In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan's challenge

Johanna Mendelson Forman
23 March 2005

Also in openDemocracy on UN reform for the 21st century:

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “Things Kofi Annan can do now” ( April 2003 )

Simona Milio & Francesco Grillo, “The mother of all questions: how to reform global governance” (May 2003)

Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations, and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)

Paul Kingsnorth (with responses from Frances Stewart, James Putzel, and Johanna Mendelson Forman), “How to save the world: poverty, security, and nation–building” June 2004)

Phyllis Bennis, “Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower” ( November 2004

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The report of United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all, eloquently catalogues the global challenges of the international community in the 21st century. This ambitious document both builds on the work of the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change that reported its findings on threats to collective security in November 2004, and crystallises the discussion of the UN’s need to reconfigure in order to address a world where nation-states are either unprepared or incapable of meeting new, transnational threats.

Media stories after the report’s release on 21 March 2005 have paid far too much attention to recommendations about expanding the Security Council’s permanent membership. But there are many other more immediate issues that the UN must consider if it is to remain true to its founding ideals - the expansion of freedom and the protection of human rights - and relevant to the issues that will dominate its next sixty years. Poverty, conflict, infectious diseases, environmental degradation and weapons proliferation – all contribute to human insecurity in 2005, and all represent threats that have emerged since the charter framers created the UN in 1945.

The global character of these new issues, and the way they combine security, rights and development concerns, explain why the UN has reached a point where it must reinvent itself for the future. Whether the concern is fighting terrorism, managing an HIV/Aids crisis, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or environmental threats, the scale of the problems makes it impossible for nation-states to cope on their own. The UN is the only forum where the international community can come together to discuss and agree action at the level and with the authority required. In this respect, the report’s presentation to the New York summit in September, designed to measure progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, will be a crucial test.

The report’s central message is that security and development are deeply linked: without one, the other is imperiled. Why emphasise this now? Because increasing rhetoric about the need for a “security first” approach since the 1990s has not been matched in reality. A decade of civil wars and emergencies, alongside the mixed experience of UN peacekeeping operations (in Rwanda, Somalia, Cambodia, East Timor, Haiti and Congo, for example) have made the international community aware that armed interventions alone are inadequate to restore security, the economy or justice to post-war, post-dictatorship or simply “failed” states.

As a result, the international community has come to understand that seeking to ensure security without engaging with a wider human development agenda will fail. Iraq is the most visible recent model where security faltered and thus development was postponed; it also shows that the “developmentalisation” of security, using armies instead of civilian experts to rebuild states – and without the central involvement of the United Nations – ultimately results in failure.

If this is the argument of Kofi Annan’s report, what are its politics? Some observers have seen its focus on threats to global security that reflect United States policy priorities – counter-terrorism, infectious diseases, the spread of WMD, and corruption – as pandering to the interests of the lone superpower. Moreover, the replacement of the Commission on Human Rights by a smaller body elected by two-thirds of the general assembly will certainly make some Washington bureaucrats smile. But again, media comment can ignore deeper realities – in this case, that the report’s recommendations can only be implemented if the UN’s member-states muster the requisite will. Here, the politics of the report may be more challenging to current United States policy than it might appear.

There are several imponderables: whether the report can help ultimately forge a new relationship with the US, whether its proposed reforms will actually be implemented by the 191 member-states, and whether a fight over the composition of an expanded Security Council will block the process. But what the report has already achieved is to elevate Kofi Annan above the fray of US partisan politics by sounding an alarm to the world’s nation-states about urgent global crises that demand a coordinated response in which the UN plays a critical role.

The logic is plain. A world where the United States remains isolated from the international community is a world that will also suffer from a lack of capacity to resolve the most acute challenges we face. Kofi Annan’s presentation of In Larger Freedom: towards development, security and human rights for all to the world may be a gift not only to the survival of the United Nations, but also to the future of international law and human rights.

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