COMMENTARY: Summit challenge for world leaders

Posted: 11 September 2005

Author: Hilary French

In a meeting that is billed as the largest gathering of world leaders in history, more than 170 Heads of State and Government will gather at United Nations headquarters in New York this week for the 2005 World Summit a special gathering of the UN General Assembly to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. But already some are warning that the meeting could end in chaos. Here, Hilary French outlines the opportunity they have to tackle the root social and environmental problems of the planet.

Over three days, world leaders have a historic chance to forge a new global consensus on the role of the UN. in confronting key global security threats of the 21st century including underlying sources of instability such as human deprivation and environmental decline.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan (center) at the UN Summit 2005/UN Photo/Mark Garten
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (center) at the UN Summit 2005/UN Photo/Mark Garten
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (center) addressing the United Cities and Local Governments Summit on "Localizing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)", at UN Headquarters. Left to right: Paco Moncayo Gallegos, Mayor of Quito, Ecuador, Mr. Annan and Pierre Schapira, Deputy Mayor in charge of International Relations for Paris, France.Photo: UN Photo/Mark Garten
When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan launched plans for the Summit a few years ago, the international divide over the wisdom of the Iraq war had plunged the United Nations into an identity crisis. As Annan put it in the autumn of 2003 when he addressed world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly meeting: "Three years ago, when you came here for the Millennium Summit, we shared a vision, a vision of global solidarity and collective security.... Recent events have called that consensus in question. We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945, when the United Nations was founded.... Now we must decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis agreed then,or whether radical changes are needed."

More recently, allegations of corruption and mismanagement in the Iraq oil-for-food programme, managed by the UN, have seized headlines, threatening to undermine public confidence in the organization at the very moment that it seeks a new mandate for the future.

Against this backdrop, Secretary-General Annan put forward an ambitious set of reform proposals in March 2005 that are now being considered bythe General Assembly in preparation for the upcoming Summit meeting. Despite the challenging times, the September Summit marks themost important opportunity in decades to launch the far-reaching reforms that will be required to prepare the UN to confront today's new anddaunting global security problems.

The primary purpose of the United Nations, as defined by its charter, is "to maintain international peace and security." Toward that end, the UN charter stipulates a set of mechanisms for the Security Council that are designed to galvanize a collective response from UN members when confronted with a compelling threat to global peace and stability.

Civil strife

Contrary to expectations, cross-border military incursions have been relatively rare since the United Nations was created. But there has beenno shortage of civil strife, and though the organization has on many occasions been sidelined, as in the Iraq War, it has nonetheless played an important role in helping to negotiate and then maintain the peace.

The United Nations has helped bring about over 170 peace settlements, including those that ended the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, led to thewithdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1988, and brought the El Salvador civil war to a close in 1992. The 60 UN peacekeeping missionssince 1948 have helped countries maintain ceasefires, conduct free and fair elections, and monitor troop withdrawals in numerous globalhotspots, including ongoing missions in the Middle East, Haiti, Kosovo, Sudan, and Liberia, among others.

But from the very beginning, the United Nations was seen as being about much more than military security. The UN Charter states that one ofthe central purposes of the United Nations is "to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character."

These provisions came about, in part, as a response to a widely shared belief that the disastrous world economic conditions of the 1930s had indirectly helped precipitate World War II by creating a climate ripe for the rise of Hitler. As then-US Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, put it shortly after agreement was reached on the UN Charter in San Francisco in June 1945: "The battle of peace has to be fought on two fronts. The first is the security front where victory spells freedom from fear. The second is the economic and social front where victory spells freedom from want. Only victory on both fronts can assure the world of an enduring peace."

Social successes

In the years since then, poverty and destitution around the world have proved to be formidable foes. Nonetheless, the UN system has seen itsshare of successes on a range of social issues.

In the field of global health, for instance, the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN specialized agency, initiated a global campaign to eradicate smallpox in 1967. At that time, the disease afflicted up to 15 million people annually, leading to some 2 million deaths. In 1980, WHO certified that the disease had been conquered globally. It is now nearing similarsuccesses with polio, leprosy, guinea worm, and Chagas disease.

The United Nations has also proved adaptable in the face of new problems and challenges. Neither rapid population growth nor environmentaldegradation, for instance, was recognized as a significant global problem in 1945. As a result, neither of these issues is even mentioned in the UN Charter. But as the seriousness of both problems gradually became apparent, several key institutions were set up: the UN Fund forPopulation Activities (UNFPA) in 1962; the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1972; and, in the early 1990s, the Global Environment Facility, a joint undertaking of the World Bank, the UN Development Programme, and UNEP, which funds projects in developing countries that address global environmental threats such as climate change and the loss of biological diversity.

Through a series of high-profile international conferences over the last few decades, the United Nations has shone the spotlight on emerging issues of global concern and helped to propel action to address them.

Environmental threats

The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, for example, brought high-level political attention to burgeoning global environmental threats such as climate change and the loss of biological diversity as well as related sustainable development challenges. And the 1994 UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo forged a new global consensus on the relationship between population stabilization, reproductive health care, and women's empowerment, including agreement on a series of ambitious goals on access to universal education and reproductive health services.

The new understandings on the range of issues addressed by the global conferences of the 1990s ultimately found expression in the MillenniumDevelopment Goals (MDGs), adopted unanimously in preliminary form at the 2000 UN Millennium Assembly. These include targets aimed at cuttingpoverty and hunger rates in half by 2015, reducing child mortality by two-thirds, halving the proportion of people lacking access to clean drinking water and adequate sanitation, and halting and beginning to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS by 2015.

A few years after the Millennium Summit, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, shone the political spotlight on connections between poverty and environmental degradation, leading to the adoption or reaffirmation by governments of a range of targets related to water, energy, health, agriculture, and biological diversity.

Attention to broad social and environmental threats, though, has increasingly been eclipsed on the international stage by a growingpreoccupation with terrorism and related threats, particularly in the post 9-11 climate of fear.

But in this realm as well, the United Nations has a critical role to play in marshalling the necessary international response. As Secretary-General Annan argued before the UN General Assembly within weeks of the September 11th attacks: "The legitimacy that the United Nations conveys can ensure that the greatest number of States are able and willing to take the necessary and difficult steps - diplomatic, legal, and political - that are needed to defeatterrorism."

He went on to discuss the importance of governments moving forward to adopt and ratify the 12 international conventions and protocols on international terrorism that already exist and to implement and enforce key international treaties designed to minimize the spread of weapons of mass destruction, such as those that ban chemical and biological weapons and nuclear proliferation.

More recently, the Secretary-General has called on governments to conclude a comprehensive convention on terrorism that would unambiguously denounce all attempts to kill or maim civilians and non-combatants for political ends.

Despite the achievements to date, there can be little question that bold reforms are needed to lay the foundations for peace by better equippingthe United Nations for the global security challenges of today and tomorrow. In particular, many people hope that the upcoming Summit willstrike a grand bargain between the development concerns of the South and the more traditional security worries prevalent in the North. Among many needed steps, the following three priorities stand out as particularly urgent:

Key tasks

1. Expand the permanent membership of the U.N.'s Security Council to make it more representative of today's world. In 1945, the World War II victors (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom) were given a special status as permanent Council members, with the right to veto resolutions. Without these provisions,it is unlikely that either the United States or the Soviet Union would have joined the new organization.

But these arrangements had a price:heavy resort to the veto has at times hamstrung the effectiveness of the Security Council, particularly during the cold war, and the council's limited and veto-wielding permanent membership is now widely viewed as anachronistic and undemocratic.

The governments of Brazil, Germany, Japan, and India have banded together to promote their own candidacies for permanent membership on the Security Council, while also underscoring that similar status should also be granted to an African nation. One sticking point, though, is the question of whether or not new permanent members would be granted veto privileges, which most observers feel is currently politically unachievable.

Although the various proposals circulating for altering the status quo are bumping up against predictable opposition from regional rivals and from other quarters, there can be little doubt that changes are needed to make the Security Council more representative of today's world.

Millennium goals

2. Accelerate efforts to address underlying threats to international peace and security, such as poverty, disease, and environmental degradation. In particular, governments need to provide sufficient financial and political support for programmes aimed at achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the sustainable development targets agreed to at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

For example, if all donor countries followed the lead of Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, each of which meets the international goal of spending 0.7 percent of their gross national incomes on development assistance, annual development aid would surpass the $195 billion in annual spending by 2015 that the UN Millennium Project estimates will be needed to achieve the MDGs. In the shorter term, shifting just 5 per cent of donor governments' military spending to development assistance would free up the funds necessary to nearly double aid spending in 2006 from 2003 levels, which the UN Millennium Project concludes is necessary to put the world on the path towards achieving the goals.

But the United States government recentlythrew a wrench into the Summit preparatory negotiations by voicing its opposition to including specific references to MDGs and to related aid targets in the Summit declaration, despite the centrality of these issues to a successful Summit outcome.

People's voice

3. Redesign UN institutions and other mechanisms of global governance to better harness the energy and insights of civil society.

The UN Charter leads off with the words "We the Peoples," and civil society has played a crucial role in many UN activities, particularly in the economic, social, and environmental arenas. But civil society participation remains limited in both the General Assembly and the Security Council, the UN's two central policymaking organs, and many hurdles remain to institutionalizing widespread public participation throughout the UN's diverse programmes and activities.

With the Summit now only a few days away, it is becoming increasingly clear that success in New York is by no means assured. US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton recently stunned observers by proposing more than 400 changes to what had been thought to be a near-final draft of the Summit declaration, many of them seeming to strike a potentially fatal blow to prospects for the hoped for grand bargain between countries of the North and the South. But with the deadline pressure now mounting, creative diplomacy could still help ensure that the 2005 World Summit launches the crucial process of reinventing the United Nations to equip it for the daunting global security challenges of the 21st century.

Hilary French is Director of the Globalization and Governance Project at Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. She is co-author of the chapter "Laying the Foundations for Peace" in State of the World 2005.

See : UN summit 2005

Also see: UNFPA MDG website