UNITED NATIONS - Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for the boldest changes to the United Nations in the history of the world body, saying they are needed to tackle global threats in the 21st century. But getting leaders to agree on the package won't be easy.
Some questioned the timing of his appeal, just before former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker releases the results of his investigation into corruption in the U.N. oil-for-food program in Iraq. In particular, Volcker is looking into the activities of Annan and his son, Kojo, who worked in Africa for a company that had an oil-for-food contract.
The scandal is one of several that have dogged the world body this year. The sex abuse by peacekeeping troops in Congo and the resignation of the U.N. refugee chief amid sexual harassment charges have also tainted the U.N. image.
Mark Malloch Brown, the secretary-general's chief of staff, dismissed media comments that Annan's report was "a panicked response" to the U.N.'s problems.
"Look at it as the secretary-general refusing to be distracted," he said.
Annan is proposing the most extensive overhaul of the world body since its founding in 1945. His reform package calls for a realignment of the United Nations to give additional weight to key development, security and human rights issues. It also sets out plans to make the world body more efficient, open, and accountable - including strengthening the independence and authority of the U.N.'s internal watchdog.
Volcker's report is expected by the end of March, but Annan is operating on the belief that he will be cleared: He has invited world leaders to a summit in September to consider the reform package, which was released Sunday ahead of its presentation to the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.
"These are reforms that are within reach - reforms that are actionable if we can garner the necessary political will," Annan said in the introduction to the report, which called 2005 "a historic opportunity" to create a better life for millions of people.
He urged the leaders to "act boldly" and adopt "the most far-reaching reforms in the history of the United Nations," which was founded in 1945.
But getting all 191 U.N. member states to agree on the package will be a challenge.
"It's a very well-prepared gamble," Malloch Brown said, urging world leaders to focus on the positive and adopt the package by consensus in September.
"For us, the key point is that the deal holds together," he said. "This is a package. Don't go for a la carte shopping on it."
One of the major proposals in the package calls for a new Human Rights Council as a major U.N. organ - possibly on a par with the Security Council - to replace the Geneva-based Commission on Human Rights. That panel has long faced criticism for allowing the worst-offending countries to use their membership to protect one another from condemnation.
"The creation of the council would accord human rights a more authoritative position," and put it on the same level as security and development, Annan said.
Annan also called for an expansion of the U.N. Security Council to reflect the global realities today, but he left the details to the General Assembly. He urged its members to decide on a plan before the September summit, preferably by consensus, but if that's impossible by a vote.
Annan backed two options proposed in December by a high-level panel. One would add six new permanent members and the other would create a new tier of eight semi-permanent members: two each from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. He left open the possibility of other ideas.
Likely candidates for the council's permanent members include Japan, Germany, Brazil, India and Nigeria or South Africa.
A poll released Monday by the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service found a majority of people in 22 countries support expanding the Security Council to include new permanent members. In Russia, however, only 44 percent of respondents backed the idea of expansion, the poll said.
The reform report said the Security Council already has the authority under the U.N. Charter to use military force, even preventively, but it should adopt a resolution specifying the criteria for decisions on whether to use force. The criteria should include the seriousness of the threat, whether nonmilitary action could stop it, and whether there is a reasonable chance that military action would succeed.
In cases of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity, Annan urged all states to accept that there is a "responsibility to protect" those being killed, which requires collective action.
Currently, the report noted, half the countries emerging from violent conflict revert to conflict within five years. To prevent the return to war, Annan called for the creation of a Peacebuilding Commission, as well as a Democracy Fund to provide money and technical expertise to countries seeking to establish or strengthen their democracy.
For years, a comprehensive convention against terrorism has been held up over a definition of the term. Some countries argue that one nation's terrorists are another's freedom fighters. Annan said the debate must end and all countries must accept that resisting occupation "cannot include the right to deliberately kill or maim civilians."
He called for adoption of a convention by September 2006 with the definition of terrorism in the high-level panel's report. It said terrorism includes any act "intended 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 abstain from doing any act."
The secretary-general also urged all rich countries to establish a timetable to reach the goal set 35 years ago of earmarking 0.7 percent of gross national product for development assistance no later than 2015, starting with a significant increase no later than 2006. The United States currently has one of the lowest levels - about 0.15 percent.
In the BBC poll, Germany and Japan were the most popular choices for new member countries, with 56 percent of all respondents supporting the inclusion of Germany and 54 percent in favor of including Japan.
There was also broad consensus in favor of the United Nations becoming "significantly more powerful in world affairs," with 64 percent of all respondents seeing the prospect as a positive development.
The poll, conducted for the BBC by international polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, surveyed 23,518 people in 23 countries. The countries were Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States.
GlobeScan conducted the poll between Nov. 15, 2004, and Jan. 5. The margin of error per country ranged from 2.5 percentage points to 4 percentage points.