Stunned world leaders unite in silent tribute after brutal murders

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Bloodshed on a distant patch of soil, not for the first time, trampled the best-laid plans of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, yesterday.

Bloodshed on a distant patch of soil, not for the first time, trampled the best-laid plans of Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, yesterday.

Mr Annan had not meant to open the millennium summit of world leaders in New York with talk of tragedy. But just hours after the murder of three UN workers in West Timor, a rosy evocation of peace and light for mankind would have been tasteless.

It is hard for any secretary general not to take loss of life amid the UN family personally. The emotion Mr Annan felt was visible in his face as he stood at the podium of the General Assembly and asked a hall filled with the world's most powerful people - to observe a minute of silence.

Those 60 seconds of quiet among so querulous a group was an exceptional tribute. The prime ministers and the presidents and other sundry leaders bowed their heads together. Near the front, Bill Clinton adopted the pose of mourning beside his daughter, Chelsea. Some way behind him, Fidel Castro, similarly looked to his toes, the grey tangle of his beard resting on his chest.

The deaths in West Timor did more than puncture the mood. Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was one of those to make explicit what many in the corridors were already observing - that what happened overnight on Indonesian territory was one more vivid reminders of the inadequacy of the current arrangements for UN peace-keeping..

Peace-keeping activities have supplied Mr Annan and his organisation with humiliation and catastrophe. The worst was in Sierra Leone, where 500 UN blue helmets were taken hostage in July.

Reform is always a sluggish business at the UN - expansion of the Security Council has been on the agenda for years - but the will to make peacekeeping work better seems suddenly to be congealing. In August, Mr Annan published a report by a panel of experts which called for more money, more troops and coherent planning as part of an overhaul of UN peace-keeping missions.

More controversially, the panel also stressed that the world body has to drop its neutrality and distinguish between aggressor and victim. The UN failed to do this before the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the massacre of Moslems in Srebrenica a year later. The lesson seems clear: if humans are being abused inside a state's borders, then sensitivities about sovereignty should be ignored.

"It is no longer good enough to organise blue helmet operations as if they were still largely geared to marking an agreed cease-fire line between two states that have conceded to a UN presence," Mr Blair said. "The typical case now is fast-moving and volatile. The appalling attack on UN staff in West Timor is demonstrating this vividly".

President Clinton, making his farewell appearance before his world peers, was similarly candid, saying it was time for the UN to "take a side, not merely to stand between the sides or on the sidelines". It was also time, the President said, to give peace-keeping operations new methods and new muscle.

"The United Nations has been called into situations where brave people seek reconciliation but where the enemies seek to undermine it,'' Mr Clinton said, citing UN peace-keeping operations in East Timor and Sierra Leone. "But in both cases, the UN did not have the tools to finish the job. We must provide those tools, with peace-keepers who can be rapidly deployed with the right training and equipment, missions well-defined and well-led, with the necessary civilian police".

Mr Blair went further. In a burst of enthusiasm the Prime Minister urged his fellow leaders to implement the findings of the August report within 12 months. "This means a new contract between the UN and its members," he said. "The UN must alter radically its planning, intelligence and analysis, and develop a far more substantial professional military staff. When the moment comes, a field headquarters must be ready to move, with an operational communications system up and running immediately". The UK has already offered to establish a training school for blue-helmets somewhere in Britain.

Mr Clinton has always found it easier to offer encouragement to the UN than to deliver any material help, thanks to hostility to the body among Republicans on Capitol Hill. No delegates here can listen to a US president without recalling the $1.7bn that Washington owes the UN in back payments.

"Those in our country or elsewhere who think we can do without the UN misread history or misunderstand the future,'' Clinton noted wistfully.

His administration, however, is increasing pressure on other UN members to accept that the US is expected to shoulder too much of the UN budget. "All these things come with a price tag, and all nations, including the United States, must pay it,'' Mr Clinton said. But he went on: "These prices must be fairly apportioned and the UN structure of finances must be fairly reformed so the organisation can do its job.''

It was left to Mr Annan to remind these most powerful of individuals on the planet that the responsibility that they and that the UN share together was the upholding of the welfare of all the world's ordinary people. "They look to you to protect them from the great dangers of our time," he said. "Let us not disappoint them".