UN
John Marshall Mantel  /  AP
New York police patrol outside the United Nations on Monday amid stepped-up security ahead of the General Assembly meeting.
By U.N. correspondent
NBC News
updated 9/13/2005 3:12:56 PM ET 2005-09-13T19:12:56

UNITED NATIONS — U.N. officials were scrambling Tuesday to achieve the seemingly impossible: an accord on a substantive program of reform before some 170 heads of state arrive for the 60th anniversary summit of the world body in New York City on Wednesday.

Although the summit has been billed as a chance for widely divergent nations to come together on vital issues of development and security, the long negotiations leading up to the three-day meeting have only emphasized the deep and longstanding differences among member states.

Ahead of the gathering, a special working group of 35 nations worked on producing a consensus document on U.N. reform for the assembled heads of state.

Yet, with only hours to go, agreement over the agenda, or even on the need for reform, remained elusive.

Divergent agendas
There has been much finger-pointing over why it is that a consensus has not been reached.

Yet, the real struggle, one Western diplomat noted, has not been between the United States and the Europeans, as some would expect, but rather between the developed nations, which view the summit as an opportunity for reform of the U.N.’s administration and procedures, and the poorer developing nations, which see it as a moment to make concrete commitments to social and economic aid and development. 

The United States would like to transform the position of the secretary general into that of a modern, efficient CEO — on the model of a successful multinational corporation. That view makes sense from an American, British or Japanese perspective that a global enterprise like the U.N. should have a powerful officer at the top to direct operations in the most effective and cost-efficient manner. 

For many, the recent Oil for Food Program scandal only reinforced the belief that the United Nations is in dire need of reform.

The final report on the investigation into the program -- which was intended to use funds from Saddam's oil revenues to help alleviate suffering in Iraq -- demanded reforms to prevent further abuses in the future. Who would not want to reform an organization that permitted more than a billion dollars in bribes to be paid through one of its programs? 

Yet, from the viewpoint of many developing countries, talk of reform is simply a tactic to draw attention away from the most important issue: development. 

Developing nations have different goals
“Was it an accident that the Oil for Food report was presented at this time?  Because this is a time when we should be concentrating on the Millennium Development Goals. You have to ask what is really happening here,” said Byron Blake, the U.N. Deputy Ambassador from Jamaica.

Blake was referring to the general principles laid down by the Millennium Summit held in 2000, which obliged the developed nations to assist less affluent countries in drastically reducing poverty and improving socioeconomic conditions. 

Jamaica is a leader of the so-called Group of 77, which now includes some 132 developing nations that control two-thirds of the votes in the General Assembly. 

Many of Blake’s colleagues in the bloc feel that the addition of U.N. management reform has effectively hijacked the summit.

“No doubt the U.N. needs to reform,” said Munir Akram, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.N. and another G-77 member. 

But, Akram argued that “management is only one aspect” and pointed out that, “We have not dared to look at the reform of the Security Council.  It doesn’t work in an open and transparent way either.” 

Is reform necessary?
Diplomats from many of the developed nations often wonder whether leaders from the developing nations actually wantreform.

The issue goes to the very heart of the U.N.’s divisions — highlighting national interests, economics and political cultures.

“The practical difference is between those who believe the U.N. has to be brought into the 21st century and those who don’t want to see real change to the present system and the interests invested in the tentacles of the system,” said the Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his involvement in sensitive talks on reaching a consensus.

Currently, a few vocal countries,like Cuba, Iran, Venezuela, Pakistan, and Jamica in the General Assembly wield great power through detailed oversight of the secretary general’s activities and financial mandate. 

“Some countries are very reluctant to give up their present role of micro-managing the secretary general’s allocation of resources within the U.N.,” said Allan Rock, Canada’s ambassador to the U.N. “Whether it’s moving personnel posts from one department to another, shifting money in the middle of the year to accommodate a new budget priority — they want to have a say on that on a day-to-day basis.” 

These, so-called “obstructionist” nationshave shown little inclination to support change, diplomats say. 

However much they may complain about the dominant role of the U.S. and other developed nations in the Security Council and UN agencies, they are reluctant to lose their own niches as leaders of third-world dissent.

Hot seat for Annan
Secretary General Kofi Annan has been trying to walk the tightrope between large voting blocks like the G-77, and the smaller, but highly influential group of developed nations, such as the U.S., Japan, Germany, and Canada, who actually pay for most of the world body’s operations, including its many agencies and commissions.

Annan largely accepts the U.S. definition of reform as a management issue, and has tried to show that he is responsive to complaints that the U.N. is riddled with nepotism and inefficiency. At the same time, he has defended the Millennium Summit Goals against attacks that they are largely irrelevant to the reality of fighting poverty. 

To speed the streamlining of the U.N., Annan appointed a special panel last year to recommend changes and reforms in all key areas — from peacekeeping, to finance, and the makeup of the Security Council. The panel’s recommendations, offered early this year, have become part of his platform for change.

From Annan’s perspective, the best-case scenario, and now unlikely one, would be that world leaders at the summit could endorse that agenda as a whole.

The worst case would be a stalemate in which no one could agree on the agenda — a diplomatic meltdown for Annan personally and the U.N. as an institution.

Instead, it’s more likely a compromise solution will emerge, letting heads of state issue a positive statement, without resolving the philosophical differences that make implementation so problematic. Their diplomats will be left to debate the details another day.

Linda Fasulo is NBC News United Nations correspondent.

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