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The most massive package of reforms ever attempted at the United Nations is steaming along the diplomatic tracks for debate at an all-star September summit meeting in New York

The result of the September summit - attended by some 191 country leaders - will affect billions of people throughout the world: those fated to live or die in wars and ethnic cleansing; to sink or swim in the turbulent global economy; to see their human rights respected or destroyed; to have their massive health problems tackled or abandoned to piecemeal efforts.

The success or failure of the proposed reforms will also leave the community of nations solidified or dangerously divided, widening the chasm between rich and poor.

"U.N. reform is the biggest issue that's happening today," says Paul Heinbecker, Canada's former ambassador to the U.N. "But we have to make sure that people understand what it means."

Earlier this week, Heinbecker hosted a conference of more than 80 international diplomats, officials, academics, aid practitioners and journalists who gathered at Wilfrid Laurier University to give their perspective on the outlook for reform

The conference was sponsored by the university, the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Academic Council on the United Nations System, based at Laurier.

But it has also become obvious that the U.N. system has not kept up with the enormous changes in the world over the past six decades.

The reforms are aimed at striking a balance between the needs of the security-conscious North and those of the economically challenged South, arousing fierce debate in both regions.

They include proposals to expand the Security Council from 15 to 24 members, to ensure a dramatic increase in foreign aid, and to accept responsibility to protect people from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The proposals also seek agreement on when legitimate force can be used and on replacing the discredited Human Rights Commission with a more effective body. A Peacebuilding Commission would be created to help shattered countries through post-war crisis, and there would be tighter control of deadly weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists.

So anxious are U.N. planners to push through a program to reinvigorate the organization that they have avoided the traditional preparatory meeting at which diplomats haggle over words and phrases, often gutting the proposals in the process.

At the same time, conference delegates said, it's vitally important to engage the public in a debate "too important to be left to diplomats."

"If you want real change, there has to be a groundswell of public opinion," said Canada's former foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, now president of the University of Winnipeg

Much of the world is ready for changes that would strengthen the U.N., according to a recent BBC poll. There is also approval for democratizing the world body by expanding it and breaking the hammerlock the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China have on the organization through their power to veto resolutions in the Security Council.

But although more than two-thirds of the ordinary Americans polled agreed that democratizing the U.N. is crucial to its future, their government may disagree. President George W. Bush's administration is deeply suspicious of the world body and opposed to several of Annan's proposed reforms.

There are rumours in U.N. corridors that Bush will not attend the summit or will make only a cursory appearance in September.

"The U.S. is the elephant in the room, and there's no getting away from that," said a diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "If Washington leaves the room, we'll be back to the League of Nations - a talking shop that ended in failure."

However, said Daniel Drache, of York University's Robarts Centre, "the United Nations is much bigger than the United States. It has many members that have their own perspectives, and want to have a real voice. The world has changed a great deal since the U.N. was founded."

In a preliminary debate this week in the U.N. General Assembly, developing countries supported the proposal to put pressure on rich nations to dedicate 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product to development aid - a goal Canada set decades ago and never achieved. But they also criticized the reform package for putting too much emphasis on issues of security that mainly affect the West.

But the bitterest debates at the summit are likely to be on issues of "hard" security, and on expansion of the Security Council.

There is even less agreement on issues of war and peace: Canada's proposal to codify the responsibility to protect people in deadly peril is hampered by opposition from authoritarian countries that fear it is a "back door to intervention" in their affairs. Others worry that it could be used to serve the heavy-handed national interests of countries with military might.

The establishment of a peacebuilding commission to help war-torn countries make a successful transition to normal life appears to have brighter prospects for the September summit. But there is argument over what its powers would be, how it would be funded and to whom it would report.

"There is a fragile agreement in Washington over peacebuilding," said Stewart Patrick, of the Centre for Global Development in Washington, D.C. "But there's also skepticism about what added value it would have. If there are too many characteristics that depart from U.S. interests, it won't succeed."

The spectre of failure is concentrating the minds of diplomats who will argue the issues behind closed doors for the next four months. That, some say, could ultimately guarantee its success

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