The UN still matters, but regional co-operation is better

28 September 2006
The contest has started about who will succeed Kofi Annan to become the UNs eighth secretary-general. The favourite is South Korean Foreign Affairs Minister Ban Ki-Moon. The sole Middle East nominee is Prince Zeid al-Hussain, Jordans UN ambassador and King Abdullahs cousin.
The Middle East has preoccupied the UN since its foundation. Six regional states Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey were original members. The Middle East was the first substantive post-1945 issue dealt with by the UN General Assembly. In May 1947, the UN created a special committee to find 'a solution to the problem of Palestine'. It is still looking.

There are other doleful echoes from the organisations earliest days. The first resolution passed by the assembly on 24 January 1946 called for the establishment of an agency to work towards 'the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction'. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created but

weapons of mass destruction remain. The following month, the assembly debated the extradition and punishment of war criminals and how to deal with refugees.

More than 60 years later, these issues are still at the top of the UN agenda. Some argue that demonstrates the organisations redundancy; others say it confirms how necessary it still is. This debate will continue regardless of who is in charge.

Annan became UN secretary-general in 1995 and was one of the definitive appointments of the Clinton era. He was the first African and the first secretary-general drawn from the UNs own ranks. Annan suffered when the Republicans won the White House in 2000. President Bush ignored the UN in 2003 and ordered the invasion of Iraq. He appointed John Bolton, one of the administrations most combative conservatives, as US ambassador to the UN in 2005. Annans calls for an immediate ceasefire in Israels Hezbollah war were ignored. It was a dispiriting end to his 10-year tenure.

The next secretary-general will come from Asia. This suggests the Far East will take more UN time. There is pressure for Japan, India and others to get seats on the five-member security council. But the Middle East still needs attention. Security council resolutions passed in 1967 and 1973 are the foundations for a comprehensive settlement. In Lebanon, the UN was given a fresh mandate in August under security council resolution 1701 and is building up a peacekeeping force.

Other issues loom. The organisation is struggling with the crisis in Darfur and chaos in Iraq. For 15 years, it has been seeking a referendum over Western Sahara. Iran is rejecting UN proposals on its nuclear plans. The action list is lengthy.

The UNs problems are not new. It was

defective at birth. To secure big power

involvement, the security councils powers were subjected to the veto of its permanent members. The effect was predictable: issues involving the big five get undue attention. Resolutions of the general assembly, where every UN member votes, count for little. The Israel factor in US politics has contaminated UN Middle East policy since the assembly voted in November 1947 to partition Palestine without seeking the views of most of its inhabitants.

Reformers believe the answer is to make the UN more representative and end or dilute the security council veto. But the price paid

would be even less US involvement. The case for increasing the number of permanent security council members is unanswerable, but the veto will undoubtedly remain. These unalterable

facts of UN life suggest its deficiencies will persist regardless of who leads the organisation. But the UN still counts. The assembly is the only forum where global issues are open to global debate.

Its humanitarian agencies make a difference. The values of the UN charter still inspire. The Middle East needs its own organisation to fill the gap

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