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Western Press Review: More Comment On UN Millennium Summit

  • Askold Krushelnycky

Prague, 7 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- For the second day in a row, many Western newspapers are devoting commentaries and editorials to the United Nations Millennium Summit currently being held in New York. Today, several commentators react to some of the statements made by the 150 world leaders who have already addressed the meeting.


The New York Times says that the text of final communique to be issued by the world's leaders when they end the summit tomorrow (Friday) is already known. But, it adds, there is a potential for more important decisions as leaders met behind the scenes. The paper writes in an editorial: "This 'Millennium Summit' was a gamble, organized not to celebrate a new page on the calendar but to look ahead at what kind of a global society the leaders hope to achieve in this century, if not the millennium to come. But from the start," it goes on, "everyone knew that it would go beyond that, and would probably be remembered more for the private meetings in hotel suites and diplomatic offices around town than for anything said in the cavernous hall of the [UN's] General Assembly."


Britain's Times writes that what the organizers call the biggest-ever gathering in one place of world leaders is a protocol nightmare. It says that one "problem will be stopping the guests taking offence with their hosts or each other. There are almost endless opportunities for snubs and slights as the General Assembly hall itself fills with ideological enemies. America's hate states -- Cuba, Iran and North Korea -- are all invited. Old enemies (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair and the Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, have, after a glitch in the usual alphabetical system of seat distribution, found themselves seated uncomfortably close."

The paper sums it all up by saying that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan need not worry about the future because "after the diplomatic tightrope he must walk until Friday, worldwide peace and prosperity may well seem easy goals."


U.S. President Bill Clinton's speech yesterday -- which referred to the need for international peacekeeping forces that were able to cross national borders to protect people caught up in internal conflicts -- receives a mixed reception from the Spanish press. Alfonso Armada, writing in the newspaper ABC, points out that the U.S., according to the UN, is its biggest debtor, with unpaid membership fees of some $1.7 billion.

Armada says: "The president of the only surviving superpower demanded, not without cynicism, that the UN provide the tools the organization needs to accomplish its tasks. Tools that on numerous occasions (such as during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda) were denied because of the attitude of Washington and the [UN] Security Council." He also says the U.S. debt "endangers and delays peace operations," and concludes that Clinton's address "was not the most brilliant speech in his eight years as head of the first power on earth."


But Spain's El Pais takes a better view of Clinton's performance, writing: "Clinton is already free from the obligation to satisfy his electorate, but, even so, his speech was an act of courage." The paper praises Clinton's continuing efforts to mediate a Middle East peace agreement.


In ABC, commentator Manuel Pedrahita focuses on the Middle East issue, saying the Israeli and Palestinian leaders should take the opportunity of the meeting in New York to resolve obstacles to a settlement. Pedrahita writes: "The millennium summit, full of hopes for the 21st century, should be a sufficient reason to finally face the desire for peace of Arabs and Jews. Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak, after their talks with President Clinton, should be able to contribute to the realization of these hopes of avoiding wars and conflicts." Otherwise, he warns, there will be more "confrontations and blood."


Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung discusses Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's statement that his country wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. The council is the UN's single most powerful organ, consisting of 15 members, five of which are permanent. With Germany now providing the world body's third-largest financial contribution, after the U.S. and Japan, Schroeder asked that member states participate in the UN's financial upkeep according to their "financial performance" and that the contribution's size be gauged according to a country's "capacity to pay."

The newspaper writes: "Even though the German government refrains from linking the issues in public, it sees the German contribution as justification for the permanent seat. 'Chances for success of securing world-wide peace are not helped when politically and economically substantial countries are not included in the Security Council's decision-making process,' Mr. Schroeder said."


But other commentators today argue that the summit will produce little of substance and will be just an expensive talking shop for the world's leaders. The British daily Guardian writes: "The risk, growing with every hour that passes in the three-day conference, is that this UN millennium summit will fail to match [Secretary-General] Annan's ambition." Leaders will express grand sentiments, it says, "but when the last of them leaves tomorrow, this summit will be remembered not for what it achieved but for the chances squandered."


Commentator David Rieff, writing in the Wall Street Journal Europe, says: "According to its organizers, the United Nations' Millennium Summit is the largest meeting of its kind in the organization's history. It will almost certainly be remembered as one of its most pointless. Indeed, apart from creating traffic jams of biblical proportions in New York City and security nightmares for the authorities, it is hard to imagine that anything memorable will result from this conclave of world leaders."

Rieff adds that the world body has set a too ambitious agenda for the summit and few actions of substance can be expected of an event in which about 150 leaders are expected each to speak for five minutes. He warns: "Much like the UN itself, the gathering will be irrelevant precisely because of its effort to be all-encompassing." He also says: "Ostensibly, the purpose of this meeting was to 'redefine' the UN for the new millennium. Two years in the planning, it is now clear that it will really be little more than the world body's equivalent of a corporate 'make-over' -- an attempt to jazz up a fading reputation through a bit of public-relations razz-matazz. "

Rieff is disparaging about Annan, calling him "an amiable apparatchik whose major talent seems to be in being all things to all people." He says that under Annan's leadership, there has been an appearance of reform but few real changes. He concludes: "The Millennium Summit is just the kind of exercise in hollow moral posturing that has sapped the UN's credibility. Good intentions, those famous paving stones of the road to hell, certainly do not guarantee relevance. And, born as they are out of a desire to reassert the UN's pre-eminence in world affairs, the meetings now underway in New York are only likely to further confirm the deservedly marginal role the world body will be relegated to in the new century."


One of the issues that was expected to raise the temperature at the summit was U.S. proposals for a space defense shield against missiles launched by countries considered rogue states. But President Clinton's recent decision to shelve the plans kept it from becoming a contentious issue in New York this week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested that the 40th anniversary next spring of the first manned space flight by a Russian be commemorated by an international conference on the prevention of the military uses of space. Putin reaffirmed in his speech to the UN the importance that Russia attaches to the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile, or ABM, Treaty, which Moscow says would be threatened by a new U.S. anti-missile system and could trigger a new arms race.

But one commentator, Bruce Berkowitz in the Wall Street Journal Europe, says Clinton should not pay too much attention to Russia's objections. He writes: "Everyone knows that Russia can barely maintain its current military forces. Witness the loss of the Kursk last month. There may be risks to the U.S. deploying a missile defense system, but triggering a Russian military buildup is not high on the list. And Russia has as much interest as the U.S. in preventing its neighbors from acquiring nuclear weapons."


The Los Angeles Times sees the matter differently, applauding Clinton's decision to delay a decision on the missile shield because, it says, it would have provoked an arms race in Asia with China if the projected shield covered Taiwan. The newspaper says that a decision to go ahead would have implications for other Asian states like India, Pakistan, North Korea and even Japan, which would be tempted to step up their own weapons programs. It writes: "In Asia, a sprawling, politically and ethnically diverse region, many will have good reason to assess this as one of Bill Clinton's finest moments as a world leader."


The Chicago Tribune agrees that "President Clinton's decision not to deploy a national missile defense system was the right thing to do -- far better than rushing to build a defensive weapon that has yet to prove it can work, against a threat that has yet to fully materialize." It says candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore, "ought to use this as an opportunity to engage in a spirited, substantive debate on the issue." The paper says a decision to build the system would be seen by Russia as an abrogation by the U.S. of the ABM Treaty and, it adds, "any changes to the ABM treaty ought to be negotiated with Russia, not forced down Moscow's throat."