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New hope for the U.N.

[ Cronkite reports on recent high-level talks at which ideas about U.N. reform are being floated — on setting up an effective system to respond to the need to protect human rights, on ways of dealing with anti-democratic members, on proportion representation, and even on Security Council reform. –BL ]

13 June 2004 | Denver Post

by Walter Cronkite

New life is being breathed into the United Nations. The organization that is the world’s best hope for a lasting peace seems to be relevant again, having been consigned to irrelevancy a year and a half ago by George Bush and much of our media. In Bush’s flip-flop on the need for U.N. help in getting Iraq on the road to democracy, the U.S. has asked the world organization to do exactly what its founders intended it to do – help bridge mistrust and antagonisms between nations and peoples that threaten further violence.

The United Nations now is also involved in self-renewal, following Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s call last September for “radical reform” of the U.N. system. During the past eight months, U.N. officials and members of nongovernmental organizations have worked to improve the credibility and effectiveness of the United Nations, and to expand democracy within the organization itself. U.S. groups such as Citizens for Global Solutions and Oxfam America, together with U.N. personnel, have been holding meetings, seminars and retreats to develop ideas for change.

Two fundamental ideas seem to be emerging from all the talk. One is called the “Responsibility to Protect.” It would establish a rule that would make member nations responsible for protecting the human rights of their citizens, and when they fail to do so, it will be the responsibility of the United Nations to do it. The organizations propose a “U.N. Emergency Peace Service,” under the authority of the Security Council. It would be a quick-reaction force with both military and police components. It could, if necessary, call for military or financial assistance from member states.

The second idea is more profound, more far-reaching. This is the concept of “democracy deficits” – bureaucratese for a lack of democracy. Each of the 191 member states has a single vote on the issues before the General Assembly. Some of those states are both authoritarian and infamous abusers of human rights. Consequently, the interests and desires of their people are not really represented at the United Nations. Indeed, the presence of dictatorships such as Liberia and Cuba on panels such as the Human Rights Commission has long been an international scandal. Those with a “democracy deficit” might be barred from such commissions.

Also, whether democracies or not, many countries are quite small, yet they have the same vote in the General Assembly as large nations.

Tonga’s 110,000 people have the same electoral weight as the United States’ 288,889,610 or China’s 1,303,775,785. What has evolved from these ideas is the concept of a weighted vote. Each nation would get a number of votes based on factors that are still being discussed. But they might be things such as a nation’s population, its size, its gross national product and its record on human rights. Democracies would be favored, dictatorships penalized. Dictatorships would become the lightweights of the system.

Ideas for reforming the system also include the Security Council – both its representation and the possession by five of its members of veto power. This might be the harder nut to crack, as none of the “big five” intends to give up that power or see it modified – at least not right now.

In the meantime, the organization founded in San Francisco 55 years ago has proven itself still alive and getting well. For the past three years, it has been shadowed, blocked from the sun by America’s new unilateralism. Now that the Bush administration has done its Iraqi somersault, the United Nations seems back in the sunlight.

Walter Cronkite has been a journalist for more than 60 years, including 19 as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Thanks to Oklahomans for Global Solutions for the article. –BL

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