United Nations is at a critical juncture where member countries face a choice between reform, which would place it at the centre of the global search for peace and security, or the status quo, which would put it at risk of declining in relevance, according to deputy secretary-general Louise Fréchette, the organization's highest-ranking Canadian.
In a rare interview, the former deputy defence minister told The Globe and Mail that last month's recommendations contained in a widely read UN report will go a long way toward reinvigorating the world body and strengthening its ability to deal with important issues.
"There is a tremendous opportunity to make the UN more capable than it is now of dealing with the full range of the threats to peace and security," she said, acknowledging widespread criticism of the 191-member institution, especially in the United States.
"If we miss this opportunity and if we fail to meet agreement over the coming months . . . it does not mean the UN will just be on its deathbed. But the risk is that it will be less and less able, or less and less relied upon, to tackle some of the fundamental challenges of peace and security."
The report, produced by a high-level panel chaired by former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun, recommended that the organization adopt a definition of terrorism that would outlaw any targeting of civilians; lay out a clear principle known as "responsibility to protect" that would guide UN interventions in intrastate conflicts; and enhance the Security Council's ability to police proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
It also recommended that the Security Council establish a "peace-building commission" that would identify countries at risk of "state failure" and provide assistance to reverse that slide, together with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan has not endorsed any specific changes but has urged member countries to engage in the reform process. He hopes to have world leaders agree on a plan when they meet for the annual opening of the General Assembly next September.
Ms. Fréchette, 58, played down tensions between the United Nations and Washington, in particular the Republicans who have criticized its handling of the oil-for-food program in prewar Iraq and have voiced doubts about its ability to function effectively.
She also rejected suggestions that the UN should serve as a counterbalance to the United States, the world's sole superpower.
"I think it would be a real mistake in viewing the UN and whatever reform we want to bring to the UN as a tool with which to control the power of the United States, or other powers in the world," she said.
Rather, the goal is to persuade the United States that the most effective way to tackle security problems is through multilateralism.
Critics have complained that multilateral efforts have failed the people of Darfur, in Sudan, where government-backed Arab militias have attacked civilians in an ethnic conflict that former U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell termed genocide. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch slammed the UN Security Council for offering only token protection to Darfur's people.
But Ms. Fréchette defended the UN, saying officials are working behind the scenes for a political settlement while offering protection for the region's people through the deployment of humanitarian workers and African Union peacekeepers.
"The situation in Darfur has improved somewhat with the presence of humanitarian workers -- the majority of the population is in receipt of assistance but they've been displaced and there is always the risk of violence," she said. "The strategy is only partly successful. There is a measure of protection, but it is insufficient."