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U.N. reformers ask the wrong question (San Francisco Chronicle) September 21, 2005

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.

Pop singer Elton John had it wrong. “Sorry” isn’t the hardest word. It’s “reform.”

Just ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose “year of reform” in California is bogged down in sinking opinion polls and politics as usual. Or President Bush, whose proposals to reform Social Security are going nowhere. There is some consensus that tort reform, health-care reform and campaign-finance reform are all needed, but they struggle to gain support.

As the United Nations anticipated its 60th birthday this fall, Secretary-General Kofi Annan jumped on the reform bandwagon,urging widespread changes at the United Nations — and not a moment too soon. Congress recently called on the United Nations to adopt sweeping reforms or else lose the dues of its largest contributor, the United States. With much fanfare, President Bush and 150 other world leaders met at the United Nations last week to approve a set of reforms, but the largest meeting of world leaders ever held produced only sound and fury, as Annan’s bold reforms were reduced to a 35-page document with a few meager changes.

The definition of the word suggests one reason why reform is so difficult. To reform is to change into an improved form, or to end a bad practice by introducing a better method. At the United Nations, who is to say what is “improved” or “better”?

Annan and the ambassadors of many nations think it is better to allow greater used of humanitarian intervention, while others fear improper invasions of national territory. The United States believes it is an improvement to bar nations that have notoriously violated human rights from membership on the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, but some nations do not favor such limitations.

A 19th-century reformer identified another problem with reform when he said: “It consists in taking a bone from a dog. Philosophy will not do it.” Reforming the United Nations inevitably means taking power now held by some and redistributing it to others. For example, one of the central U.N. reforms proposed and rejected was expansion of the membership of the U.N. Security Council. This is no mere matter of philosophy to permanent members of the Security Council whose power would be diluted by such reform.

Annan and other U.N. reformers including U.N. Ambassador John Bolton are asking the wrong question. They are asking how to make the United Nations a better action body. The United Nations is not and will never be effective at taking action. Its highest and best use is to gather the nations of th world — regardless of their systems, values or beliefs — under one roof for interaction and communication. In that sense, if there were no United Nations, then we’d have to invent one. But the very diversity that makes it effective as a world forum renders it ineffective as an action body. In a world where disasters and violence come fast and furious, the U.N. debaters will also be too little, too late.

When action is needed, the world has learned to work around, not through, the United Nations. Proponents of the new International Criminal Court, for example, acknowledged that they organized the body with an independent prosecutor and other unusual provisions in order to avoid the politics and powers of the U.N. Security Council. Advocates of a ban on land mines or changes in climate control called their own conferences and adopted their own treaties, circumventing U.N. agencies and processes. The United Nations and its coalition went into Iraq when the U.N. Security Council would not adopt a further resolution. Even in humanitarian disasters, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations can deliver more aid faster than the United Nations.

Sixty years after its founding, let’s give the United Nations high marks as an international forum. But the action bodies of the 21st century are coalitions of the willing, nations with common values who will join together to create courts, enact treaties, stop genocide and provide relief. All the high-minded reforms on the table will not — and should not — transform the United Nations from a debating society to a fast-action team.

This op/ed appeared on Page B-9. URL: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/09/21/EDGA8EQJ7t1.DTL

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