A mixed-bag summit

David Mepham
19 September 2005

Kofi Annan could barely conceal his frustration. In an unusually frank and forthright address at the start of the United Nations world summit he lamented the failure of world leaders to rise to the challenge of UN reform. “We have not”, he said, “achieved the sweeping and fundamental reform that I and others believe is required”. He added that “sharp differences, some of them substantive and legitimate” (others presumably much less so) had prevented greater progress.

The secretary-general’s irritation is widely shared. The outcome of the 14-16 September gathering fell well short of what was needed and expected (although expectations of what can be achieved in a single meeting are often too high). It was also a serious missed opportunity.

openDemocracy writers debate the outcome of the UN world summit in New York:

Shashi Tharoor, “A United Nations for a fairer, safer world”

Ian Williams, “It’s the nations, stupid!”

Julie Mertus, “The United Nations reform drive”

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “President Bush discovers the world is flat”

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Over the course of the previous year, the UN High-Level Panel and the Millennium Project had drawn up detailed proposals in the areas of security, human rights and development. Kofi Annan included the best of these ideas in his own March 2005 report, In Larger Freedom: Towards Security, Development and Human Rights For All.

The proposals on offer were thoughtful, pragmatic and carefully balanced. And, as Ian Williams notes in his openDemocracy article, they were presented as an implicit deal: measures on security, disarmament and anti-terrorism to please the developed world in exchange for a stronger commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), aid, debt and fair trade to win over developing countries. To placate the Bush administration, Kofi Annan also placed strong emphasis on reforming UN management, administration and budget systems.

The sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations invested the summit with tremendous symbolic importance, something Annan and his team sought to capitalise on. The UN was at a “fork in the road”; this was a “make or break” summit; it was “now or never” for reform. All these arguments and more were used to pile on the pressure. Their calculation was that the more recalcitrant countries would buckle, unwilling to be isolated from a growing international consensus.

In the event, this was to put too much faith in moral suasion. The world’s awkward customers refused to play ball. This group included more than the Americans (though the approach of the Bush administration was particularly destructive and short-sighted); it contained countries like China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Cuba and Egypt, which were equally difficult on particular issues. Together these states succeeded in diluting the summit’s conclusions. The publication of the highly critical Paul Volcker report into the UN oil-for-food programme in Iraq on the eve of the summit also created a very unhelpful backdrop.

Four points of light

However, even in the context of a disappointing overall outcome, real progress was made or pledged in four areas – although much of the detailed work has still to be done.

The first and perhaps most significant breakthrough came in relation to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. For over a decade the international community has wrestled with the issue of when and where it is appropriate to use military force on humanitarian grounds. The failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994 led to the loss of an estimated 800,000 lives. In Bosnia, the world only acted decisively when 7,000 Muslims were slaughtered at Srebrenica in 1995. And in response to the ongoing atrocities in Darfur, western Sudan, the world’s response is still too little and far too late.

Now, for the first time, the world’s leaders have endorsed the concept of an international “responsibility to protect”: an affirmation that they will act to prevent massive human-rights abuses when individual national governments are unwilling or unable to do so. While further work is needed to think through how to operationalise this commitment in specific circumstances, it does represent an important normative shift.

Second, the world summit agreed to establish a UN Peacebuilding Commission. Half of the countries that emerge from civil war fall back into violent conflict within five years, and the existing UN system lacks the capacity and organisational focus to properly assist such countries to make the transition from protracted conflict to sustainable peace.

A Peacebuilding Commission – planned to come into existence by the end of 2005 – could help it to do so, although there is still a debate about how broad its mandate will be and whether it should act in a preventive role. A wide remit would allow the body to promote a more coherent international response to the needs of crisis countries: assisting with or coordinating economic reconstruction, rebuilding political institutions and the rule of law, aiding security-sector reform and demobilisation of former combatants.

Third, world leaders acknowledged – at least implicitly – the absurdity of the UN human-rights status quo. The work of the UN Commission on Human Rights has become increasingly discredited; it is hard to take seriously a human-rights body that has Saudi Arabia and Sudan as members and Libya as its chair. Indeed, some of the worst rights-violating countries have deliberately sought membership of the commission in recent years to pre-empt criticism of their own records. Thus, the proposed replacement of the commission with a new Human Rights Council is a move in the right direction – although its membership, scope and focus is still to be debated and decided.

Fourth, the establishment of a UN Democracy Fund was another positive outcome of the summit. The United Nations has become increasingly engaged in elections and support for transitions to democracy over the last decade, but it has lacked a reliable and adequate source of funds for this work. The new fund should provide those and give the UN’s work in this area new coherence.

Four empty spaces

Against progress in these areas, the UN summit achieved little or no advance on four pressing global issues.

The first is non-proliferation and disarmament; Kofi Annan was particularly scathing in his comments on this, accusing summit leaders of “posturing”. He was right to say that (following the review conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in May 2005) the world has now twice failed to take seriously the scale of the threat posed by the spread of nuclear-weapons technology and capabilities.

Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be very undesirable, and the international community should take all sensible measures to avert this outcome, but the Iranians have a point in accusing the world’s existing nuclear powers of double standards. The non-proliferation treaty calls on non-nuclear states to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it also requires the nuclear states to reduce and ultimately eliminate their own arsenals.

Second, the summit was acutely disappointing on global development issues. On 7 September, the United Nations Development Programme’s 2005 human development report highlighted the continuing scandal of global poverty and misery in a world of material abundance. Every hour more than 1,200 children die away from the glare of media attention in the equivalent to three tsunamis a month; 10.7 million children do not live to see their 5th birthday. Most of them are victims of preventable disease, resulting from poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water and inadequate nutritional intake.

The report also notes how far the world still is from achieving the Millennium Development Goals, endorsed by global leaders as recently as five years ago at the UN Millennium Summit. On current trends, these goals will not be met in Africa for a hundred years.

To achieve the targets, developing countries themselves will need to manage their economies better, give priority to the needs of the poor, clamp down on corruption, and make their political systems more open and accountable. But it also requires the world’s wealthier countries to enhance the quantity and quality of their aid flows, deepen debt relief, cut barriers to trade for poor countries, and help reduce violent conflict, including through tighter controls over arms transfers to the world’s conflict zones.

Nothing really new was agreed in any of these areas. Indeed, in some respects, the world moved backwards from the commitments made at the G8 summit in Gleneagles in July. Bob Geldof, criticised in some quarters for overstating what the G8 achieved, was closer to the mark in his negative assessment of the UN summit’s outcome for the world’s poor.

Third, the world summit failed to reach any agreement on conventional arms transfers. While weapons exports and arms brokers from developed countries are fuelling and exacerbating violent conflict across the world, the summit declined to commit to curb this deadly trade.

Fourth, the UN summit made zero progress on one of the hardest issues to resolve, reform of the Security Council. Every reform option is open to criticism and there is no perfect solution, but it is clear that either of the two proposals for reform put forward by the high-level panel would be an improvement on the anachronistic and indefensible status quo where an exclusive club of five are permanent members. A broader and more accountable Security Council must come at some point, however tortuous the negotiations will be to get there.

Also by David Mepham in openDemocracy:

“David Held’s missing links” (June 2004)

“Accountability in Africa: whose problem?” (February 2005)

A single focus

This combination of progress and stasis suggests that the summit was a mixed bag – good in parts – rather than a disaster. The challenge now is to take forward what was agreed on the responsibility to protect, the Peacebuilding Commission and the Human Rights Council, and to redouble collective international efforts in other areas.

Ian Williams suggests that the rest of the world should move ahead on these issues without the United States, if the US continues to be so obstructive. There are certainly areas of UN and wider international action in which this may be possible, but there are many others where the US’s cooperation and goodwill remains important. Getting the US to play a more constructive role within the United Nations is an uphill, often thankless, task. But the world should persist with it.

The United Nations is not and should never aspire to be a system of world government, nor does it require individual governments to jettison their vital national interests. On the contrary, it is about helping countries, including the strongest and most powerful, to see that those interests are often best secured through international cooperation and partnership. In a shrinking world, of common threats and porous borders, the United Nations remains an imperfect but indispensable means for achieving greater common security and prosperity.

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