Edith M. Lederer
September 22, 2005
History’s largest gathering of world leaders fell far short Friday of completing the major changes UN Secretary General Kofi Annan sought to fight poverty, terrorism and human rights abuses – but the leaders took a first step.
At the end of a three-day summit, the leaders adopted a 35-page document by consensus and then burst into applause.
The leaders’ approval of the document – which commits governments to achieving UN goals to combat poverty and creates a commission to help move countries from war to peace – came alongside important developments in other areas.
Meetings on the sidelines of the summit marking the UN’s 60th anniversary produced rare Arab-Israeli contacts and talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and dozens of countries signed a new treaty aimed at preventing nuclear terrorism.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who two years ago questioned whether the United Nations was relevant, surprised many by giving the world body his strong backing. He also won praise for declaring that poverty breeds terrorism and despair and challenging world leaders to abolish all trade tariffs and subsidies to promote prosperity and opportunity in struggling countries.
The three-day summit brought presidents, prime ministers and kings from 151 of the 191 UN member states to the United Nations, a record number according to UN officials. Leaders from the most powerful countries hobnobbed with those from tiny Pacific island states like Tuvalu, and the key phrase was one-on-one “face time.”
But instead of adopting Annan’s sweeping blueprint to enable the world body to deal with the challenges of a new century, they were presented with a watered-down 35-page document. The final document represented the lowest common denominator that all countries could agree on after months of negotiations, and even then Cuba and Venezuela expressed reservations.
Greek President Kostas Karamanlis said the United Nations, built for the post-Second World War era, “has to adapt in order to be effective in the new international environment.”
“The United Nations, the only truly global institution of humanity, endowed with a unique legitimacy, must respond to the new realities and challenges,” he said.
Prime Minister Paul Martin, among the last of the world leaders to speak at the summit, said the international community’s penchant for “empty rhetoric” must be replaced by concrete results and “effective, pragmatic multilateralism.”
“If the United Nations is to work, we know what we have to do, and we also know we are not doing nearly well enough . . .” Martin said.
“Make no mistake: the UN needs reform.”
But Australian Prime Minister John Howard said “we should not think that the United Nations can solve all the world’s problems, nor that it should attempt to do so.”
Annan, speaking in an interview with the BBC aired Friday, rejected suggestions that the UN was trying to act as a world government.
“I hope the UN will not be seen as a world government. If I give the impression we are a world government, we’ll get even more critics and our critics will be emboldened,” he said.
Annan said the summit would make an “important advance” despite the dilution of key elements of the UN reform plan he presented in March.
The most significant planks in the final document are the creation of a new Peacebuilding Commission to help countries emerging from conflict and an acceptance by all governments of the collective international responsibility to protect people from genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.
For the first time, the declaration condemns terrorism “in all its forms and manifestations, committed by whomever, wherever and for whatever purposes,” but skirts the contentious issue of defining terrorism because of objections that independence struggles would be targeted.
It agrees to establish a Human Rights Council to replace the Human Rights Commission, which has been widely criticized for becoming politicized and having rights abusers among its members, but there is no guarantee this won’t happen with the new body.
The original thrust of the summit was to take action to implement UN goals stemming from the declaration by world leaders at their last summit in 2000. They include cutting poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education and stemming the AIDS pandemic, all by 2015.
Bush endorsed all the goals, except calling for rich countries to spend 0.7 per cent of their GDP on development aid, but his overall support was welcomed by a number of developing countries and anti-poverty activists.
“The world is expecting us to make poverty history – to turn poverty into something our great grandchildren will read about, but not really understand, like the medieval plagues,” Norway’s Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik told the summit on its closing day Friday. “We can do it. And we must do it.”
But divisions were so strong that the entire section on disarmament and nonproliferation in the document was dropped, which Annan called “a disgrace.” Expansion of the UN Security Council, which consumed months of negotiations in the run-up to the summit, proved so contentious that it was shelved, and the issue was reduced to a single paragraph in the final document.
After a year of criticism over reported corruption in the UN oil-for-food program in Iraq and allegations of bribery by UN purchasing officials, diplomats agreed to create an internal ethics office but they didn’t give Annan the authority he wanted to make sweeping management changes.
Many of these issues will remain on the agenda over the next 12 days during the annual ministerial meeting of the General Assembly, which begins Saturday morning with a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to respond to a European demand for Iran to halt uranium enrichment in his speech Saturday afternoon.