World Watch: U.N. sets weakened reform plan
UNITED NATIONSThe diplomats parsing words and ideas here negotiated right up to their deadline, but what they got for their feverish efforts was not a hoped-for breakthrough on reforming the frequently maligned world body but ratheras one ambassador here put ita "watered-down document."
Amid traffic jams, flossy receptions, and countless speeches, some 170 world leaders gathered in Manhattan this week to consider how to prime the U.N. for dealing with new threats and challengesan ambitious set of changes championed initially by Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Aides said that the bid for reform would form a large part of Annan's legacy. He has been buffeted by charges (most recently in a U.N.-sanctioned report this month by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker) that his lack of oversight failed to root out the fraud plaguing a past program guiding Iraq's oil sales to build revenue for food and medicine. Annan said he accepted the report's account of management failures, and it was touted as further evidence of the urgent need for U.N. reform.
At times over the past three weeks, the entire reform exercise instigated by Annan seemed perilously close to collapse. Perhaps it was the embarrassing specter of so many world leaders gathering without any agreement that ultimately spurred the negotiators to cobble a document together.
Whatever the case, the deal that emerged after long days and nights of talks here was a shorter, broader statement pointing out the direction of future changeand largely passing the job on to the General Assembly. Many U.N. watchers described the exercise as an opportunity lost. With a big reform agenda to ponderranging from U.N. management and its human rights operation to efforts to reduce poverty and help post-conflict countriesthe negotiations staggered and for a time deadlocked amid "bickering and point-scoring," as David Shorr, an analyst of the U.N. with the Stanley Foundation, put it. "This was a moment when global political attention was focused on the U.N."
Annan himself called the lack of progress on nonproliferation and disarmament "a real disgrace." He also complained of "spoilers" among the would-be deal makers and complained about negotiating tactics: "Some delegations focused on the trees and missed the forest," he said.
On the other hand, the reform plan establishes a Human Rights Council to replace the current human rights apparatus, which has been lambasted for including big-time rights abusers among those who sit in judgment. A Peacebuilding Commission was also approved in an effort to assist countries coming out of conflict.
Annan would not say whom he had in mind in his comment about missing the forest for the trees, but his remark called up recent criticisms of U.S. negotiators, led by President Bush's new permanent representative to the U.N., John Bolton. He came under fire for submitting some 750 proposed changes to a draft text with less than a month before a flood of presidents, prime ministers, and sundry potentates descended on New York. Many of the American ideas had been discussed before, but the impression was left that Bolton, a tough critic of the U.N. and a prominent administration hardliner who only got the job just over a month ago through a recess appointment, was exercising brinkmanship. One diplomat who monitored the negotiations closely called Bolton's role "very unhelpful," adding, "He's somewhat like a bull in a china shop. He sort of arrived and behaved like he hadn't seen the document before."
But other countries also worked to gut or weaken some of the reforms. And Bolton and others in the administration hotly disputed any suggestion they were using unreasonably tough tactics in the talks, saying he was conveying long-standing U.S. policy views and working tirelessly to forge an acceptable document. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has stood by Bolton's efforts, though after she joined in a telephone conference call with Annan and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw a week ago, the U.S. position on development goals was promptly modified and a compromise was found, according to a knowledgeable diplomat.
Bush, speaking at U.N. headquarters Wednesday, called the outcome of the negotiations, which were approved by the General Assembly, "the first steps toward reform." The U.N., he added, needs "to live up to its ideals and fulfill its mission." That will only happen if member-states like the United States lead the way.