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With Eye Toward Legacy, Annan Grasps for Order

September 21, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — A year ago, Secretary-General Kofi Annan stood before world leaders and said the U.N. had to change or die. Now, after a year of feats that seemed to breathe life back into the organization -- and scandals and instability in Iraq that knocked the wind out of it -- the prognosis for the world body is still uncertain.

As he prepares today to open this year's General Assembly, Annan is acutely conscious of his legacy, and he wants to leave behind a revived and robust institution when his term ends in 2006.

Last year, he appointed a panel of experts to consider the most pressing questions facing the institution: preemptive attacks, nuclear proliferation and the balance of power in the U.N. and the world.

Shaken by the U.N.'s inability to stave off the invasion of Iraq -- an action he termed illegal last week -- Annan wants to write clearer rules on when nations can take preemptive action. He wants to define how to deal forcefully and collectively with new threats that confront the world -- terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and genocide -- as well as persistent scourges such as poverty and disease.

And he hopes to expand the Security Council to make it representative of today's world, not the victor's circle that held sway in 1945, when the United Nations was created.

But the expert panel won't report until the end of the year, leaving leaders attending this year's General Assembly treading water.

In the absence of answers, the U.N. struggled through its challenges this year with mixed results. After skirting the U.N. on its way to Iraq, the U.S. came back to ask for help. Annan's special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, pulled together an interim government for Iraq in time for the hand-over of power in late June.

"We would not have a political roadmap in Iraq without the U.N.," said Michael Ignatieff, the Carr professor for human rights at Harvard. "Without them, we'd be walking in the dark."

But U.S. and Iraqi officials took over the process at the last minute, and there has been little U.N. follow-up on the political path forward. Iraq is relying on the U.N. to organize national elections scheduled for January, but the world body, still traumatized by the bombing of its Baghdad headquarters a year ago, won't commit more than a few dozen staffers until the risks subside.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari criticized the U.N.'s paltry presence in an interview with the BBC over the weekend. "They are not doing enough to help us," he said.

In the wake of the invasion of Iraq, one little-noticed victory was how well U.N. weapons inspectors had done their job there. It now appears that partly as a result of years of intrusive U.N. inspections, Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction after all.

Other recent unheralded successes for the U.N. have been the conflict that was quelled in Liberia, the polio outbreak that was contained in Nigeria and the refugees who have been saved in Sudan.

But the U.N. is still struggling with the threat posed by nuclear proliferation. North Korea has opted out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the U.N. inspections the pact requires. Iran is pursuing technology that can be used for either nuclear energy or weaponry -- and the conditions of the treaty cannot control which way Tehran chooses to go.

The U.N.'s moral high ground was undermined this year by a brewing scandal over the "oil-for-food" program that allowed Iraq, under U.N. sanctions in the 1990s, to sell oil to buy humanitarian goods. Allegations that Hussein pocketed $10 billion through the program to rebuild his palaces and reinforce his army have been distracting and damaging for Annan, who waited months before responding to them.

The U.N.'s administration of the program, which concentrated on delivering goods rather than investigating reported kickbacks and corruption, is the subject of several inquiries, including an internal probe.

The Security Council has also been attacked for setting up a program that protected member countries' economic interests without ensuring accountability.

" 'Oil-for-food' is an enormous negative for the U.N.," Ignatieff said. "The credibility of a decade of U.N. inspection, patiently accrued to the U.N., was thrown away by the incompetence and corruption of the ... program. There's no doubt it's a catastrophe for the U.N.'s moral credibility."

Annan's statement last week that the attack on Iraq was illegal foreshadowed an anticipated appeal to this year's General Assembly to respect the rule of law.

The acts of cruelty, war and genocide reflect a collective failure to uphold the law and instill respect for it, Annan is expected to tell the gathered leaders today.

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