This week marks the start of a series of high-level meetings culminating in the Millennium Summit, billed as the largest gathering of world leaders ever. UN officials say this will be a working summit -- not just a photo opportunity -- and have laid out a number of ambitious targets they hope world leaders will endorse. RFE/RL Robert McMahon reports.
United Nation, 28 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Summit fever hits New York this week, as the first series of historic gatherings begin amid hopes that, unlike other years, the international community can reach consensus on coping with its gravest problems.
The annual conference of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) starts today (Monday) and is expecting 2,000 participants from about 60 countries. Also getting underway today is a summit of religious and spiritual leaders, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 leaders of all major faiths. And on Wednesday begins a conference bringing together leaders of more than 100 parliaments, the largest meeting of its kind.
The three gatherings represent some of the diverse forces enlisted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to meet the ambitious targets he has set. As outlined four months ago, they include reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, reforming UN peacekeeping, providing basic education for all boys and girls, and lifting more than 1 billion people out of extreme poverty within 15 years.
"The overall message is that these are problems we share and that we have a common interest in solving them. And they are problems we can deal with if only we summon the will."
UN officials say about 150 heads of state or government are expected to come together for the actual summit at UN headquarters from September 6-8. Each leader is being asked to speak no more than five minutes and, in addition, will take part in a three-hour, closed-door roundtable discussion to address some of the issues Annan has raised.
This format has raised some skepticism around the UN about how productive such a summit can possibly be. But Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette told reporters that the speeches alone will give important insight to the priorities of member states.
Frechette said there will also be a number of bilateral meetings of heads of state and government. Specifics are not yet known, but she said hundreds of bilateral meetings are expected.
UN officials also note that nearly 70 states have advised the secretariat that they plan to sign or ratify a number of multilateral treaties during the three-day summit. Such treaties range from documents protecting children from prostitution to the statute for the International Criminal Court.
Frechette says she senses an increasing level of concern by member states to deal with the problems outlined by Annan.
"I think we should come out of these three days with a sense of direction. That's really what the summit should do, it should give a sense direction to this organization from which then the work of the organization should flow."
The UN Security Council has announced that it will hold a special session on September 7 with members represented by their heads of state or government. The focus of that meeting is to be peace and security in Africa, but the new expert panel's report on peacekeeping reforms is expected to be addressed as well. In addition, China has proposed that the five permanent members of the Security Council hold a special meeting.
One clear departure from previous summits at the UN is the open courting of the private sector. What Annan calls the UN's "Global Compact" with international business and civil society has had an encouraging start.
Scores of business executives representing firms in oil, mining, clothing, banking, and other sectors pledged publicly last month to adhere to UN principles in areas like labor rights and environmental protection. A number of prominent NGOs said they would monitor those pledges.
Frechette says there has been a surge in offers from the private sector to work with the United Nations in various ways.
"The corporate sector is recognizing that in an era of globalization you cannot just worry about your own bottom line, that you have to worry about the environment within which you operate, and if the environment within which you operate is chaotic, if it breeds poverty and instability, then your business will not prosper."
Annan has been saying throughout the long buildup to the Millennium Summit that governments alone cannot make change happen in an increasingly complex world. He has succeeded in attracting most of the world's leaders in the areas of politics, religion and civil society to New York to voice their commitments. The world will soon see how they act.