It had been billed as the biggest gathering of world leaders ever: a five-year review of the Millennium Summit that set ambitious development goals, and a chance to modernise the United Nations. But the world leaders gathering in New York this week to sign off on a package of reforms to the world body have been given a document that falls short of many of the aims of its negotiators.
In the run-up to the summit, the beleaguered UN was wincing from a body blow. In a devastating report last week, the independent committee of inquiry into the UN-administered oil-for-food programme in Iraq castigated virtually every aspect of the world body, including its Security Council. The report painted a grim picture of corruption both inside and outside the UN system, with evidence of bribes, kickbacks, smuggling and other illicit deals going on throughout the vast programme.
In this environment, both fans and detractors of the UN agreed that it needed thoroughgoing reforms. … Though some progress was made in the negotiations, the need for consensus meant that many worthy aims were watered down.
Among the main issues tackled by the negotiators were:
• Humanitarian intervention
The UN Charter prohibits intervention “in matters which are essentially within the jurisdiction of any state”. But a panel of experts argued in a high-level report in December 2004 that the principle of non-intervention could no longer be used to shield genocidal acts and other atrocities. The UN should assume a “responsibility to protect” civilian populations when governments are “unable or unwilling” to do so. Military action should be authorised by the Security Council as a last resort.
The United States was wary of any wording that smacked of a legal obligation, but in the end the language of the “responsibility to protect” section is fairly strong: the international community “has the responsibility” to use peaceful means to prevent or stop atrocities, and the document states that “we are prepared to take collective action”.
Developing countries, supported by members of the European Union and some others in the rich world, want wealthy countries to commit to giving 0.7% of their GDP per year in development aid. The Americans, while they have increased their (unusually low) levels of foreign assistance under George Bush, think it is more important that aid recipients reform themselves, tackle corruption and prepare for investment.
Compromise language emerged in the end: America was prepared to see the document recognise that some countries are committed to the 0.7% goal, while it also reaffirms the need for action by countries that receive aid. Development wonks fear that this is nothing new, and that crucial momentum for “eradicating extreme poverty”, begun with the Millennium Summit in 2000, will be lost. Nicola Reindorp of Oxfam, a non-governmental organisation, said “the summit is in danger of failing before it has begun”, calling the language on development a showcase of past commitments, with nothing new to offer.
This part generated some of the fiercest disputes of all and, in the end, no agreement. The Americans wanted greater emphasis on arms control, believing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction constitutes “the pre-eminent threat to peace and security”. Developing countries wanted the West to make new commitments to get rid of its own weapons, including nuclear warheads. They also wanted action against small weapons, which threaten poor countries far more than nuclear terrorism does. The summit document makes no mention of action on either. Kofi Annan, the UN’s secretary-general, told reporters on Tuesday that this omission was “a real disgrace”.
[Excerpted from an article in The Economist]