The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday adopted a declaration on the need to combat world poverty, promote human rights and strengthen management of the organization, but only after negotiators scaled back the document because of intractable disagreements among nations on sensitive issues.
The 35-page declaration will be endorsed by an estimated 170 world leaders at a three-day summit on U.N. reform that is to begin Wednesday, and delegates expressed disappointment that it had fallen short of Secretary General Kofi Annan's aspirations for a broad reorganization of the 60-year-old organization.
Still, they voiced relief that the entire process had not collapsed, which would have left the summit with no tangible result, and they highlighted relatively modest achievements in the document. Those included provisions that call for an increase in foreign aid, condemn terrorism and underscore the obligation of states to halt genocide and ethnic cleansing. Only Cuba and Venezuela voiced reservations about Tuesday's agreement.
The negotiators were forced to put off action on some of the thorniest and most ambitious goals, including proposals to expand the U.N. Security Council, to create an independent auditing board to scrutinize U.N. spending, and to impose basic membership standards for a new Human Rights Council so that chronic rights abusers will not be able to join.
Various proposals for expanding membership in the Security Council, for example, had been opposed by countries that felt they would lose out in the deal. And some developing countries fought proposals for changes in U.N. management practices, which they felt would shift authority from the General Assembly to the secretary general's office.
Negotiators also failed to agree on provisions calling on governments to halt the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists and urging nuclear weapons states to abide by their commitments to dismantle their atomic arms.
Annan said that the members' inability to adopt these measures on disarmament and nonproliferation constituted "a real disgrace" and that he hoped world leaders would see this as "a real signal to pick up the ashes and show leadership."
"There were governments that were not willing to make the concessions necessary," Annan told reporters after the declaration was adopted by the General Assembly. "There were spoilers, let's be quite honest about that."
Still, Annan said he was pleased that the declaration reiterated the U.N. commitment to meet targets for slashing rates of poverty, disease and child mortality and that it called for creation of the new human rights council and a peace-building commission to oversee postwar recoveries. "I would have wanted more, all of us would have wanted more, but it's an important step forward," he said. "I think we can work with what we've been given."
The negotiations provided the first test of American diplomacy at the United Nations since President Bush bypassed congressional confirmation to install John R. Bolton as U.S. ambassador for 17 months.
Bolton on Tuesday demonstrated sufficient flexibility to reach agreements on some issues, while fending off provisions that might have restricted U.S. prerogatives and the freedom to use force unilaterally. Bolton, who led efforts to block the disarmament provision, succeeded in eliminating language that would have urged countries to support a host of international treaties or organizations, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the International Criminal Court, which the United States opposes.
But Bolton failed to secure support for a number of key U.S. priorities, including the provision urging states to halt the transfer of the world's deadliest weapons to terrorists and measures intended to expand Annan's authority over hiring and to strengthen the oversight of U.N. finances.
Bolton said that while he would have preferred stronger provisions to ensure greater accountability in the U.N. bureaucracy, Tuesday's agreement would lead to a "somewhat improved U.N."
"But it would be wrong to claim more than is realistic and accurate about what these reforms are," he said. "They represent steps forward, but this is not the alpha and the omega, and we never thought it would be."
"This is not the end of the reform effort," added Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns. "It really is the beginning of a permanent reform effort that must be underway at the United Nations."
Despite setbacks, Burns said that Tuesday's agreement would eliminate the discredited U.N. Human Rights Commission, which includes Zimbabwe, Sudan and other human rights violators. But he acknowledged that "it is going to be a difficult exercise" to win the votes in the General Assembly to create a human rights council that reflects the wishes of the United States.
Burns said that although the United States and other governments had failed to include a clear condemnation of the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians, they had succeeded in extracting an Arab-backed provision that would have excluded so-called national liberation movements that target civilians from being labeled terrorists.
"We have broken the back of this ideological debate here about what constitutes terrorism," Burns said, noting that "sometimes in diplomacy defeating negative measures is very important." U.N. delegates, however, said Arab governments would insist on protections for armed groups fighting foreign occupation in an international convention on terrorism that is being negotiated by U.N. members.
Human rights and development advocates said the membership had squandered a rare opportunity to improve the organization, but praised the negotiators for endorsing the creation of an international obligation to halt attempted genocide.
"There is very little to celebrate," said Nicola Reindorp of Oxfam International. But governments "are showing that they can act boldly, by endorsing their responsibility to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity."