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World: Annual Assembly Launches Debates Inside And Outside UN

  • Sonia Winter

New York, 22 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Questions of organization, money and procedure are expected to dominate the United Nations' 52nd annual General Assembly in New York which today begins a three-week debate traditionally opened by the U.S. president.

But important questions and controversial issues will be debated as much, if not more, outside the great assembly hall of the United Nations in bilateral and regional meetings at U.N. diplomatic missions and hotel suites scattered about the city.

Heads of state, government leaders and foreign ministers from 185 countries will take part in the General Debate and use the opportunity for exchanges on the periphery of the United Nations.

Yugoslavia, now a federation of Serbia and Montenegro, was suspended in 1992 and remains in international isolation. But life will be busy for the rest of the world gathered in New York.

The Visegrad group of Central Europeans is planning a session. There will be other regional meetings on Bosnia and NATO and the Middle East.

The U.S. will make another attempt to restore constructive, cooperative debate to the Middle East peace process, and will also encourage India and Pakistan to begin resolving their long-standing quarrel over Kashmir.

President Bill Clinton was having separate talks today with the prime ministers of the two countries to start the process.

He also was expected to drop by a meeting between Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and President Leonid Kuchma to greet the Ukrainian leader, who was scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly's afternoon session.

Shortly after Clinton's own speech to the Assembly, he planned to meet Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov for bilateral talks that have become a customary courtesy between the two governments.

But they may exchange more than polite greetings. A Russian Foreign Ministry official says President Boris Yeltsin gave specific instructions to Primakov for the encounter. He gave no other details. Albright was expected to be present.

Quite a lot of her time is being spent in work with Primakov. One of the first things on Albright's agenda last night was a quiet dinner with Primakov, away from the watching eyes of reporters.

They are expected to see each other almost daily at various events and end the week on Friday with another bilateral session.

On Wednesday, Primakov and Albright will take part in a multilateral review of the situation in Bosnia, following last week�s municipal elections, and on Thursday there are more official dinners and luncheons for groups of U.N. delegates that include the U.S. and Russia.

An important event for the two countries is a Friday meeting of the NATO-Russia Joint Permanent Council -- the first session with the 17 foreign ministers of the Council's member states since it was founded in Paris in May.

NATO officials say the agenda is expected to include a discussion of NATO-Russia military cooperation in Bosnia, as well as nuclear safety and arms control issues. Bosnia is expected to figure prominently on the agenda because of Russia's unhappiness with what Moscow officials say is a lack of consultation on military peacekeeping issues.

But some of the bilateral government exchanges will actually deal with U.N. matters. U.S. proposals for reform are opposed by most U.N. member states and U.S. officials say they will lobby hard this year to gain backing for their suggestions.

Two-thirds of the members are developing nations that are reluctant to pick up the financial burden of dues and peacekeeping operations the U.S. wants to shed. And many resent the U.S. for continuing to owe $1.5 million in arrears. The U.S. is contesting that figure and says it is less.

The U.S. Congress has refused to release the money, citing waste and inefficiencies, as well as an overlarge bureaucracy in the world body.

Since U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan made a commitment to carry through the reforms, the U.S. Congress has said it will release most of the arrears funds but only on condition that the U.S. contribution to the U.N. budget be reduced from 25 percent to 20 percent and its share of peacekeeping expenses be cut from more than 30 percent to 25 percent.

Annan is expected to make an unusual personal appeal to the Assembly to support a reform plan calling for staff reductions and consolidation of U.N. operations.

U.S. ideas for expanding the U.N. Security Council have also generated controversy. Italy opposes proposals to give Germany and Japan permanent seats on the Council because it is being left out.

And a U.S. proposal to add three more rotating seats has sparked a competition among countries that fear if they don't get a voice on the Council in this reform process, they may have to wait another 50 years or so for a new round of reforms.

The UN Security Council currently consists of five permanent members with the power of veto -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. Ten non-permanent members are elected for two-year terms.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry says Clinton will reflect broadly about "the opportunities that globalization presents in the post-Cold War era and how we can work together to address the common problems we face."

Clinton's speech to the UN today was not expected to delve deeply into these issues.