By Senior correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 6/1/2005 5:58:12 PM ET 2005-06-01T21:58:12

France took over the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, but for those diplomats keen on building a European counterweight to the American superpower, that was the extent of the good news.

On the flip side, French and Dutch voters this week said "no" to a new European Union constitution; and an ambitious plan championed by Germany to add itself, Brazil, India and Japan as permanent members of the Security Council, was “strangled in its crib,” as one EU diplomat put it.

“I’m surprised at the extent of opposition to the idea, and the divisiveness that resulted.”

So goes the latest chapter in efforts to reform the United Nations.

The concept – a perennial topic here – gained new momentum with publication earlier this year of a blueprint for reforming the United Nations drafted by an independent panel of experts and announced by Secretary General Kofi Annan in March. Annan has said he hopes that member states will be able to agree on draft reform resolutions in time for world leaders to vote on them when the U.N. holds its 60th anniversary session in September.

The plan has won some praise from the Bush administration, which has been critical in the past of the U.N.’s procedures and, in particular, the lack of transparency in its budgetary procedures. On Tuesday, President Bush cited the need for reform during his news conference, emphasizing the importance of an efficient and sincere world organization if the long term goals of U.S. foreign policy are to succeed.

“This is an organization which is important. It can help a lot in terms of the democracy movement; it can help deal with conflict and civil war,” Bush said. “But it's an organization that is beginning to lose the trust of the American people, if it hasn't already, and therefore, we need to restore that trust.”

Stephane Dujarric, Annan’s deputy spokesman, says “we are always gratified when member states are seriously debating proposals to make the United Nations work better.”

A distraction?
Yet U.N. and U.S. officials agree that the divisive question of which nations should be granted permanent status often gets in the way of more pressing reform proposals.

“To us, it is very frustrating that the concept of reform at the U.N. always turns into an argument over who deserves to be on the Security Council,” a U.S. official, requesting anonymity, said. “We’re not against changing the Council – we’re strongly on the record in favor of adding Japan – but we also think there are a lot more important reforms the U.N. should be considering right now than adding new votes to a 15-member Council that is already just about paralyzed.”

In fact, the U.S. has been working behind the scenes to advance other reforms contained in Annan’s proposal. Among them:

  • Replacing the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights, which in the past included Libya, Sudan and other nations cited as human rights abusers. It would be replaced with a smaller Human Rights Council that would have more selective criteria for membership. Whatever the fate of that as yet unknown plan, Annan believes that world leaders in September should move forward in some way.
  • Insisting on new ethical guidelines that would, for instance, require U.N. appointees to reveal sources of outside income and make spending decisions more transparent.
  • Rethinking peacekeeping operations and creating a U.N. Peacebuilding Commission that would help in post-conflict situations.
  • Embracing the Bush administration’s proliferation prevention plans and pressing for more stringent controls on fissile materials.

However, Annan's advocacy of the International Criminal Court, which the U.S. opposes on the grounds that American soldiers could find themselves charged with war crimes there, and his support for more restrictive language on the use of force, has kept the White House from fully embracing the Annan plan.

Chinese objections
The latest tussle over Security Council membership featured four regional powers – Germany, Brazil, Japan and India – strenuously arguing that adding them to the Council as permanent members would help reflect the world’s balance of power more realistically. But the so-called G-4 plan, looked doomed early on. Almost as soon as it was made public, a group of nations who have their own rivalries with the four would-be candidates – including Argentina, Pakistan, South Korea and Italy -- opposed the idea, countering with a plan that would have nearly doubled the size of the Security Council.

Another blow came in the form of a memo leaked in May to The Washington Post which portrayed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as opposed to adding another European vote onto the Security Council. Rice reportedly asked how the EU could be working for a common foreign policy while, at the same time, arguing for three separate votes on the Security Council.

The coup d’grace came from China, whose ambassador made it clear Tuesday night that Beijing opposes giving Japan and a third European country a permanent vote at the world’s top table. “I think what has been proposed by G-4 is very dangerous. So as far as China is concerned, we will work with others to see that this will not happen,'' Ambassador Wang Guangya said in an interview with The Associated Press. As ambassador of one of the five veto wielding permanent members – the others are Russia, the United States, Britain and France – Wang’s word carries enormous weight.

On Friday, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, the body where all 191 members have an equal vote, will put forward his own proposal for Security Council reform.

"It would be far preferable for member states to take this vital decision by consensus," Annan wrote in the introduction to the reform report. "But if they are unable to reach consensus, this must not be an excuse for postponing action."

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