In two days' time, the biggest-ever gathering of world leaders will take place in New York to mark the UN's 60th birthday. Not only is the final declaration of the 175 leaders still being discussed, there are major differences remaining to be bridged.
With the talks going down to the wire on such issues as human rights, UN management reforms and terrorism, the summit is in danger of becoming a global fiasco rather than ushering in a new era of reform. The question now is: will the 191-member organisation be found wanting amid calls for reform that it can no longer ignore?
The signs are not encouraging. In an exclusive interview with The Independent, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, spoke openly of the possibility of failure at the most critical time of his own career. Describing the US approach of line-by-line negotiations as "a recipe for disaster", he has had to intervene personally to save the summit from collapse by persuading the Bush administration to drop its objections to the declaration's central commitment on global aid. Yet even this may not be enough.
If agreement is reached on the document, it would be in effect a "grand bargain" between rich nations and developing states. The West would provide economic support in return for guarantees on good governance and respect for human rights from the developing world as well as their backing of UN management reforms.
Britain, and the EU as a whole, back the original package and the Government has taken the lead in trying to preserve it. The British ambassador, Emyr Parry Jones, one of the main negotiators, has warned, however, that the management reforms are "an essential part of the package. Without it, that package will be very substantially diminished."
The issue of management reform appeared last night to be the deal-breaker on which there had been least progress, with developing countries resisting the proposed shift to place the UN chief in charge of management, rather than the 191-nation General Assembly which has traditionally braked reform.
One of the main questions in the negotiating room concerns the intentions of the US delegation, with the French specifically raising the issue. There have been widespread fears since the appointment of John Bolton as US ambassador that he has been dispatched to the UN to sabotage the summit. The sudden tabling of 750 US amendments to the draft declaration did nothing to assuage those fears.
Non-governmental organisations sounded the alarm about a possible collapse of the negotiations last week after Mr Bolton called a number of UN missions to say: "I don't want give and take. If we disagree, we disagree." That held echoes of his earlier negotiating record as chief US arms control officer, when he was quoted as saying: "I don't do carrots."
Mr Annan says he had staked his reputation on saving the document's commitments to the UN Millennium Development Goals, which set 2015 as the target for cutting world poverty by half, ensuring primary education for all and stemming the Aids pandemic. He put in a call to the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, last Tuesday. His conference call, on the way back to New York from London was prompted by the widespread alarm, particularly among developing nations, at the systematic US amendments that sought to eliminate all references to the Millennium Goals, including a commitment for rich nations to earmark 0.7 per cent of GNP for development aid. At that point, this was the deal-breaker.
"Quite frankly, I think this is one of the major achievements of the UN, that for the first time that I can remember, we have a common framework for development which is accepted by all governments, developed and developing, accepted by civil society and the average man and woman in the street. And the financial institutions and the UN agencies are all behind it, " Mr Annan said. "It's an important tool in our attempts to propel us forward in our attempts to eliminate poverty and I don't think we should fiddle with it."
Later that day, Mr Bolton announced to his fellow ambassadors that the US would reverse its position on the Millennium Development Goals.
Mr Annan would suffer a major personal setback if the summit fails to deliver management reform, only a week after he was publicly castigated by an independent investigation into the oil-for-food corruption scandal for his mismanagement that allowed Saddam Hussein to rake in more than $10bn (£5.4bn). Although ruling out resignation, he has accepted responsibility for the failings detailed in the probe led by the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, which concluded that a chief administrator should be appointed without delay to prevent future corruption.
Mr Annan has much riding on a successful outcome. But he can only work behind the scenes in order to achieve it. This is because the final document is the work of the UN member states - even though it is based on a report written by himself. They have already ignored his appeals to agree on proposals to enlarge the UN Security Council: a new deadline has been set for December, as nobody has hopes of progress during the summit.
Because of the failure to agree on the Security Council, Japan, which had hoped to become a permanent member, is threatening to cut its UN contributions in retaliation. Diplomats say that the entire negotiating process has become a confusing flux of changing coalitions.
Mr Annan says he has warned the US he will not accept blame in case the summit fails. "I've also told them they're going to take the blame for failure when all the heads of state come in. They are the host. You cannot be a host and destroy the party," he said.
The issues at stake
UN PROPOSAL: Restate global commitment to Millennium Goals on poverty, education and Aids.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: US was almost alone in opposition, but came round after pressure from Kofi Annan.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: Agreement. But watch out for loopholes that could give US wriggle room
Human rights council
UN PROPOSAL: Leaner version of the discredited UN Human Rights Commission, to sit all year round.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: Backed by Western nations who want a genuine commitment to human rights.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: Probable agreement
Responsibility to protect
UN PROPOSAL: Endorsement of Canadian initiative to prevent genocide and humanitarian abuse.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: Western powers in favour. Opposed by Russia, India, Pakistan, Cuba and Venezuela.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: Probable agreement
UN PROPOSAL: Warning that greatest threat to peace comes from proliferation.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: Stand-off between nuclear and non-nuclear states.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: No agreement unless a balance can be found between disarmament and non-proliferation
UN PROPOSAL: First definition of terrorism which would say killing of civilians is always unacceptable.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: West in favour. Islamic nations say right to resist foreign occupation would be curbed.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: Definition not agreed. Hopes for resolution to pressure states to discourage incitement
UN PROPOSAL: New body to help nations emerging from conflict.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: West wants Security Council control. Developing nations want commission to report to General Assembly.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: Agreement
UN PROPOSAL: Shift in management responsibility from General Assembly to UN secretary general.
WHO'S FOR/AGAINST: Western nations in favour. Developing nations fear loss of control by General Assembly.
EXPECTED OUTCOME: A deal breaker. Possibly no agreement
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies