Fears Grow of a Meltdown as the UN Turns 60

UNITED NATIONS -- With about 175 world leaders headed to a UN summit this week, fears grew that a blueprint on new approaches to global security, human rights and extreme poverty in the 21st century would be negotiated down to pious generalities.

Over the past year, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has organized experts on plans to halve poverty in the next 10 years, reduce the threat of war and terrorism, and advance human rights. But an outcome document for the three-day summit, which begins Wednesday, is still not completed.

Sharp divisions have arisen on each issue -- between north and south, among groups of developing nations themselves and between the European Union and the United States -- reflecting differences in a complicated world.

To make matters worse, the UN method of negotiating is to seek consensus among 191 members, which means a minority can block a majority's wishes.

"At bottom, the purpose of summit is to rekindle the ideals that animated the founding of the United Nations 60 years ago in San Francisco," said Shashi Tharoor, the UN public information undersecretary-general.

"That means international cooperation to resolve problems without passports, that no one country or one group of countries can solve on their own -- human rights, terrorism, climate change," said Tharoor, who is also an Indian novelist.

The United States roiled developing countries last month when it moved to cut language that urged rich nations to increase foreign aid to 0.7 percent of their gross national product, as the Europeans have promised to do by 2015.

The aim of the funds was to meet the 2000 UN Millennium Development Goals that would halve extreme poverty and child mortality and reverse the AIDS pandemic by 2015.

Another area of dispute arose when a group of countries, including Russia, Cuba and Pakistan, fought against procedures and criteria for setting up a new Human Rights Council to replace the discredited Geneva-based Human Rights Commission.

Also in trouble is the concept of "responsibility to protect" civilians threatened by genocide and war crimes as well as terrorism definitions.

Stalled too are plans to give the secretary-general more power to move around jobs and put in place oversight bodies following a blistering report of UN management procedures by a yearlong investigation into the Iraqi oil-for-food program.

This would mean reducing the power of the 191-member General Assembly, which controls management and the budget and where developing nations have a majority.

For David Shorr of the Washington-based Stanley Foundation, which organized programs on UN reform, the United States is "overreaching by niggling over small stuff rather than shoring up the major items." He said Cuba, Colombia, Egypt, India, Pakistan and Iran, among others, "often prefer the inconclusive debates that often paralyze the General Assembly."

World leaders, however, will only spend part of the time on pressing UN reforms, with many hours spent on bilateral issues or in group meetings, ranging from Iran's nuclear policy to mini-summits among each regional association.

But the anticipated disappointment on a summit outcome document is palpable, particularly among advocacy and voluntary organizations, charities and human rights groups.

"It's the best chance we have had for decades ... with the Iraq war standing as an awful warning of what can go wrong when the collective security system is bypassed, and the oil-for-food debacle showing how much is wrong with the UN's management systems," said former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.

"But it has become sadly apparent that we are in real danger now of blowing this opportunity -- with the summit coming and going with nothing more to show for it than a bland set of generalizations and weasel-words that commit nobody to anything much, and maybe not even that," said Evans, now head of the International Crisis Group research body.