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UN: Deja Vu At General Assembly -- Bush, Iraq, And Terrorism Top The Agenda

  • Robert McMahon

The UN General Assembly's annual meeting of world leaders convenes next week amid critical talks on the future of Iraq. The expected presence of U.S. President George W. Bush is seen by some as validation of the UN's relevance, called into question by Bush and other U.S. officials in the run-up to the war in Iraq. But the organization is likely to face calls for reform, as well as a reappraisal of its approach to global threats.

New York, 18 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The crowded agenda for this autumn's UN General Assembly session is set to cover everything from deep-ocean fisheries to weapons in outer space.

But for a second straight year, the issues of Iraq, terrorism, and security are sure to dominate the assembly's program as its high-level meetings get under way.

The two-week debate of world leaders is to begin on 23 September with an address by U.S. President George W. Bush (about 1630 Prague time). Bush's speech last September helped break an impasse over UN weapons inspections in Iraq and raised expectations that Baghdad would be disarmed through UN-backed measures.

At last report, Bush was due to spend parts of 23 and 24 September in New York engaged in discussions on Iraq's post-Hussein transition and other security issues.

Some see his appearance as vindication for the United Nations, which Bush administration officials said risked irrelevancy by failing to act against Iraq.

The UN undersecretary-general for communications, Shashi Tharoor, sees parallels in the Kosovo crisis four years ago. The UN was given a lead role in Kosovo after being bypassed ahead of the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Tharoor tells RFE/RL that the UN's relevance must be seen from a broader perspective: "In many ways, what we've seen in previous occasions, as well -- and the Kosovo crisis comes to mind -- is that the UN may often be seen as irrelevant to the prosecution of a war but is fundamentally relevant to the ensuing peace."

Bush's speech will be crucial for marshaling support for the U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq, as well as continuing efforts at battling terrorism and the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. officials are revising a resolution that would spell out the process of returning authority to an interim Iraqi administration. France and Germany are seeking a stronger UN role in Iraq's political transition.

International law experts such as Anne-Marie Slaughter see the president's appearance at the UN as a victory for the multilateral-minded members of his administration. But she also says Washington's ongoing engagement with the UN has been overlooked.

"I don't think there's been an inconsistency [in the U.S. position] if you think that the United Nations has always been political, and there's always been disagreement, and no great power is willing to say, 'I will not defend my vital interests if the UN says I can't,'" she said. "On the other hand, and this is a paradox, there's greater willingness to really work with the UN, to work with [UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan, to work on a reform agenda than there has been in the first 40 years of organization."

Bush's speech is expected to focus on terrorism and national security. But he should also focus on issues of more immediate concern to many states, like health, education, and poverty, says Slaughter, who is dean of Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"In the Bush national security strategy -- it's 25 pages -- only about five are devoted to the pre-emption doctrine," says Slaughter. "The rest is about trade and aid, and the American administration would do well to lead with that because there is real commitment in Washington, but the dialogue has been captured by the security dimensions."

Thomas Pickering is a former high-level State Department official who once served as UN ambassador for the United States. He says Bush's visit takes on added meaning with the start of campaigns leading to next year's presidential elections.

Bush is seen as having to balance the concerns of supporters who resent the UN's opposition to the Iraq war with those pressing for international burden-sharing on Iraq's reconstruction.

Pickering tells RFE/RL that Bush's speech will be a test case for how Washington wishes to engage the UN in Iraq.

"How he handles the UN in connection with the oncoming electoral season in the United States will be seen as a kind of bellwether as to where he wants to go and how he will deal with questions," Pickering said. "Is it, in fact, a ratification of United States disinterest or is there a kind of second chance on Iraq that he wants to pursue? Most recent actions by the United States indicate that at least there is serious interest in a second chance."

The General Assembly debate, which expects to attract about 90 heads of state and government, is also likely to generate pressure for reform of UN bodies. Secretary-General Kofi Annan signaled earlier this month he would call for realignment of bodies such as the General Assembly and Security Council.

The assembly controls the budget and general programming of the United Nations. Its resolutions are not binding but are considered to reflect the will of the international community. However, it is widely seen as following ineffective, outdated procedures.

Diplomats have complained that this year's 173-item agenda is unwieldy and incoherent.

Another UN chamber, the Economic and Social Council, has been criticized for permitting regional groups to nominate poor candidates to bodies like the UN Human Rights Commission. Libya chaired the commission last spring, in a widely ridiculed move.

There has also been debate for years about reforming the Security Council, which can issue binding measures and authorize use of force. The council, maligned over its inability to resolve the Iraq crisis, has faced calls for expanding its membership -- which consists of five permanent and 10 nonpermanent members -- and making its work more transparent.

Annan last week said there is an urgent need for UN members to come together to define priorities and appropriate actions: "We all agree that there are new threats or rather that old challenges have resurfaced in new and more virulent forms. What we don't seem to agree is what exactly they are, or how to respond, or even whether the response should be a collective one."

One of Annan's chief campaigns, the fight to eradicate HIV/AIDS, will be the focus of an all-day debate on 22 September.

For international law expert Slaughter, the growing spotlight on UN Security Council activities is proof of its relevancy. She says the Security Council has emerged from the Cold War period as the main forum for world powers to settle security questions, just as the UN Charter intended.

"What I think we're seeing are the birth pains of the UN playing a role that is much closer to the role that was actually envisaged for it," Slaughter said. "We tend to forget that when the [UN] Charter was drafted in 1945, it was a very realist document."

Slaughter says there appears to be a sense that the world is addressing a new range of threats -- in areas of security, health, and economics -- with a set of institutions and rules developed for the post-1945 world. Those rules need to be updated, she says, but it is unclear whether there can be multilateral agreement to do so.

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