At the U.N., a Bid to Reform and Fears of a Rift

By Nora Boustany
Friday, May 5, 2006

The U.N. undersecretary general for communications said yesterday that a recent vote to delay action on a U.S.-backed effort to allow more managerial flexibility at the United Nations threatened to divide the institution. He also said the dispute was more about power than reform.

"My worry is the revival of the North-South divide," S hashi Tharoor said, referring to developed and developing countries. "We don't want to replace an East-West divide with the North-South one. We have to fight it and reach across the divide, to show that reforms are about making a difference in the South."

Developing countries on the main budget committee last month pushed through a resolution demanding clarifications and qualifications that froze Secretary General Kofi Annan 's reform proposal. The vote broke a 19-year tradition in which U.N. budget matters had been decided by consensus.

The proposal would have given the secretary general more leeway in making managerial decisions and would have eased General Assembly controls over U.N. spending. The vote was 108 to 50, with three abstentions.

"This resolution is not the end of the story," Tharoor said at lunch yesterday, "but it squeezes us out of the process for now."

In December, the United States approved six months of funding, pending progress on the reforms. Unless the spending cap is removed, U.N. funds for salaries could dry up by the second week of June.

"Reform is not about stripping the G.A. of power," Tharoor said, referring to the General Assembly. "We can pursue reform goals without rearranging the furniture of power at the U.N. We know all members want to see a more efficient U.N., yet in a world body, where they have enjoyed a one-man, one-vote right on all kinds of matters, some fear the secretary general will be vulnerable to greater pressure from big countries if his power is strengthened.

"As a manager, I feel the frustration of having a very limited degree of authority," he said. "We have to find a way of involving G.A. members to help find a way to do our management job better."

Tharoor said consultations were underway with member countries aimed at giving managers "more flexibility and holding us more accountable with more oversight boards. In other words, judge us by the results, focus on that without getting distracted by issues of power and turf."

Listing recent U.N. accomplishments, including the setting up of international tribunals and election commissions in countries such as Iraq, Tharoor said: "We must reform, not because the United Nations has failed, but because it has succeeded enough to be worth investing in."

A Warning Voice in Iran

The Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi said Wednesday that she did not participate in campaigning for Iran's 2004 parliamentary elections because she "did not believe in legitimizing" the process.

Many Iranians are demanding the repeal of a law that allows the powerful Council of Guardians, a group of clerics and Islamic scholars, to screen and disqualify candidates based on their religious and revolutionary credentials, thus limiting the number of reform-minded politicians in the legislative branch, she said.

"As a legal scholar, I can tell you this law contradicts our constitution. Iran's sixth parliament approved a vote to change this law, but the Council of Guardians rejected the demand," Ebadi told Washington Post reporters and editors Wednesday. She was in the United States to promote her new book, "Iran Awakening."

Since becoming Iran's first Nobel laureate three years ago, Ebadi said, she has been summoned to court three times, the first time for shaking hands with French President Jacques Chirac without covering her head.

"I did not go," she said, "because they had no legal grounds."

The second summons came after one of her clients, Akbar Ganji , an Iranian journalist who was serving a six-year prison sentence, went on a hunger strike. Ganji had also continued to write manifestos, which were smuggled out of the prison and posted on the Internet. Ebadi was accused of instigating his actions.

She described the case of one of her colleagues, Abdul Fattah Sultan . Sultan had been working with her representing the mother of a Canadian Iranian journalist who was arrested in 2004 and died in prison. One week into the trial, he was jailed for seven months. "Now he is free on bail awaiting his sentence," Ebadi said. "These incidents show the limitation of freedom in Iran."

The United States and other Western countries are troubled by Iran's nuclear ambitions, Ebadi said, but argued that everyone would benefit if they showed more concern about the erosion of human rights and democracy. "Democracy is not an incident that happens overnight, nor a gift that America can give to the world," she observed. "It is a culture which needs peace to evolve."

Ebadi warned, however, that Iranians who criticize their government now would become its defenders if Iran were invaded. "Whenever there is the possibility of an invasion, people unite and forget about their political criticism," she said. "I am sure you cannot impose human rights through falling bombs."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company