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Call to overhaul Security Council heard

Updated: 2006-09-29 08:54
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UNITED NATIONS - Amid the vitriol and accusations, leaders at this year's General Assembly meeting sounded the same note: The U.N. Security Council doesn't represent our interests anymore, and it must be reshaped to reflect the world of 2006, not 1945, the year it was created.

The demand was not new, but the insistence was. Reform of the Security Council had been given up for dead last year, suffocated by bitter national rivalries and a refusal to compromise. But with this year's General Assembly session, it's been resurrected.

Many speakers in the General Assembly suggested a new anger toward the council had fueled their call. The Security Council took more than a month to respond to the war between Israel and Hezbollah, a delay that was largely blamed on the United States.

Iran was also dragged before the council under European and American urging, though many poor nations don't share their concern about its suspect nuclear program.

"The Security Council has not only to be more representative but also to be more effective if it is to be able to satisfactorily perform the role mandated to it by the charter," Indian Defense Minister Pranab Mukherjee told the Assembly debate.

Modernizing the Security Council was a key element of a reform package unveiled by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the spring of 2005. Months of jockeying, negotiations, deals and promises ultimately came to nothing, the work stymied by national rivalries and bickering.

But an increased feeling among poor nations that their wealthy neighbors dominate the Security Council has galvanized them.

Their anger has gotten so bad that many speakers warned the council could losing its authority. The body already has enough trouble getting nations to listen to its demands, and it risks slipping toward irrelevancy without change.

That could be to the detriment of President Bush, who has routed many of his biggest foreign policy initiatives through the council recently, after circumventing it in his first term.

"My argument is that the Security Council is losing legitimacy and that should be of concern to us," said Lee Feinstein, a U.N. expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

According to a U.N. official who studied the themes of the debate, Security Council reform was the third-most discussed issue of this year's General Assembly, underscoring its importance. It trailed only terrorism and the Millennium Development Goals.

"It just seems to be a topic of active debate and discussion again, that this cat has another life," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his reluctance to speak on behalf of member states.

And there is resentment that nations and regions that have risen in power and importance in the last 60 years aren't among them, such as India, Japan, Brazil or any African nation.

Almost everyone agrees that reform is necessary, but they can't agree how to do it.

"Reforming the United Nations has always been a top priority for the United States," said U.S. mission spokesman Richard Grenell. "As part of that reform, having the Security Council reflect the realities of today has always been an important priority as well."

It seems extremely unlikely the five permanent members will either agree to add more veto-wielding members or abandon their own vetoes. That means the best anyone can hope for is that the council would be expanded - possibly to about 25 members, but without any new permanent ones.

The renewed calls for change have been accompanied by what appears to be a new predilection toward compromise among those who have pushed for reform.

The attitude was evident at a dinner meeting attended by more than 130 of the U.N.'s 192 member states that was held to discuss overcoming the impasse between the most serious proposals for council reform.

Unlike in the past, representatives of both sides were there. That included Germany and Japan, who are seeking permanent seats along with Brazil and India, and a group called "Uniting for Consensus," which wants to expand the number of non-permanent seats.

"Let's hope that before the end of this session of the General Assembly, we will succeed in turning the page, engaging in a negotiating process that we never had in more than 10 years of fruitless debates," Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said.