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UN: Summit Begins Amid Shrinking Expectations For Reform

  • Robert McMahon --> The world’s largest gathering of heads of state and government begins today at UN headquarters in New York and is dominated by questions of reforming the organization. Member states agreed at the last minute to a reform document that softens commitments to improving UN effectiveness on issues ranging from human rights to nonproliferation. Some officials stressed that reform priorities are not dead but deferred to the General Assembly. They hope that leaders of more than 170 states can energize the process.

United Nations, 14 September 2005 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan opened the summit in New York today with an appeal to the gathered world leaders to work together to reform the world body.

"I urge you as world leaders, individually and collectively, to keep working on this (UN) reform agenda, to have the patience to persevere and the vision needed to forge a real consensus," Annan said, underlining the difficulty of the challenge before the assembled leaders.

The UN General Assembly yesterday approved a document that is to serve as a blueprint for wide-ranging improvements to the organization, from management oversight to scrutinizing human rights abuses.

It lacks the ambitious steps outlined by Secretary-General Kofi Annan earlier this year (see "Annan Reforms Would Revamp UN Security, Rights Structures").

Annan said the document was an adequate basis for proceeding with reforms. He was encouraged by the assembly’s approval, in theory, of two new bodies -- a streamlined human rights council and a commission for postconflict reconstruction. But he criticized the failure to reach agreement on disarmament and nonproliferation and issued a challenge to leaders assembling for the next three days.

“The big item missing is nonproliferation and disarmament," Annan said. "This is a real disgrace. We have failed twice this year. We failed at the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review in May] and we failed now and I hope the leaders will see this as a real signal to pick up the ashes and really show leadership on this important issue.”

The document includes language, supported by Washington, that calls for strengthening the capacity of the UN to assist member states through a democracy fund. U.S. President George W. Bush is expected to outline further goals on the fund today.

States also agreed in principle on measures calling on states to act to halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other mass killings. In addition, the document contains a condemnation of terrorism. The UN Security Council today is to hold a special session of Bush and other leaders to approve a resolution calling on states to “prohibit by law incitement to commit terrorist acts.”

U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton told reporters the summit statement now contains key U.S. priorities. But, he added, the real push for reform is only beginning.

“This is only the first step here," Bolton said. "It was only ever going to be the first step here because the nature of the [UN] culture is such that the changes we want both in the way the secretariat functions and in the way the member governments function needs to be changed in a substantial way. So we're pleased that this is a good first step.”

The incoming president of the UN General Assembly, Jan Eliason of Sweden, noted the detailed section on development aims. But he said richer states are moving far too slowly on goals set five years ago, which include halving world poverty and improving sanitation and water supplies.

Eliason, a former humanitarian official, pointed to the hundreds of millions of people in the world who lack access to fresh water. “We need to bring to these halls these realities," he said. "This and other realities that are there. It’s not only a matter of solidarity, it’s a matter of enlightened self interest to deal with poverty. It’s a disgrace that that is going on, that we have that state of affairs.”
“The group of countries that fought against it are really a club of countries that have every reason to fear an effective and successful human rights council, in other words they themselves have dismal human rights records." HRW's Hicks

Human rights watchdogs expressed dismay that specific proposals for a reformed human rights body to replace the discredited Human Rights Commission were removed.

The global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, Peggy Hicks, told RFE/RL the changes in language -- removing reference to choosing members, for example -- were a serious blow to rights campaigners. She pointed to lobbying against the specific provisions by states such as Belarus, Turkmenistan, Cuba, and Venezuela.

“The group of countries that fought against it are really a club of countries that have every reason to fear an effective and successful human rights council, in other words they themselves have dismal human rights records,” Hicks said.

Today’s opening day of speeches at the UN will feature the first major world address by new Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. He is expected to introduce a new proposal on breaking the impasse with leading Western states over its nuclear program. Annan discussed the issue with Bush yesterday but declined to give details. (See RFE/RL's special webpage "Iran's Nuclear Program.)