March 25, 2005

7 Days: UN Reform


After UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan this week proposed sweeping changes to the structure of the 60-year-old United Nations, a feeding frenzy broke out among countries eager to take advantage of the opportunity to expand their power in the world body.

Japan, India, Brazil and Germany all renewed their petitions to join the exclusive club of permanent members of the Security Council, whose five members-the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China-have veto power in the 15-seat council. China proposed that "developing countries" be invited to join the powerful group.

Aside from proposing expanding the Security Council, Annan called for restructuring the UN's Human Rights Commission to keep such human-rights violators as Syria from becoming members, and redefining terrorism to eliminate its justification as a means toward nationalistic goals.

Annan's proposals could not come at a more urgent time-both for the world and for the UN.

The last several years has made apparent to much of the world what Israel-watchers long have known about the international body: The UN has a problem living up to its founding mission of making the world a safer place.

At best, the UN has been a passive witness to the horrors of the modern world, from the slaughter in Rwanda a decade ago to the scourge of terrorism today. At worst, the UN has been complicit in nations' crimes by allowing countries that sponsor violence and terrorism a free pass-sometimes even allowing terrorists to creep onto the UN payroll.

It's not clear that Annan's proposals, even if carried out, can save the UN from irrelevance. The UN will continue to generate headlines and laws and summits and resolutions. But until it crosses the breach and begins taking actions that go beyond consensus building-the UN mantra of late-the world body will continue to be little more than a forum for airing grievances.

The UN has tried to stay relevant by being as inclusive as possible. But in so doing it has become neutral to the point of ineffectiveness. As any local police chief will tell you, sometimes you need an iron fist to secure the peace, not simply a courtroom where everybody has a fair say.

Perhaps nobody understands better than the Israelis-and, before them, Europe's Jews-that achieving peace requires more than simply promoting nonviolence. It requires responding to aggression, even if it requires military action. It means preventing hostilities even when it requires preemptive strikes. It means sometimes doing what is necessary even when there is no consensus.

That's why some of Annan's reforms may not help the UN, particularly with regard to the Security Council. The problem is not that the UN is undemocratic, but that it's unrepresentative. It gives small nations power far beyond their size; it gives an equal vote to terrorist-sponsoring nations and democratic ones; it promotes legalistic debates rather than coordinating effective action.

The problem with the consensus building valued at the UN is that it's not always the best way to get things done. Sometimes it helps to have fewer decision-making members.

The US figured that out two years ago when it decided to bypass what had become a laborious UN approval process and simply go to war in Iraq. Israel showed a generation ago it had that figured out when it sent fighter plans to bomb the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq without seeking the approval of the world body.

It's good that the UN is thinking about reform-and good that some of those reforms clearly are aimed at shoring up the organization's glaring weaknesses on such matters as terrorism and effective promotion of human rights-but the world body needs to make sure that these reforms streamline the UN bureaucracy and make it more effective, not handicap it by diffusing its power even further.

For the last three decades or so, the UN's ineffectiveness has been to Israel's advantage. The institution often has betrayed a hopeless bias against the Jewish state, which, if given teeth, could have done great harm to Israel.

But the UN's weaknesses also have hurt Israel, allowing terrorist nations to escape worldwide sanction, propping up despotic regimes and not holding other nations accountable for their misdeeds.

The question now is can Annan deliver on his proposals, or is this just more of the usual UN hyperbole?