Time to update the Security Council

December 01, 2003|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- The refusal of the U.N. Security Council to endorse President Bush's invasion of Iraq has focused once again on the council itself, long criticized as unreflective of the world power equation and of the emergence of the Third World of underdeveloped states.

The award in 1945 of permanent council seats to the United States, Britain, France, Russia (as the Soviet Union) and China took note of the realities at the end of World War II, with a gesture toward liberated France and its towering leader, Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Fifty-eight years later, two of the conquered nations of that war, Germany and Japan, are economic giants whose interests make strong arguments for permanent council seats. And states in all regions beyond Europe have similar demands.

Well before the invasion of Iraq, U.N. diplomats were wrestling with multiple dissatisfactions with the structure of the Security Council. A General Assembly panel toiled so long and indecisively on possible reforms that it came to be known in the secretariat as "the never-ending working group."

But after the diplomatic havoc wreaked by Mr. Bush's pre-emptive invasion of Iraq outside the framework of the United Nations, Secretary-General Kofi Annan named a separate high-level panel to explore U.N. reforms needed to deal, among other things, with the new realities of terrorist threats.

Sashi Tharoor, a U.N. undersecretary-general, notes that inasmuch as the U.N. Charter does not sanction pre-emptive war, Mr. Annan has asked the panel "how we organize ourselves so we can address those real concerns." He is now "opening the door to a new reflection" by the panel, Mr. Tharoor says, "on how we can cope with these new threats and their new challenges."

Not every U.N. scholar agrees that this is the time to address U.N. reform, including possible expansion of the Security Council. There appears to be a consensus that no increase in its size would have avoided its rebukes of Mr. Bush's invasion and subsequent appeals for significant financial and manpower assistance. Indeed, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Donald McHenry, says the addition of more small state votes on the council almost certainly would have enlarged the vote against the U.S.

One eminent scholar of the United Nations, Professor Edward Luck of Columbia University, says Mr. Annan's call for radical reform at this juncture "was sort of saying, `The house is on fire, it's time to do some remodeling.'" But another former ambassador, William Luers, now president of the private United Nations Association of the United States, says "the new environment of terrorism makes the U.N. ripe for change."

There does seem to be agreement that Germany and Japan, in terms of their economic power, rate permanent council seats in any reorganization. There is also strong support for each of the non-European regions -- Asia, Africa, Latin America -- having a permanent seat, but the notion invites heated debate over which country in each should get it.

Mr. Luck says a group of mid-sized countries known within the United Nations as "the coffee club" -- including Canada, Italy, Spain and South Korea -- also want permanent seats. Even the European Union has pleaders for an EU seat. And the question of regional seating awakens obvious rivalries, such as the one between India and Pakistan, in determining award of a permanent seat.

If Mr. Annan's high-level panel manages to deal with these thorny issues of reorganization by the summer, it will have to clear the hurdle of approval by two-thirds of the General Assembly's delegates and ratification by two-thirds of the member states, including the five permanent members.

But Mr. Luck says the problem is "not a question of rearranging the deck chairs." It has always been "the extent to which multilateral cooperation could be mustered to handle threats," he says, and "what needed to be done to cope with preemptive action." Any solution, he says, requires greater "comfort level, when there are really deep divisions among members and not much trust among them."

But Mr. Annan, at least, has taken a new initiative with his panel, spurred ironically by Mr. Bush's breach of the existing U.N. Charter.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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