Thursday, April 20, 2006

The president of the U.N. General Assembly yesterday defended the world body’s overhaul of its human rights panel, but warned that in the days ahead, the United Nations faces an even more difficult fight over critical management reforms.

“We have problems ahead of us. I will not hide the fact that the management issues are very difficult and we face a polarization of the membership,” veteran Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson said in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times.

That polarization reared its head late Tuesday, when a bloc of developing nations introduced a resolution that could postpone indefinitely the progress on reforms sought by wealthier states. U.N. officials called it a “classic blocking tactic,” and U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton told The Washington Times in New York yesterday that the ploy could sabotage reforms sought by the United States.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has placed reform of the body’s bureaucracy at the heart of his blueprint to revive the United Nations. Citing the staffing, oversight and management problems exposed in the Iraq oil-for-food scandal, critics in Congress have proposed tying U.S. contributions to the U.N. budget to significant reforms in New York.

But Mr. Eliasson also faces heavy counterpressure from the “Group of 77,” a bloc of developing countries in the General Assembly that fears management changes will weaken its influence, eliminate jobs and threaten aid programs.

Mr. Eliasson, who wears an unusual double hat as Sweden’s newly appointed foreign minister, was at the heart of the tense negotiations over the much-criticized human rights agency, a top Bush administration priority.

The United States, saying Mr. Eliasson’s compromise did not go far enough to strengthen the agency, was one of just four countries to vote against adopting the Human Rights Council.

Mr. Eliasson said he respected the U.S. position and held out hope that Washington would expand its cooperation with the new body in the coming years.

“I have been involved with human rights for my entire career, and I can say I sleep well at night over what we accomplished,” Mr. Eliasson said. “I think it is a very good basis to work for human rights, and the fact that the United States says it will work with the new council is a sign, I think, that we passed the quality test.”

He said the new council will have a much higher membership hurdle to keep out notorious human rights abusers. Candidates will have to document their own human rights records and face expulsion if they violate their pledges while serving on the council.

He added that failure to secure a deal on the human rights body would have set back reform efforts across the board and turned the human rights debate into a “North-South issue,” possibly pitting the United States and its Western allies against Islamic countries and developing nations.

Mr. Eliasson’s drive for further management reforms faces a new snag with the resolution introduced Tuesday by South Africa in the General Assembly’s budget committee, which would require the U.N. secretariat to submit detailed reports on scores of issues affected by Mr. Annan’s program.

“This is an effort to dull [Mr. Annan’s] input,” an angry Mr. Bolton said in an interview. “We are concerned that if this goes to a vote it will result in [U.S. reform proposals] being rejected.”

Mr. Eliasson said he was aware of the Group of 77 proposal, but expressed hope the management reforms can remain on track in the face of a looming June budgetary deadline.

He said the United States was not the only nation seeking greater control and oversight over how the United Nations spends its money, while developing countries fear that a streamlined U.N. secretariat will weaken the influence of the General Assembly, where they have a bigger voice.

“We’re in for a rough ride on this,” Mr. Eliasson said.

• Betsy Pisik reported from New York.

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