Annan’s Moves at U.N. Elicit Cautious Praise From Israel, Allies

By Marc Perelman

Published March 25, 2005, issue of March 25, 2005.
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UNITED NATIONS — Secretary General Kofi Annan’s wide-ranging United Nations reform proposals won a cautious welcome this week from Israel and its supporters, who praised his calls to define terrorism more stringently and to overhaul the U.N. Human Rights Commission. But they warned that the proposals’ implementation still faces hurdles and that the anti-Israel slant of the world body is unlikely to disappear quickly.

“His comments on terrorism and his recognition of the flaws of the Human Rights Commission are helpful,” said Kenneth Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We still have to see if this will be implemented.”

Annan’s reform package, presented to the General Assembly on Monday, was widely described as a response to months of criticism. Annan and the U.N. have been under attack, particularly from American conservatives, over a series of scandals, including the oil-for-food humanitarian program in prewar Iraq and sex-abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo.

In addition to enlarging the ecurity Council, clarifying the rules governing the use of force and tackling global poverty, Annan urged Member States to unite behind a “comprehensive convention on terrorism” that would “outlaw terrorism as a tool of national resistance.”

Thus he seemed to side with Jerusalem and Washington in their long-running dispute with Arab and Muslim states over the definition of terrorism. Arab states insist on excluding acts defined as “legitimate resistance” to oppression and occupation, an obvious reference to the Palestinian situation.

The dispute has stalled negotiations over a wide-ranging treaty on terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Annan’s decision to weigh in, after months on the sidelines, will sway enough countries to forge a compromise.

The Israeli mission to the U.N. declined to comment until it had reviewed the Annan plan thoroughly. In the past, Israeli officials have expressed frustration regarding the lack of progress on the treaty.

An Arab diplomat said that the Arab group was still examining the plan but indicated that the reaction to the terrorism proposal was likely to be negative. A U.N. observer said that an Arab shift was unlikely, reducing the chances that the General Assembly will agree on a definition.

Annan also urged replacement of the oft-derided Human Rights Commission with a new Human Rights Council, limited to states abiding by agreed-upon human rights standards. The current commission has been widely discredited by the presence of countries with dismal human rights records among its 53 rotating members.

Israel and its supporters have long claimed that the commission is essentially an anti-Israel forum. They note that Israel is the only nation scrutinized under an exclusive agenda item and that it is typically targeted by half of all country-specific resolutions.

At this year’s session, which started last week, the anti-Israel rhetoric was comparable with previous years, despite references by several Muslim countries to new hopes for peace, according to U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based arm of the American Jewish Committee.

Taking his cue from the recent conclusions of a panel of experts that he appointed, Annan offered two alternative plans to make the Security Council more representative by expanding it from 15 to 24 members. One proposal would create six new permanent members without veto power. The other would add a new tier of semi-permanent members.

Council reform has been stuck for more than 10 years amid disputes over the size of a revamped council and the veto powers of new members. The five current permanent members — the United States, Great Britain, France, China and Russia — are reluctant to grant a veto to newcomers.

Israel’s priority is to preserve America’s veto power, used repeatedly to quash anti-Israel resolutions. Annan did not propose doing away with the veto.

One less-noticed proposal is to rationalize the functioning of the General Assembly, which Jewish groups have attacked because of the inordinate number of committees focused on the Palestinian question.

“I hope he means he’ll embrace reform of excessive and inappropriate anti-Israel machinery and resolutions,” said Felice Gaer, director of AJCommittee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights.

Annan also urged the General Assembly to define formally “when and how force can be used to defend international peace and security” in order to dispel the confusion that hobbled joint action in Iraq and the Darfur region of Sudan.

That proposal drew a negative reaction from Washington. “Frankly, we’re skeptical that any kind of resolution on the use of force would be helpful,” State Department spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters.

The mood in Congress, which controls American funding of the world body, is likely to remain distrustful.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Florida Republican who chairs the House International Relations’ Middle East and Central Asia Subcommittee, said in a statement that the plan was “too little, too late,” noting that it failed to address “endemic corruption” and the role of oppressive regimes in the U.N. system.

Annan asked the 191 Member States to consider the package as a whole, and he urged world leaders to express approval come the U.N.’s 60th anniversary summit in September.

The U.N. observer said the chances of a compromise by then were slim, given the conflicting interests in play and the perception of Annan as a besieged lame duck.

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