UNITED NATIONS – U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) on Monday urged its members to act this year on sweeping changes aimed at helping reform the tarnished world body, namely by furthering global development, security and human rights.
"We all know what the problems are, and we all know what we have promised to achieve," Annan said in remarks to the General Assembly (search). "What is needed now is not more declarations of promises, but action to fulfill the promises already made."
Annan argued that his proposed changes are not an attempt to save face. He and the organization have been confronted by the Oil-for-Food scandal, reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Congo and the resignation of Ruud Lubbers (search), the former U.N. refugee chief, amid sexual-harassment accusations.
"Obviously, we've had a lot of criticism lately, especially in this country, but we've had a lot of work to do and we've carried on with that," Annan said in response to a reporter's question. "The proposals I've put forward are in the interest of the organization."
The genesis of Annan's proposals goes back several years, he added.
"And so it is not linked to that," he continued. "I think it is in everyone's interests that we reform this organization."
Among other changes, Annan proposes expanding the Security Council (search), which currently consists of five permanent members with veto power and 10 members who serve two-year non-renewable terms.
"Some of those decisions are so important that they need to be taken at the level of heads of state and government," Annan told the General Assembly.
He also stressed that the report should be decided on as a package, not as an "à la carte menu" that individual nations could pick and choose among.
"I do not need to remind you that this is an organization of 191 member states," Annan said. "We all know that global problems can best be solved if all states work together ... I am profoundly convinced that the threats which face us are of equal concern to all."
The proposal, entitled "In Larger Freedom," was released on Sunday. Read it by clicking here (pdf).
"We certainly welcome the secretary general's report. We will be examining it carefully," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters after Annan's address. "It outlines an ambitious agenda for addressing a range of security and development issues, as well as proposed reforms of the U.N. And we very much appreciate the serious effort that the secretary general's report represents.
He added: "I think it's important to point out that the United States has long been a proponent of U.N. reform. We are committed to building a more effective and efficient U.N."
Annan said he hoped the organization could vote on the reform package during the opening of the General Assembly in September. The reforms require not only the blessing of the General Assembly, but also those of world leaders who traditionally attend its annual opening, turning it into a de facto global summit meeting.
"If any report has Kofi Annan's own name all over it, it's this one," Mark Malloch Brown (search), Annan's chief of staff, told reporters Sunday. "It is something whose planning has been long in the works."
Security Council Expansion
Another proposal is to enlarge the 15-member Security Council (search) to better reflect current geopolitical realities and involve more countries that contribute financially, militarily and diplomatically to the United Nations.
Annan offers two proposals that increase the membership from 15 to 24. There are currently five permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
Proposal A suggests adding six new permanent seats without veto: two from Africa, two from Asia and the Pacific, and one each from Europe and the Americas. Three more two-year seats would also be added for a total of 13.
No countries are named, but the most likely candidates for the new permanent seats would almost certainly be Nigeria, South Africa, India, Japan, Germany and Brazil.
Security Council proposal B would create no new permanent seats, but would add a new category: eight renewable four-year seats, two each for Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. An 11th two-year, non-renewable seat would also be added.
Annan is also proposing reforming the Secretariat, which he said "must be more flexible, transparent and accountable in serving the priorities of member states and the interests of the world's peoples; and for introducing greater coherence into the work of the United Nations system as a whole, especially its response to humanitarian emergencies and its handling of environmental issues."
Bush administration officials have been among the strongest critics of both the United Nations as an institution and Annan as its leader.
"We've had constructive discussions and the discussions have continued," Annan said of talks between the United Nations and the United States on the recommendations. "I think there are many things in the report that should please many states, including the United States ... I did not tailor the report to a region or a country or a group of country."
Annan stressed that no one country can take on all the problems in the world.
"We live in an interconnected world, in a world where we face many challenges, many threats — threats that no one, no matter how powerful, can face alone," Annan said, citing terrorism, nuclear proliferation, environmental issues, poverty and failed states as a few.
On the latter issue, Annan also warned: "We also know that ignoring failed states causes problems that sometimes comes back to bite us."
Afghanistan under the Taliban was widely regarded as a "failed state," and Somalia, where Al Qaeda is thought to be active, has been one ever since the early 1990s.
Malloch Brown said that the United States and all other nations should keep open minds as they assess Annan's proposal and should think about the collective good.
"We'll have to work hard in Washington as we will everywhere to really sell and push the positive for each set of capitals," Brown said.
Annan's proposal also calls for a comprehensive anti-terrorism convention by September 2006, new measures to stem nuclear proliferation and an agreement on rules for the use of force and pre-emptive action.
Annan said that it is imperative for member states to first agree on a definition of 'terrorism.'
"Unless we can agree on a shared assessment of these threats and a common understanding of our obligations in addressing them, the United Nations will lag in providing security to all of its members and all the world's people," the report says. "Our ability to assist those who seek freedom from fear will then be partial at best."
The report notes that a threat to one country is a threat to all in a globalized, interconnected world and calls for a revamped framework for handling threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
"A nuclear terrorist attack on the United States or Europe would have devastating effects on the whole world," the document states. "But so would the appearance of a new virulent pandemic disease in a poor country with no effective health-care system."
It adds: "On this interconnectedness of threats we must found a new security consensus, the frist article of which must be all that are entitled to freedom from fear, and that whatever threatens one threatens all. Once we understand this, we have no choice but to tackle the whole range of threats."
Those threats, however, Annan noted, don't just include weapons proliferation and terrorism, but other threats such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and poverty. States that sponsor terrorism also must be convinced it's not acceptable to the rest of the world to do so, he said.
The ability of the United Nations to comdemn terrorism has been "hampered" by the fact that member states haven't yet agreed on a definition of 'terrorism,' Annan added.
'Terrorism' should mean the intention to cause death or serious bodily harm to civilians or non-combatants with the purpose of intimidating a population or compelling a government or an international organization to do or not do any act, the report said.
"I believe this proposal has clear moral force and I strongly urge world leaders to unite behind it and to conclude a comprehensive convention on terrorism" this session, Annan said in the report.
Peace and Human Rights
The proposal also urges the creation of a peace-building body to help societies recover from war and asks developed countries to set aside 0.7 percent of their gross national income (search) for development aid.
Only six countries now provide that amount; the U.S. plans to contribute about $22 billion, or 0.18 percent of its gross national income, next year.
In the shadow of the Oil-for-Food scandal, Annan suggests better oversight of U.N. contracts and sanctions. He also requests funding for a one-time staff buyout to help younger, more energetic employees rise in the organization.
The report declares a policy of zero tolerance for sexual exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers or other personnel and strongly encourages all countries who contribute troops to the U.N. to prosecute any wrongdoing, because the U.N. itself has no power to punish them.
Annan also proposed that the much-criticized 53-nation Human Rights Commission (search) be changed to a smaller "human rights council" directly elected by the General Assembly.
The current process of selecting members has given seats on the commission to countries with questionable human rights records, such as Sudan, Libya and Cuba, making it a lightning rod for criticism.
"It's no secret that the human rights commission can be much more effective. It's no secret [that] governments get on the commission either to protect themselves" or others, Annan responded to one reporter when asked if current members of the commission will agree to this specific reform.
The issue "becomes so contentious and groups form to decide who's going to be investigated and who's not," he added.
Ereli said the report focuses "a positive emphasis" on the importance of promoting freedom and respect for human rights.
"Obviously, the question of the Human Rights Commission has been something that we've been concerned with for some time," he said. "We appreciate, I think, again, the focus that the report gives to the overall question of human rights. And, obviously, we'd be looking at its recommendations in light of past experiences."
The proposal calls for two-thirds of the General Assembly to approve countries wanting to be members on the new commission; those countries seeking membership must have good credentials in the human rights arena, Annan stressed.
"We are likely to do better," the secretary general said. "It is going to take some negotiations ... but I think if they think it through," states will agree his way is the way to go.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.