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UN reform: Stick to herding cats

How do you herd 191 cats? That was the challenge that faced the eminent group studying how to reform the United Nations.

One way is to empower a bunch of powerful tomcats to lead them. In the UN's case, the toms sit on the Security Council, the world organization's troubleshooter. At present, the UN has five big cats: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. They are the only permanent members (as against the 10 temporary, rotating members), and each holds a veto over anything the council decides.

The trouble is, everyone else resents them. The "permanent five" was created in 1945, when the UN was born, and its members come from the winning side in the Second World War. Why, ask other powers, should these cats be responsible for running the world in perpetuity? Wouldn't the Security Council be more representative, and thus more effective, if the UN updated its membership to reflect today's world?

Sounds sensible, doesn't it? The panel that studied UN reform certainly thought so, and it made an updated Security Council a centrepiece of the report that it submitted to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last week. In reality, it is a bad idea. Trying to reform the Security Council will open up bitter national rivalries that will only distract the UN from the things it urgently needs to do, like stopping wars, famines and genocide.

The reform committee proposes two possible models for an expanded council. Each would see it grow to 24 members from the current 15. One model would add six permanent seats and three temporary, two-year seats. The other would add eight new renewable seats with four-year terms and one additional two-year seat.

The 16-member panel offered options because it couldn't decide on the best model. If 16 men and women had such a hard time, imagine what it will be like to get the UN to agree. The wrangling has already begun.

Germany, Brazil, Japan and India have agreed among themselves that they all should be permanent members. But each has opponents. Mexico and Argentina both question whether Brazil should be Latin America's representative on the council. Pakistan, predictably, questions India's claim to permanent membership, while China just as predictably questions Japan's. In Europe, the Italians fret that making Germany a permanent member would leave Italy the only major European country without a seat.

African countries justifiably feel that they should get one of the seats, but which African country? Relatively wealthy South Africa is an obvious choice, but Nigeria, the continent's most populous country, thinks it should have a shot, too. China, with an eye on Nigeria's oil riches, backs the Nigerian bid, while the Arab world backs Egypt. And on it goes.

Expanding the Security Council is the ultimate can of worms. The question is so fraught, the committee that has studied it for years, the Open-Ended Working Group, has been nicknamed the "never-ending" group.

And even if the reform succeeds, it may not make the UN any more effective. Indeed, it is likely to make decision-making even more of an agony. Though the reform committee wisely shied away from recommending extending the veto to more than the original five, it will be no treat getting a decision out of 24 countries, some of them with permanent or semi-permanent status and the delusions of grandeur to go with it.

Would it be such a disaster to leave the council as it is? The permanent five are all still big powers. True, Britain and France are not what they used to be, but they are still nuclear states with big armed forces and top-ranked economies. Russia has been down on its luck since 1991, but it's still the world's second-biggest nuclear power. China has an even stronger claim to permanent status than it did in 1945, given its huge population and rising economic power. The case for the U.S. is obvious.

So leave the Security Council be. It is not the tomcats that hamstring the UN. It is the failure of all the cats to overcome their squabbling and act as one.

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