Leading article: The UN should be stronger, not a scapegoat

GLANCE AT the headlines, and this would seem to be the age of the United Nations. A UN-authorised peacekeeping force will shepherd East Timor's passage to independence. The UN is in charge of rebuilding Kosovo. A UN report this week was perhaps the most widely heeded warning yet that it may already be too late to stop man-made global warming. We will soon have an International Criminal Court under the aegis of the UN. Truly, world government would seem almost upon us. But opponents of utopia, if such it is, need not fear.

Indubitably, the importance of the UN is growing, and will almost certainly continue to grow. Indeed, in the age of the global village, in which countries must increasingly reconcile their differences, and where flagrant breaches of international law can no longer be kept hidden, it could scarcely be otherwise. If the United Nations did not exist it would have to be invented. But the presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers who will gather in New York next week for the UN's 54th General Assembly have little cause for self-congratulation. Rather they should seek the courage to correct the deep flaws which still prevent the world organisation from doing its job properly.

Too often the UN, and its admittedly cumbersome bureaucracy, are made scapegoats for the failings of its member states. For the UN to be more effective, these governments, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council who are the ultimate arbiters of what the UN can and cannot do, must surrender some power. In organisational terms, this means creating a Security Council reflecting not the world of 1945, but the world of 2000. Not only Britain, France, the US, China and Russia should have permanent seats with the right of veto, but also Japan, India, Germany, Brazil and perhaps South Africa. Ideally, too, that veto power should be watered down. Meanwhile, the UN's operational capacity must be strengthened.

This week Kofi Annan, whose performance as Secretary General is rightly much admired, urged a greater readiness to act under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which authorises the use of force to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. This implies endowing the world body with something close to its own army, under the command of the Secretary General. A revamped Security Council, a standing UN army - these are huge goals. But until they are achieved, utopia will remain as far away as ever.

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