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Pushing the UN to act when it must

CONVENED in the wake of the crisis over Iraq, a UN high level panel appointed by Secretary General Kofi Annan Thursday delivered a historic report that leaves little question about the need for fundamental reform of the United Nations.

The panel does not mince words. It speaks of "major failures" to halt ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and in Darfur today. It calls the UN's response to the HIV/AIDS crisis "shockingly late and shamefully ill-resourced." And it castigates the UN Human Rights Commission for creating "a legitimacy deficit that casts doubts on the overall reputation of the United Nations."

As important as acknowledging the UN's many shortcomings is the panel's recognition that the world has changed fundamentally since the UN's founding at the end of the World War II. Then, its focus was to uphold the sovereign equality of its members and prevent aggressive wars, goals that were not surprising for an organization born in the wake of history's most destructive conflict.

But, as the panel notes, the threats the world confronts 60 years later are fundamentally different and in many ways more challenging. They include not just the external behavior of states, but also what goes on within them. They extend to global challenges as well as local ones. They come from non-state actors as well as states. And they threaten human security as well as state security.

Given this changing security environment, the panel acknowledges that military force may be necessary in many more circumstances than the UN's founding members originally envisaged. States, of course, retain the inherent right of self-defense, but this right applies not only after an attack has occurred but also when an attack is clearly imminent. The panel was right to embrace this principle of anticipatory self-defense, even though some UN members continue to doubt its legitimacy or legality.

But the panel went significantly further with respect to when force may have to be used. Echoing arguments first made by the Bush administration after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the panel recognizes the validity of the argument that preventive military action may be necessary to deal with a threat that is neither imminent nor proximate (e.g., the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, or a terrorist group armed with such weapons). It also embraces the principle that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from violence, and when they are unwilling or unable to do so the responsibility to protect falls to the international community.

The panel's embrace of these principles of military intervention represent a significant attempt to change the notion that the UN's primary purpose is to uphold the sovereign equality of its members by ensuring the non-interference in the internal affairs of state. Instead, the panel has embraced the important idea that sovereignty is conditional on the internal behavior of states -- not least toward their own citizens, but also in terms of internal developments may threaten other states or the international order.   Continued...

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