Reform of the United Nations should not be driven by its enemies in Washington

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It is widely accepted that the United Nations is in need of substantial reform. The world has changed out of all recognition since this unique assembly of nation states was formed, out of the ashes of the Second World War. The reform package unveiled yesterday by the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, provides a good opportunity for the international community to fashion the UN to reflect the new realities of the international political landscape.

It is widely accepted that the United Nations is in need of substantial reform. The world has changed out of all recognition since this unique assembly of nation states was formed, out of the ashes of the Second World War. The reform package unveiled yesterday by the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, provides a good opportunity for the international community to fashion the UN to reflect the new realities of the international political landscape.

The package is wide-ranging in its suggestions, but it has two major objectives: to make the UN more open and more efficient. It is hard to take issue with the proposals to strengthen the independence and authority of the organisation's internal watchdog. The oil-for-food scandal has - rightly or wrongly - given the impression that there are rather too many opportunities for corruption with the UN and too little oversight of its staff. The recent suppression of a report into the conduct of the former UNHCR chief Ruud Lubbers reinforced this perception. And it is not just in the bureaucracy of the UN that there appears to have been abuse. The appalling crimes perpetrated by UN troops in the Congo are a sobering reminder that even the peacekeepers must be properly policed.

After the debacle over Iraq, it was inevitable that the UN's decision-making processes would be re-evaluated. Mr Annan has suggested a reconfiguration of the UN Security Council and floated the idea of increasing the number of permanent members. Again, it is hard to argue against this. The present composition of the council reflects the political realities of the 1945 post-war world. Now there are new centres of power that must be incorporated, or at least represented, on the council. Unless this happens, the legitimacy of the UN will begin to slip away.

Perhaps even more significant is Mr Annan's proposal to set out the circumstances in which the use of force by a member state would be justified. It would have to be demonstrated that there is a serious threat, that non-military action would be ineffective and that military action will be successful. True, it is unlikely that such a mechanism would have made any difference if implemented prior to the US invasion of Iraq. But now that the pandora's box of "preventive wars" has been opened, it makes sense for the UN to at least have such a checklist.

Another suggestion that has been prompted, at least in part, by the Iraq crisis is that a new, powerful, Human Rights Council should be set up to replace the discredited Commission on Human Rights. Since the failure to uncover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the justification for the invasion has been subtly shifted to a humanitarian argument. If human rights abuses are to be a basis for war, the UN must be a moral authority. The Commission on Human Rights has been widely criticised for giving serial human rights-abusing states - such as Libya and Sudan - positions of authority. This is clearly unsustainable. Another good reason to create a new authority on human rights is that it would add to the pressure for the Security Council to act in situations such as Darfur.

But although the UN needs to be reformed, it must be wary of dancing to the tune of its most vigorous critic, namely the US. The Bush administration may have adopted a more conciliatory tone of late, but it still harbours a deep resentment towards the UN for its refusal to authorise the invasion of Iraq. It is worth remembering that the attacks on the leadership of Kofi Annan intensified after he publicly called the Iraq war "illegal". And many of the American assaults on the integrity and effectiveness of the UN need to be treated with caution. Several US firms were implicated in the oil-for-food scandal. And it was the UN - not the US task-force - that ultimately proved more effective in co-ordinating the aid and reconstruction mission in the wake of the recent Asian tsunami.

The UN is a flawed institution. It is to be hoped the Security Council and the General Assembly endorse Mr Annan's reform plan. But no one should doubt that, in the end, the UN is only as strong as its members allow it to be; and that it remains the most respected and authoritative forum for multilateral action we have.

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