Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, on Tuesday appealed to world leaders in New York to rally together behind the rule of international law, warning that global standards were being shamelessly disregarded and selectively applied around the world.

?Today the rule of law is at risk around the world,? he told the UN General Assembly. ?This (international) framework is riddled with gaps and weaknesses. Too often it is applied selectively and enforced arbitrarily.?

He said: ?It lacks the teeth that turn a body of laws into an effective legal system. Many feel it is not always used fairly or effectively; those invoking it do not always practice what they preach.?

Mr Annan's call bore some resemblance to previous demands by Washington that the UN back its words with action or face irrelevance, but also marked widespread concern that the US is increasingly only willing to invoke international rules when its direct national interests are at stake. Many fear that arguments for international humanitarian intervention have been debased by their selective application in Iraq.

A growing alliance of poor countries is also demanding that Washington and the rest of the developed world pay more attention to hunger and poverty, to forestall an all-encompassing focus on terrorism and other hard security threats.

On Monday the Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva hosted a hunger and poverty summit in a bid to find new forms of international financing.

This year's assembly comes as leaders start to lock horns in earnest on the tortuous question of UN reform, a debate upon which Mr Annan has pinned his own future as well as his organisation's. He believes that if they do not make the necessary compromises now, events will pass them by.

?As I said a year ago, we have reached a fork in the road,? he said. ?If you, the political leaders of the world's nations, cannot reach agreement on the way forward, history will take the decisions for you, and the interests of your people may go by default.?

On Tuesday, Germany, Japan, Brazil and India were due to launch a joint bid for permanent seats on the security council, although many of their regional rivals opposed the move, and no African nation emerged to join them.

While few expected the debate to be easy, most analysts agree some institutional reform is necessary. But regional rivalries remain strong, and the veto-wielding permanent members are unlikely to allow their privileges to be significantly eroded.

Mr Annan warned the system's legitimacy was at stake.

?Just as within a country, respect for the law depends on the sense that all have a say in making and implementing it, so it is in our global community. All must feel that international law belongs to them, and protects their legitimate interests.?

His speech generally reflected an organisation at a low ebb, whose members are deeply uncertain how to deal with collective responsibilities.

A litany of problems overshadowing the assembly only served to highlight the degree to which the UN has proved unwilling or unable to address them.

?In Iraq we see civilians massacred in cold blood; at the same time we have seen Iraqi prisoners disgracefully abused,? said Mr Annan. ?In Darfur we see whole populations displaced and their homes destroyed; in northern Uganda we see children mutilated; in Beslan we see civilians deliberately targeted by suicide bombers, and in Palestine we see needless civilian casualties caused by Israel's excessive use of force.?

?Throughout the world the victims of violence and injustice are waiting for us to keep our word,? he said. ?We must look into our collective conscience and ask whether we are doing enough.?

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