stymied, Bush launched a war that divided U.N. members and caused an estrangement between Washington and some allies - France and Germany, especially - that has yet to fully heal.

That rift may be on the mend. But other divisions will test the capacity of U.N. member states to find common ground and make changes proposed by an advisory body and by Secretary-General Kofi Annan:

- Replacing the discredited human-rights commission with a new body that would exclude such abusive regimes as those of Sudan, Syria, Libya and Cuba;

- Agreeing on a definition of terrorism, no easy feat given Muslim countries' defense of the use of violence against Israel by Palestinians, whom they regard not as terrorists but as freedom fighters;

- Establishing criteria for humanitarian intervention under the U.N. flag in situations - the Darfur region of Sudan is an example - in which people are victimized by their own government;

- Demanding better financial management;

- Calling for substantial increases in aid to poor countries;

- And, far from the least, reforming internal procedures meant to prevent such scandals as the one surrounding the oil-for-food program in Iraq in which some officials have been accused of corruption.

All these issues are important. But the key to making the United Nations a more credible peacekeeping institution - its primary function as envisioned by the U.N. Charter - lies in the Security Council. Its composition and its voting rules are key to restoring its effectiveness. But therein lies a potentially insuperable obstacle.

Most countries, and a majority of Americans, support the United Nations, warts and all, and wish to see it realize its potential. But the major powers' support tends to be more a function of their own interests, and many critics see the United States as the worst offender.

President Bush's decision to launch the war in Iraq without seeking council approval that he knew would not be forthcoming remains widely resented, as does his rejection of the Kyoto global-warming treaty, the International Criminal Court and provisions of arms-control treaties that limit U.S. options - all of which are part of Washington's last-minute attempt to win changes in the reform proposal.

Since World War II ended in 1945, only the five victorious powers - the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia - have held the veto power. Now there is disagreement over whether new permanent members should have it. Washington and Beijing oppose that because, they say, on divisive issues it would paralyze the council. Moreover, they, or any permanent member, could block any change they don't like by refusing to ratify it, even if it had been approved by a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly.

In 1994, the Clinton administration, stung by the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia only months before, prevented the council from authorizing intervention in Rwanda until long after it might have been possible to save many lives. Today, the likelihood of a Chinese or Russian veto largely explains why the United Nations has responded so limply to the carnage in Darfur, which Washington has called genocide. A similar threat stands as a barrier to any attempt to deter Iran from pursuing nuclear ambitions, conceivably including atomic weapons.

These examples show how the ideal of a universal institution shaping a peaceful and prosperous world repeatedly bumps up against the interests of nations that insist on the right to pursue their vital interests. That others do not see a rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, for example, as a legitimate U.S. interest is a source of friction. So is Washington's belief that North Korea should be barred from developing nuclear energy even for peaceful purposes.

Perhaps some of these standoffs can be compromised away. But some cannot, and the problem exists even within the trans-Atlantic alliance.

Europe - at least Western Europe, or "Old Europe," as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has called it - has moved far from the time when it resorted to war to settle its differences. Indeed, a German commentator has praised the European Union, above all, for "winning the war against war."

Clearly, the United States hasn't yet reached that point and is unlikely to for as long as it remains the only superpower. And even that label means less than it once did, given the failure of the world's greatest military power to defeat the insurgency in Iraq, or the failure of the Bush administration to bend others to its will on a wide range of issues.

In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended Europe's Thirty Years' War and established the principle of national sovereignty. Today, that principle is far from being replaced by a universal form of government that idealists have long advocated. Next month's meeting at the United Nations is unlikely to change that state of affairs. Besides, the agency's greatest ambition ought to be - must be - to make changes that enhance the possibility of peace, and of the human well-being for which peace is an indispensable prerequisite, closer to reality.


The Sacramento Bee's Robert Mott can be reached at rmott(at)
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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