SEATED AT THE SAME TABLE in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York last Monday were representatives of Iran and Iraq. Their proximity was a mere artifact of alphabetical order, yet also a symbol of the organization's idealism: If leaders from contending countries--whether dictatorships or democracies--can only sit down together, good things will happen.
But, lately, bad things have been happening at the United Nations. Never, in fact, have the organization's ideals and institutions been under greater strain. An oil-for-food scandal, the sexual abuse of locals by U.N. peacekeepers, the duplicity of the Human Rights Commission, paralysis over genocide in Sudan--the weight of it all seemed to press down on an unusually somber Secretary General Kofi Annan, even as he challenged the assembly to endorse big plans for reform. "I have deliberately spared you high-flying rhetoric," he said softly. "What is needed now is not more declarations and promises, but action."
On March 21, Annan released his 63-page reform agenda, borrowing heavily from the 2004 report by his High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. Annan's document, "In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All," is being billed as a bold vision for revitalizing the United Nations. U.N. watchers say it suffers from the same mix of confession and self-deception that has hobbled previous reform manifestos.
In his section on preventing catastrophic terrorism, for example, Annan challenges the claim, popular among Arab states, that resisting occupation justifies any form of violence. He calls for a new convention on terrorism by 2006. "Terrorism is a threat to all the United Nations stands for," he writes. "It cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians."
The problem is that the United Nations still cannot decide on a morally coherent definition of terrorism. Indeed, critics charge that it has long supported terrorist activity in one form or another. In October 2001, for example, barely a week after the U.N. passed a tough anti-terrorism resolution in the wake of 9/11, it gave Syria a two-year term on the Security Council. Yet Syria remains on the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism, reportedly offering haven to over a dozen terrorist groups.
Annan calls the threat of global terror one of "deadly urgency," requiring a new consensus on how to defend international peace and security. He argues that the U.N. Charter authorizes war to meet both "imminent" and "latent" threats to peace--terms that appear nowhere in the U.N. Charter. In an apparent nod to the Christian "just war" theory, he asks the Security Council to adopt a set of principles to guide decisions about the use of military force. They include the concepts of a "proper purpose" for war (right intention); of force proportional to the threat (proportionality); and of the necessity to first explore all means short of war (last resort).
Despite being a flattened version of just war theology, Annan's offering will probably rankle many Europeans. "To my mind this is the first time any international notice has been given to the just war theory," says James Turner Johnson, a leading just war theorist at Rutgers University. "It certainly engages the United Nations in a much more direct way with the moral debate that's been going on in this country."
Nevertheless, defense experts and others say Annan's proposal invests too much power in the U.N. Security Council. Under Article 51 of the Charter, states don't need U.N. approval to defend themselves after an attack. Annan agrees, but claims that every other decision to use force demands the Council's "unique" power to confer legitimacy. Since its formation in 1945, the Council's five permanent members--the United States, Great Britain, Russia, France, and China--rarely have agreed on security questions. "The essence of a sovereign country is that it is the only entity that can judge whether or not it's being threatened," says Walter Russell Mead, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If there's an attempt to substitute the judgment of the Security Council for that of an individual country for when one is threatened, then that seems to me like a complete nonstarter."
This was at the heart of the debate over the Iraq invasion, which inflamed the sense of crisis about the need for U.N. reform. Annan eventually called the war "illegal," a claim that others say rests on a mistaken view of legitimacy, sovereignty, and the Charter. Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during Ronald Reagan's first term, says Annan's agenda could make the problem worse. "Legitimacy is available through the rule of law in constitutional democracies," she says. "I think it is enormously important that the United States never agree that the use of force depends on U.N. authorization."
Critics also point to the U.N.'s failure to prevent human-rights atrocities in states such as Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo, where the veto power of Security Council members created inertia and cowardice. In Sudan, an Islamic government stands accused of ongoing genocide--with no clear sign that the U.N. will intervene. Without a hint of irony, Annan asked the General Assembly: "As to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other such crimes against humanity, are they not also threats to international peace and security, against which humanity should be able to look to the Security Council for protection?"
Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, bristles at the suggestion. The problem, she says, is the fundamental structure of the Security Council and the absence of an international military to enforce its decisions. "There's nothing he has to say here that reassures me that the U.N. could be effective either dealing with imminent threats or with genocide," she says. "As long as you maintain veto power and permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council, the idea that it could intervene effectively is preposterous."
Back in 1945, at the international conference in San Francisco that created the United Nations, Charles Malik, the Lebanese delegate and an Arab Christian, worried about the impulse to mistake conventions for moral convictions. "There is a peace that only cloaks terrible inner conflicts," he wrote at the time. "And there is a security that is utterly insecure." Perhaps nowhere else is the gulf between form and substance deeper than in the discredited Human Rights Commission.
Annan now admits what everyone involved in human-rights advocacy has long known: The world's rogue regimes seek membership on the Commission to block international scrutiny and censure. According to Freedom House, more than half of the 53-member states are unfree or only partly free. Six countries on the Commission get the lowest possible rating for freedom: China, Cuba, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan (which was reelected last year even as new charges of ethnic cleansing were raised by U.N. investigators).
Annan's remedy: Shrink the size of the Commission and elect delegates by a two-thirds majority vote of all U.N. members. That might possibly end the "regional bloc" system, which allows dictatorships like China to intimidate other states into getting nominated. "A two-thirds vote might give democratic states the power to block bad nations," says Mark Lagon, of the State Department's Bureau of International Organizations. "We think this is moving in the right direction." Joanna Weschler, UN representative for Human Rights Watch, sees an admission that reform is desperately needed: "This indicates a belief that the Commission is beyond repair."
It might also suggest, however, that UN officials have no intention of challenging the culture of hypocrisy that dominates the institution's human rights agenda. Many weak democracies in Africa, for example, could still succumb to pressure for vote-trading. Perhaps more important, Annan and his U.N. colleagues resist the idea of setting a high moral bar for membership on the Commission, a goal long advanced by human-rights groups. "Establishing criteria for membership on the Commission and for a reformed Human Rights Council is vital for credibility," says Michael Goldfarb, a spokesman for Freedom House. "It's the only way to reclaim the mandate of the U.N.'s primary human rights body, namely to spotlight the world's most egregious human rights abusers."
To some it all seems like a tragic departure from the lofty ideals expressed in the U.N. Charter about affirming and defending the "dignity and worth of the human person." To others, another U.N. report just doesn't have much salience amid the tough political and social realities on the ground. As an Iraqi diplomat said to me after Annan's speech: "We have other things that keep us up at night other than U.N. reform."
Joseph Loconte is a fellow in religion at the Heritage Foundation and the editor of The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler's Gathering Storm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).