Clare Short: Depression and mistrust prevail at the UN

There is no doubt that we are living through a very disappointing period in world history

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But it is hardly surprising that, in a bitterly divided world where the world's hegemonic power has set aside international law and declared that it will act unilaterally whenever its interests are suited, it has been difficult to agree on a reform package for strengthening the UN. The text is being constantly weakened because of disagreements, many of which are understandable. The West wants a new convention against terrorism but Arab countries will not agree unless the right to resist occupation is recognised. US-backed proposals to improve financial management by giving increased authority to the secretary general are blocked by developing countries who feel safer keeping financial control in the hands of the General Assembly. Proposals to widen the Security Council are blocked because no one can agree on who should join and what happens to the veto. Plans to strengthen the right to intervene to prevent genocide are being resisted because of fears that the US would use them to invade wherever it pleased. And Western proposals to improve the effectiveness of the UN's human-rights machinery are being blocked by a small number of hard-line regimes.

The original purpose of the 2005 summit was to review progress on the commitment which all governments made at the Millennium Assembly towards systematically reducing poverty. But, since then, the ambition has widened to try to agree on a major package of UN reform. This might have made progress in the hopeful years when agreement was reached on Kyoto, the Millennium Development Goals, the International Court and the Doha round of trade talks. But given George Bush's resistance and the sour atmosphere post-Iraq, the reform agenda has been too ambitious and generated strong opposition for reasons that were often self-contradictory. On top of all this, the new US ambassador began by insisting that all references to the Millennium Development Goals should be deleted from the negotiating text. It is notable that the UK's closest ally should take such a position shortly after a G8 meeting, chaired by the UK, that claimed to have won agreement on these issues.

A greatly weakened draft text is now agreed, but those who hoped it would be possible for it to generate enough optimism and trust to win agreement on major reform in current world conditions showed a failure to understand the mood of depression and mistrust that prevails. In particular, those who advocate a new convention on terrorism fail to understand how deeply unhappy people are about the hypocrisy of those who use state power unlawfully and cause massive loss of civilian life - and then expect all countries to sign up to a definition of terrorism that fails to acknowledge the right to resist occupation.

Despite all of this, the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals has probably been strengthened by the US challenge and then the recognition that even for the US, this was a step too far. In addition, the focus on monitoring country-by-country progress against the goals has set up a new spirit of competition between states over reductions in poverty, children in school, better health care for the poor and more sustainable use of environmental resources. Progress is being made.

It would be wrong to be complacent, but neither should we despair. At the centre of world debate we have a focus on reducing poverty. More and more people across the world are using the Millennium Goals to hold their governments to account. We must make faster progress because the world population will rise to 8-9 billion in the next 20 to 30 years so the challenge remains enormous. But it is completely untrue to claim that development has failed. More people have been lifted out of poverty in the past 50 years than the previous 500.

However, the consequence of the bitter division in the world and the weakening of respect for international law is that the ability of the UN to mobilise action to end conflict has been undermined. No amount of debt relief, aid and improved trade access will bring development to the people of Darfur, eastern Congo, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Angola until order is restored and the institutions of a modern state are put in place.

Kofi Annan's proposal for a new commission to work for a more coherent and sustained response to post-conflict peace-building will remain in the final summit text. This is of enormous importance because, without security, no development can follow. Headlines scream when military action takes place but little interest is shown in post-conflict development and thus Kosovo, Afghanistan and Angola remain impoverished and insecure.

We are, without doubt, living through a very disappointing period in world history. The war on terror has weakened our capacity to act together. But the progressive agenda is not entirely lost and US unilateralism has only led to a quagmire in Iraq. I have no doubt that a future US administration will have to turn back to multilateralism and international law as it learns that the strong as well as the weak need international law and an effective UN. The question is how long it will take and whether we can reposition our country to become part of the solution.

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