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Kofi Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations.

By Kofi A. Annan

We have come to a decisive moment in history. The great threat of nuclear confrontation between rival superpowers is now behind us. But a new and diverse constellation of threats has arisen in its place. We need to look again at the machinery of international relations. Is it up to these new tests? If not, how does it need to be changed?

The events of the past year have exposed deep divisions among members of the United Nations, on fundamental questions of policy and principle. How can we best protect ourselves against international terrorism and halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction? When is the use of force permissible -- and who should decide? Does it have to be each state for itself, or will we be safer working together? Is "preventive war" sometimes justified, or is it simply aggression under another name? And, in a world that has become "unipolar," what role should the United Nations play?

These new debates come on top of earlier ones that arose in the 1990s. Is state sovereignty an absolute and immutable principle, or does our understanding of it need to evolve? To what extent is it the international community's responsibility to prevent or resolve conflicts within states (as opposed to wars between them) -- particularly when they involve genocide, "ethnic cleansing" or other extreme violations of human rights? Do we have effective mechanisms for carrying out that responsibility?

These questions go to the heart of international peace and security. They cannot be left unanswered. Yet they are not the only questions. For many people they may not even be the most urgent.

In fact, to many people in the world today, especially in poor countries, the risk of being attacked by terrorists or with weapons of mass destruction, or even of falling prey to genocide, must seem relatively remote compared to the so-called "soft" threats -- the ever-present dangers of extreme poverty and hunger, unsafe drinking water, environmental degradation and endemic or infectious disease. These kill millions of people every year.

Let's not imagine that these things are unconnected with peace and security, or that we can afford to ignore them until the "hard threats" have been sorted out. We should have learned by now that a world of glaring inequality -- between countries and within them -- where many millions of people endure brutal oppression and extreme misery, is never going to be a fully safe world, even for its most privileged inhabitants.

If the common ground we used to stand on no longer seems solid, we must seek new common ground for our collective efforts. And we need to consider whether the United Nations itself is well-suited to the challenges ahead.

Those are the tasks I have assigned to a panel of sixteen highly respected and experienced people from all parts of the world, which is holding its first meeting this weekend. It is chaired by former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun of Thailand and includes outstanding experts on both security and development issues.

The panel's role is threefold: to develop a shared analysis of current and future threats to peace and security; to prepare a rigorous assessment of the contribution that collective action can make in meeting these threats; and to recommend the changes needed to make the United Nations a legitimate and effective instrument for a collective response. How, in particular, can the United Nations "take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace," which is one of its purposes, as defined in Article I of the Charter?

The panel will focus primarily on threats to peace and security. But it will also need to examine other challenges, insofar as these may influence or connect with those threats. That may mean looking not only at the Security Council, but also at the General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council.

It may even mean looking at the Trusteeship Council -- one of the U.N.'s "principal organs," but one without a function since the last of the "trust territories" became independent in 1994. Could this body perhaps find a new role, in the light of the new responsibilities the United Nations has recently been given in some war-torn countries?

Only the U.N.'s member states can decide such matters, but the panel can help them do so. I hope it will complete its report by autumn 2004, so that I can make recommendations to the next session of the U.N. General Assembly.

If it does its work well, history may yet remember the current crisis as a great opportunity that wise men and women used to strengthen the mechanisms of international cooperation and adapt them to the needs of the new century.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (For publication on or before Dec. 5, 2003)