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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004

U.N. will reform or slide into oblivion

LOS ANGELES -- If the United Nations were somehow to disappear from the face of the Earth, would people care -- or even notice?

Of course, they would. The organization, founded after World War II, does important peace-enhancing work all over the globe. Even so, U.N.-bashing is back in fashion again -- with serious overtones. Now the bashing is administered by people within the organization itself.

The fact is that this world organization is weighed down by a leaden bureaucracy, an outdated Security Council and enough General Assembly hot-air posturing to float a fleet of blimps. Everyone at U.N. headquarters in New York knows this to be the sad-sack truth.

As did John C. Danforth, the former U.S. senator and America's U.N. ambassador for only the last five months. When he couldn't take it anymore, he resigned. And then shortly after he threw in his hat, he almost lost it in exasperation after a particularly ridiculous day in the General Assembly. That august body just could not summon up the collective courage to face up to the huge genocide crisis in the Sudan.

"One wonders about the utility of the General Assembly on days like this," he publicly despaired.

The U.N. organization itself recognizes that big changes will be needed if it is to halt its slide toward virtual oblivion. Secretary General Kofi Annan himself has put some wind in the sail of reform by birthing an internal commission that has just issued recommendations proposing overhaul of the central Security Council, the U.N.'s top organization. If effected, these recommendations would expand the council to 24 members from 15 and perhaps add six new permanent members, presumably including Japan and India.

This would be extremely welcome reform indeed.

It's good to see Asia beginning to get its just recognition. Japan is long overdue for a permanent perch on the Security Council, and India, the world's second-most populous state, a nuclear power and a growing economic one, could bring much to that table as a permanent member.

Notably, the panel was headed by Anand Panyarachun, a Thai former prime minister, but the report didn't commit to permitting the new permanent members a veto power. That will have to be thought through some more. The immediate reaction from Tokyo and New Delhi was one of hurt, but it might be more helpful to look at this process as unfolding in two stages, with veto power coming after installation as a permanent member.

Annan was smart to give the reform thing a positive push. Suddenly he is under fire for all sorts of things, especially possible family corruption involving the U.N. oil-for-food program. The more he wraps himself in the mantle of reform, the better chance he and his family will have of getting out from under the corruption cloud.

Thus, reform of the U.N. should suddenly get high priority. Whatever the motive or the reason, this is a good thing, and speed is of the essence. The patience of the American public especially is wearing thin. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the U.N. but that such support is mainly skin deep.

Bringing Japan and India to the top table probably won't make China happy. But it could infuse the organization with a renewed sense of purpose. India would bring a remarkable past of nonaligned diplomacy and a different present: one with nuclear diplomacy. For its part, Japan, under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, has been putting its diplomatic chin forward and now accepts that its low-profile days are history as China rises to reassert itself and overhang Asia.

There is not much time left for the U.N. to right itself. A few more years of drift, and the organization will fall off the continental shelf of credulity. With conservative politics on the rise in the United States, Washington could pull the plug by all but abandoning the joint.

Won't happen, you say? Don't bet on it. There's a lot of unhappiness with the U.N. in high places in Washington; the sudden Danforth bye-bye reveals just that.

Yes, the U.N. could fade away. And if it does, under conditions of terminal incompetence and corruption, who would really care?

Worse yet, wouldn't it be embarrassing if not that many people even noticed?

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the founder of the Asia Pacific Media Network. Copyright 2004 Tom Plate

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