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UN: General Assembly President Discusses Prospects For Progress

  • Robert McMahon

The president of the current session of the UN General Assembly is Harri Holkeri, a no-nonsense Finn with a reputation as a consensus builder. In an interview with UN correspondent Robert McMahon, Holkeri discusses the prospects for progress during the Millennium Assembly.

United Nations, 31 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The president of this year's Millennium Assembly, former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri, officiates over an agenda packed with ambitious goals.

There is a vow to attack diseases and poverty and a real opportunity to enact reforms to strengthen and expand UN peacekeeping. There is a new effort to change the composition of the UN Security Council. There is a chance to establish a mechanism for limiting the proliferation of small arms.

In one of Holkeri's first addresses, he called on the Millennium Assembly to work in a spirit of partnership and abandon the "us-versus-them" mind-set of past years. He then notified all 189 UN missions that he expected General Assembly sessions to start on time, or risk wasting the organization's money.

Holkeri told our correspondent in an interview that he was merely exercising what he called "the noble art of punctuality."

"It saves money. It had been counted that if every meeting in the General Assembly, plenary meetings and committee meetings, start 10 minutes late, the total cost on an annual basis would be $800,000. Why not use that money for other purposes? Why not be punctual?"

So far, meetings have been held in a timely manner.

September's Millennium Summit -- the largest gathering of world leaders in history -- pledged to pursue a wide range of actions outlined by Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The role of the General Assembly president in coaxing consensus out of member states could be crucial to the success of the summit's goals.

Holkeri has a reputation in Finland for building coalitions and forging policy among different political factions during nearly four decades of public service. As prime minister between 1987 and 1991, he headed a coalition government based on cooperation between the Conservative and Social Democratic parties.

He will need to draw on this experience to seek progress on some of the UN's more intractable issues. For example, reform of the UN Security Council has been on the agenda for seven years, yet there is little sign of consensus on reforming a body that has changed very little in the past 50 years.

There is general agreement that there needs to be an expansion of the council, including more permanent members. But there has been resistance to some or all of the choices proposed -- Germany, Japan, India, Brazil, and Nigeria or South Africa.

There is also controversy over the use of the veto. Some countries want it abolished, while others say it should be limited to existing permanent members. Holkeri says all possible scenarios are well known but it is time for big decisions to be made.

"All possible ideas and all possible details are already on the table. So it's now a question how and if these details can be put together. There are strong feelings, there are member states already somewhat impatient and then there are others who are reluctant, but somehow this question must be dealt with."

The assembly this autumn has also been discussing ways of controlling the illicit trade in small arms and hopes to prepare some specific targets for a UN conference on small arms scheduled for next summer.

Holkeri has some background in the issue. From 1995 to 1998, he was a member of an international group set up by the United Kingdom and Ireland on the issue of decommissioning illegal weapons in Northern Ireland. He saw the prevalence of small arms in Northern Ireland and says it was clear that calling for disarmament was not enough to provide for lasting peace.

Holkeri says it is more effective to decommission weapons because it involves a voluntary commitment to seek settlements through negotiations rather than force.

"When I was in Northern Ireland I really saw how easy it was to buy illegal weapons from the market and how easily they are financed. So you need the will of the people that they really see that the political settlement is better than any kind of violence or force."

If the General Assembly was able to at least partly stop the flow of illegal arms, Holkeri says, many lives would be saved.

UN membership has grown rapidly in the past decade, helped in part by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Holkeri was a longtime member of the Board of Governors of Finland's central bank and has closely followed the efforts of the former communist nations to reform their economies.

He is critical of some countries for attempting to, in his words, plan a market economy. He did not name specific countries but says the those with the most painful economic transitions are the ones still attempting to plan their economies.

But he praised the efforts of Estonia, which he says through boldness has helped put itself in the forefront of countries seeking membership in the European Union.

"When introducing their own currency, the krone, they strengthened their economy and got a good start. Of course, they are moving on the brink all the time but on the right side of the brink. "

Holkeri says he's also encouraged by events in Yugoslavia and is looking forward to it taking part in General Assembly activities after an eight-year absence.

But the resurgent violence in the Middle East poses a grave new challenge for the United Nations. The Security Council has passed resolutions in October condemning Israel for excessive force against demonstrators. But Holkeri insists the solution is in the hands of the Israeli and Palestinian leadership. He says there is little the United Nations can do.

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