At 60, U.N. Is Showing Its Age

Proposed Reforms Fail Amid Renewed Criticisms

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NEW YORK, OCT. 1, 2005 ( Birthdays are usually occasions for celebrating, but the United Nations isn’t rejoicing. The summit of world leaders held Sept. 14-16 to mark the organization’s 60th anniversary was originally planned to be the occasion for approving widespread reforms. But after months of negotiating, talks ended in deadlock, with agreement reached only on some minor issues.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in an article published in the May-June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, outlined his desires for a much-needed reform of the world body. He noted that precisely at a time when there are serious problems to overcome, there is «deep discord» between states that could even call into question the principles governing the international order established in 1945.

But, he added, dealing with current global challenges «requires broad, deep and sustained global cooperation.» Defending the role of the United Nations against frequent criticisms, he argued: «States working together can achieve things that are beyond what even the most powerful state can accomplish by itself.»

Annan then outlined some priorities for U.N. reform. They ranged from dealing with the threat posed by terrorism, to improving efforts in the control of weapons of mass destruction, to building peace in war-torn countries. Human rights and economic development are also important areas where renewed efforts are needed.

On the question of internal reforms, Annan admitted: «If the U.N. is to be a vehicle through which states can meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, it needs major reforms to strengthen its relevance, effectiveness and accountability.»

After the anniversary summit concluded without the reforms he sought, Annan, in an article published Sept. 19 by the Wall Street Journal, admitted that the document issued at the close of the summit had been described as «disappointing.»

He did, however, defend the agreement reached in areas such as promoting the development goals set for 2015, and reforms in the areas of peacekeeping, plus the strengthening of the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. At the same time, the secretary-general noted there was still no agreement on what changes to make in many high-priority U.N. areas.

Criticism of the failure to take advantage of the summit to overhaul the United Nations not only came from those normally hostile to the organization, but also from some who have held important positions in the past. One of these was Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002.

In the Sept. 26 issue of the International Herald Tribune, she wrote: «There was a vacuum here at the United Nations summit this month, an aching space demanding to be filled.» Not only was leadership lacking, she commented, but instead of a summit that could have opened a new chapter for the United Nations, «we got a summit of fudge: the self-important restatement of goals already agreed and some shameful backsliding on old promises.»


Many pro-life and Catholic groups have also been dissatisfied for a long time with the United Nations, due to its unceasing enthusiasm for promoting abortion, contraception and radical feminism. The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, for instance, in its March 5, 2004, Friday Fax, commented on the support given by Kofi Annan for abortion.

Months earlier, Annan had received an award from the pro-abortion International Women’s Health Coalition. During the ceremony the U.N. secretary-general expressed lavish praise for the IWHC’s work and said the world would be a better place if there were more groups of this nature.

The Friday Fax noted that among the achievements of the IWHC is teaching abortion supporters how to skirt legal restrictions. Pressuring for the reinterpretation of U.N. documents to include the «right to abortion,» is another priority of the group.

On the matter of using U.N. agreements, a more recent example comes from Ireland. According to the Irish Independent newspaper of March 8, the Irish Human Rights Commission recommended that in order to respect the nation’s commitments to international agreements the government should introduce legislation clarifying when abortions are allowed.

Commenting on the story in a separate article, journalist David Quinn noted that the recommendations came about because Ireland in July had to report on the implementation of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. This process ran the danger of opening long-running and bitter wounds over the abortion issue, he warned.

In the past the Vatican has frequently criticized U.N. policies in the area of abortion and family planning. In his speech to the summit Sept. 16, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, secretary of state of the Holy See, renewed this criticism. Referring to the targets set for 2015, known as the Millennium Development Goals, he noted they contained «an ambiguous, reductive or even ideological vision of health.»

In particular the cardinal noted the unfortunate nature of the term «reproductive health,» used in the U.N. documents. «Could there be a desire to return to the language of a ‘right to abortion’?» he asked. Instead of «reproductive health» the Vatican secretary of state suggested using the phrase «health of women and children.»

Changes needed

Yet despite its reservations on this issue, the Vatican has not joined forces with those who completely reject the United Nations. Cardinal Sodano did note that «time has taken its toll» on the United Nations and that a renewal is needed. He also insisted that the organization should not be remade into a sort of «super-government.»

At the same time, he continued, the United Nations needs the juridical instruments necessary to promote disarmament, fight against terrorism and to achieve cooperation in resolving conflicts.

And in relation to promoting development in Third World nations, «it remains an obligation in justice in the service of human dignity to attain and even to surpass the Millennium Development Goals, thereby establishing an essential pre-condition for peace and collective security,» Cardinal Sodano affirmed.

In a speech Sept. 23 during the general debate at the opening of the 60th session of the General Assembly, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the head of the Holy See delegation to the United Nations, continued the theme of reforms.

He repeated the reservations expressed in the past concerning the terminology of «reproductive health,» and argued that the Holy See does not consider abortion as an appropriate part of the concept of health.

On the positive side, the archbishop stated that «the United Nations becomes the projection of the hope for peace and well being in the world.» Fulfilling this role, he continued, requires leadership, courage and vision.

Archbishop Migliore welcomed the efforts to introduce reforms in the area of human rights, noting that with globalization, «a greater sense of universal human duties would benefit the cause of peace, because awareness of our mutual responsibility acknowledges duties as essential to a social order which does not depend upon the will or power of any individual or group.»

And in another speech made the previous day, on the issue of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the head of the Holy See’s delegation expressed his support for U.N. efforts in controlling nuclear weapons and in defending international humanitarian law. Imperfect as it is, the United Nations still fulfills a necessary role in many areas.

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