It's The Big Time For Benin

US Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.N. General Secretary Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanonv, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, from right, listen to questions from journalists after a meeting between Annan and the Foreign Ministers of the permanent members of the Security Council in Geneva, Saturday, Sept. 13, 2003. The meeting was about the situation in Iraq.
The five countries chosen to join the U.N. Security Council in January include one of Africa's poorest nations, a Latin American powerhouse, an emerging democracy in Europe and two nations fighting insurgencies.

Algeria, Benin, Brazil, Romania and the Philippines won two-year terms on the council Thursday with support from more than 170 of the 191 members of the General Assembly.

Brazil, a founding member of the United Nations, has been elected to the council nine times since 1945 — which Ambassador Ronaldo Sardenberg said was a record.

By contrast, the tiny West African nation of Benin will be sitting in the United Nation's most important body for only the second time, after a more than 20-year hiatus. Once a French colony called Dahomey, Benin is smaller than Pennsylvania and home to 7 million people.

The new members reflect many problems on the global agenda.

Algeria is fighting an Islamic insurgency. So is the Philippines, which also is waging a war against al Qaeda-linked militant extremist groups. Benin is one of the world's poorest countries.

Less than 15 years after overthrowing its communist dictator, Romania is still struggling to build democratic institutions and a viable economy.

Romania's U.N. Ambassador Mihnea Motoc said winning a council seat showed support for his country's process of democratization.

Despite having South America's largest economy, Brazil also is struggling to create jobs for millions of unemployed and lift the country's impoverished masses from misery.

In recent years, the Security Council has spent about 60 percent of its time dealing with wars and other crises in Africa, though this year the debate over the U.S.-led war in Iraq and its aftermath may have topped the agenda.

Brazil's Sardenberg said joining the council is "a great opportunity and also a great challenge" because the divisions over Iraq must be overcome so members can effectively deal with threats to international peace and security.

Critics have questioned whether the United Nations still had a role to play after the debacle over Iraq.

But Benin's U.N. Ambassador Joel Adechi said Secretary-General Kofi Annan's keynote address at the donors conference under way in Madrid, Spain, to raise money for Iraq's reconstruction "is a good sign that the U.N. is still relevant."

"When you are talking of restoring democracy, restoring the rule of law in Iraq, the best tool that you can use is still the U.N.," he said in an interview.

The Security Council's agenda is mainly governed by global events, though members can choose to focus on specific issues when they hold the council presidency, which rotates monthly.

Algeria's U.N. Ambassador Abdallah Baali said for his country "there is one issue of paramount importance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," where the council has been "absent and ineffective."

The United States has vetoed recent resolutions, claiming they targeted Israel and weren't balanced. "We will work…to get a more united Security Council on the Middle East, and hopefully more effective council action regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict," Baali said in an interview.

Algeria also wants the council to focus even more on Africa. So does Brazil.

"It's very important not to leave Africa alone at this time, not only politically but economically," Sardenberg said in an interview.

For the Philippines, winning a council seat gives the country "elevated status" and validates the government's policies and commitment to democracy and justice, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in Manila.

The 10 elected council members are nominated by regional groups to give the council broad geographical representation.

The newly elected members will join five countries elected last September — Angola, Chile, Germany, Pakistan and Spain — who will remain on the council until the end of 2004 and the five veto-wielding permanent members, the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

Bulgaria, Cameroon, Guinea, Mexico and Syria will see their terms on the council end this year.

The only drama in the contest for seats took place behind the scenes earlier in the year.

The United States succeeded in scuttling a bid by Libya in July to get the Arab seat, working with friendly West African nations to support Algeria instead, according to a Bush administration official. Libya is still under U.S. sanctions and on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.