Critics have been talking for years of the need to reform the United Nations. In this country the pressure has frequently come from conservative politicians like the late Senator Jesse Helms, who are jealously protective of U.S. sovereignty and begrudging of funding for the international organization. Useful management and budgetary reforms sometimes resulted from those pressures, but the correctives failed to strengthen the world organization. Meanwhile, after the cold war a host of challenges made the U.N.’s vintage-1945 design less suited to the 21st century. Now Secretary General Kofi Annan has offered an ambitious plan for an aggiornamento of the world organization.
Mr. Annan’s proposal puts forward a reorganization of the world body that takes into account today’s geopolitical realities. Chief among these is the expansion of the Security Council. Permanent membership would be expanded to respond to shifts in the nature and distribution of world power since the end of the Second World War. Japan, Germany and another member of the European Union would represent leading economic powers. The addition of India and Brazil would include populous giants from the global south. Either South Africa or Nigeria is expected to take an African seat. Overall membership of the council would be expanded from 15 to 24. These changes will provide an increased sense of participation in a multipolar world. As the late Pope John Paul II wrote of his hopes for the reform process, The United Nations Organization needs...to become a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home and develop a shared awareness of being, as it were, a family of nations.
A second alteration would replace the controversial Human Rights Commission with a council of recognized experts approved by the General Assembly. The design is intended to overcome the politicization of the commission, by which countries with deplorable human rights records, like Libya and Cuba, have not only held seats on the commission but were eligible for its chairmanship as well. A council structure may not be the perfect format, but it is worth a try. From the beginning human rights have been a cornerstone of the U.N. program. They were central to the liberation of eastern Europe and, in the last decade, to the development of humanitarian intervention; and they lie at the heart of unfolding catastrophes in places like Sudan and of political development in countries like China.
Annan’s reform plan also tackles new threats to peace, including terrorism and humanitarian intervention. The plan understands that terrorism is a global challenge, with increased risk of massive acts of terror. Annan proposes a new treaty that would outlaw terrorism, including state terror, and establish a strategy for preventing nuclear terrorism. The plan also attempts to hold in check the excesses of the U.S. war on terror, reaffirming the Security Council’s power to set the terms for recourse to arms by governments.
In today’s world, international intervention to protect innocent populations against internal aggressionas in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Congo and Sudanis a genuine need. Interventions and the nation-building efforts that follow are costly in terms of military personnel, logistics and time. The reform plan offers for the first time an international legal framework for intervention and its regulation. The United Nations and its members have more than a decade of experience in ad-hoc experiments for dealing with humanitarian emergencies. It is time to review and codify the lessons of recent history.
Political theorists speculate that world order today looks more like that of the Catholic Middle Ages than like the order of Europe that followed the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which grew into the modern world of nation-states. Even as people become more united politically and economically and by every sort of communications, governance is dispersed through diverse and sometimes overlapping jurisdictions, as it was in the high Middle Ages. Likewise, new social inventions are springing up all the time. In the Middle Ages, there were the universities, the corporations, parliaments and craft guilds. Today there are the W.T.O., the International Criminal Court, the Internet and humanitarian intervention.
The United Nations stands at the heart of this process of socialization, as Catholic social teaching calls it. In the long view of world history, Mr. Annan’s reform plan moves the institution from the age of nation-states into a new global future. As Pope John Paul II wrote two years ago, Is this not the time for all to work together for a new constitutional organization of the human family truly capable of ensuring peace and harmony between peoples, as well as their integral development?