How the US Wants the United Nations to Reform ; at the Summit Beginning Wednesday, the US Will Push for Changes in the Human Rights Arena and in Management

Article excerpt

When President Bush speaks Wednesday at the largest gathering of world leaders in United Nations history, he will argue for major changes in a world institution that was conceived by the United States but has since become the object of much American skepticism - especially under the Bush administration.

Now the lone Gulliver in a land of many Lilliputians, the US has long had a contentious relationship with the world body. Many countries suspect the US wants the UN to operate as a legitimizer of its worldview - or they think the US just wants to disregard it.

The international gathering of more than 170 countries that begins Wednesday is supposed to approve changes that will make the UN a more effective and relevant institution for the 21st century. And the US, despite its frustrations with the UN, does have specific goals for reform that it believes are minimum "musts" to reverse a slide to irrelevance.

One key reform is a revamping of the UN's approach to human rights issues. Another is management reform. The US is pressing to concentrate more management responsibilities in a secretary- general's office endowed with new oversight powers and new officers - such as a chief operating officer who could focus on finances and personnel while leaving political duties to the secretary-general.

While the Bush administration has consistently said it does not consider this summit any last chance for reform, it is also likely to come under increasing pressure from Congress and others to look to other international institutions to address those issues if reforms are not forthcoming.

"For many months the US was standoffish from this reform process, which is odd, since reform of the United Nations is a US priority," says Lee Feinstein, an expert in US-UN relations at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "What the US is finding once again is that as maddening as it can be, the UN is a necessary forum for us - and it will work better if we work to get certain changes done."

But just hours before the summit, both issues remain blocked (as of this writing) by some developing countries that see such changes as draining power from the UN General Assembly.

For the US, replacement of the UN's politicized and widely discredited Commission on Human Rights is a chief example of what must change if, as Mr. Bush has cautioned at the UN, the international organization is to remain "relevant."

The current human rights commission "is completely broken," says Richard Grenell, spokesman for John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN. "It's the violators who are in control."

As Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said, countries have sought membership in the commission not because they are committed to human rights, but "to protect themselves against criticism or to criticize others."

Under a proposal first offered by Mr. Annan, the commission would be replaced by a smaller "human rights council. …