Reconciling the irreconcilable?

Author:Berdal, Mats
Position::United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change

When Secretary-General Kofi Annan informed the United Nations General Assembly in September 2003 of his decision to establish a "high-level panel of eminent personalities" to undertake a fundamental review of the UN's role in the field of peace and security, he was both reacting to and reinforcing a profound sense of malaise enveloping the organization. The US-led invasion of Iraq--launched without explicit authorization from the Security Council for the use of force and preceded by an intensely divisive dispute regarding the continuing value of UN inspections in the country--provided the immediate backdrop to the talk of drift and crisis. As the terms of reference for the High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change (1) recognized, however, the war also "brought to the fore deep divergences of opinion on the range and nature of the challenges" confronting the organization. These "divergences" included but also transcended some of the specific issues posed by the US-led invasion. While the enduring perception of crisis surrounding the UN sits somewhat oddly with the rising demand for the organization's services over the past 18 months (no fewer than six new peacekeeping operations have been authorized by the Security Council since May 2003), the persistence of deep-seated divisions among member states is indisputable.

In setting up the panel, the Secretary-General urged its members to address head-on the subject of major institutional reform, including reform of the Security Council and, possibly, of other principal organs of the organization. Perhaps inevitably, the question of Security Council expansion has come to dominate the headlines both during and, to some degree, after the panel's deliberations. And yet the search for an institutional fix to the divisions that have crystallized so sharply among member states in recent years was always going to be highly problematic. Indeed, as even a cursory look at the history of UN reform efforts makes clear, assessing the long-term value of the report primarily in terms of whether it has "delivered" on institutional reform is bound to result in disappointment. Instead, the real work of the panel is more usefully viewed as an attempt, through analysis and the language that accompanies it, to reconcile as far as possible the "deep divergences of opinion" among member states to which the terms of reference obliquely alluded: divergences about the true priorities of the organization, about the nature of threats to international security and about the possible contribution of the UN in meeting them.

The sheer diversity of the UN's membership--a reflection of the different historical experiences, economic realities, cultural influences, forms of government, and perceptions of interest by which states define their places in the international system--does, of course, make any generalization about the outlook and attitudes of states and groups of states a risky proposition. Even with this Fact in mind, it is still possible, in view of the panel's specific focus on "threats," to identify three broad constituencies whose priorities and anxieties had to be addressed.

At one end are those states, led by and clustered around the United States, which consider mass-casualty terrorism and the spread of weapons or" mass destruction (WMD) "self-evidently the main challenge to world peace." The US in particular, though immensely powerful by any conventional measure of strength and influence, has conic to feel, in...

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