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Reforming the U.N.

Kofi Annan delivered a surprise Hanukkah gift to friends of Israel and democracy this week, in the form of a United Nations reform plan that includes, at long last, a clear and usable definition of terrorism. Ruling out “mitigating” circumstances like occupation, the report is said to declare that terrorism against civilians “is never an acceptable tactic, even for the most defensible of causes.” The plan’s adoption would end the long-standing refusal of Arab states and their allies to let the world body outlaw terrorism without exceptions for occupation and resistance, meaning attacks on Israelis.

The terrorism clause is just one of a host of sensible reforms Annan is submitting to the General Assembly for debate and, hopefully, adoption in the coming months. Another goal is to broaden the Security Council, making room for new powers that have emerged in the decades since World War II. Still another is re-examining the sacred principle of sovereignty, giving the Security Council the power to act pre-emptively when it faces a deadly combination of failed states and weapons of mass destruction.

The reforms are sure to get a raspberry from those on the right who see the U.N. as a hopelessly corrupt tool of dictatorships that should be abolished. They’re wrong, of course; the U.N. is no better or worse than the countries that make it up, and those who wish for a different world body are simply wishing they lived on a different planet. The U.N. hasn’t magically created peace, but it has provided a place to talk. Better to fix it than to end it.

It may be no coincidence that Annan’s report comes out the very same week that voices on the right are gearing up to demand his resignation over the Iraq oil-for-food scandal. The scandal consists, in a word, of evidence that Saddam Hussein outwitted the U.N. sanctions regime and enriched himself off food aid intended for his people. There’s a scandal there, no question. Whether it requires Kofi Annan’s head is a separate question. Are these same firebrands demanding the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld over the Abu Ghraib scandal? Or are they, perhaps, simply looking for an opportunity to get in a few shots at the U.N., just when reform seems in reach?

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