UN Summit Participants Discuss Major Issues but Delay Reform

By Andre de Nesnera
29 September 2005

Earlier this month, an unprecedented meeting bringing together 151 heads of state and government was held at the United Nations in New York. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at some of the issues discussed: terrorism, genocide and peacekeeping. 


The aim of the meeting was to mark the United Nations' 60th anniversary and to agree on major reforms making the world body more suited to address the problems of the 21st century.

The outcome of the three-day session was mixed as member states agreed on a broad statement of reform but provided few specifics. For example, the summit decided to create a new Human Rights Council to replace the largely discredited Human Rights Commission, but it did not specify its membership. Summit participants also agreed on the need to enlarge the Security Council, but left the details to future talks.

Analysts say one positive outcome of the high-level U.N. meeting was the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission. Michael Doyle, former senior adviser to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says the new commission will help assist countries in the very difficult transition from war to peace following a civil war.

"To help the previously warring parties find a common ground and do all of the immensely important things that need to be done. To help, for example, reform police forces, build a new national army, if previously armies have been clashing on the same territory, reform the government institutions to make them more effective. Maybe even assist in helping to form political parties, or assisting a revival of a fair and independent and responsible media. All of these activities of reconstruction, in the broadest sense of that term, are vitally important if a civil war is going to produce a sustainable peace. And the commission would help coordinate the efforts of the U.N., the World Bank, the IMF and a variety of other actors to help make that possible," said Mr. Doyle.

To emphasize the urgent need of such a commission, U.N. members said it should begin its work no later than December 31 of this year. However, its membership still has to be determined.

Another important outcome from the U.N. summit was the decision by member states to intervene in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing.

"Since the genocide in Rwanda and then the situation in Kosovo, there has been an increasing movement, partly sponsored by the Canadian government, to move towards what is called 'responsibility to protect,'" explained Stewart Patrick, a U.N. expert with the Center for Global Development.  "And that is, basically, the recognition that sovereignty is not sacrosanct - if it ever was - and that implies obligations and responsibilities, as well as privileges.  And one of those obligations is to make sure that the citizens of your country are not being abused and are not victims of atrocities - first of all, that you don't commit them yourself and that you don't permit them to be committed on your territory. When a state is unable to fulfill those basic responsibilities of statehood, in membership of the United Nations, that responsibility devolves to the international community. So there is a general recognition in the 'outcome statement' of the U.N. summit, that recognizes that the international community has a responsibility to act when countries are unable to prevent or are making war on their own people."

In the final statement of the summit, U.N. members vowed to review cases of genocide and act "on a case by case" basis.

Experts say one of the glaring failures of the U.N. summit was its inability to agree on a definition of terrorism. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan wanted the summit to accept a definition of terrorism as formulated by a high-level panel. The panel said "any action constitutes terrorism if it is intended to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants."

Nancy Soderberg, former alternate U.S. representative to the United Nations, 1997-2001, said the summit participants were unable to put aside fundamental differences.

"Much of the United Nations' countries are still living in the 1960s where 'one man's freedom fighter is another's terrorist' and you still have to have the right to fight for liberation and things like that," she noted.  "And so they couldn't get the developing countries to agree to say terrorism is never accepted. They kept trying to say 'except if you are a national liberation movement.' And so they ended deferring that whole issue and saying, 'well, we'll try and define that in a convention by the end of this General Assembly next September.'"

Experts say whether one is talking about defining terrorism, enlarging the Security Council or agreeing on membership for the new Human Rights Council, those are reforms that have to be enacted sooner rather than later, in order to make sure that the United Nations continues to play a vital role in the years ahead.