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Western Press Review: UN General Assembly Dominated By Talk Of Iraq, Abkhazia's 'Forgotten' War

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 24 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much media analysis focuses on events at the UN yesterday, as world leaders addressed the UN General Assembly. A speech by U.S. President George W. Bush has drawn particular comment, described in terms ranging from "defiant" to "unmoving." Remarks by French President Jacques Chirac were also significant, as Paris and Washington failed to settle their differences over a timetable for a transfer of power in Iraq.

Also discussed today are the rights of women in Afghanistan, drafting rules for pre-emptive war, the "forgotten" conflict in Abkhazia, and the new restrictions on Iraqi broadcasters.


Steven Weisman of "The New York Times" says world leaders appeared "unmoved" by U.S. President George W. Bush's address to the UN General Assembly yesterday.

Bush defended the decision to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, building his speech "around the theme that the war in Iraq was a chapter in the campaign against terrorism being waged to avenge the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon," as well as terrorist attacks in Kenya, Morocco, Riyadh, Indonesia, and Israel.

But Weisman says many world leaders continue to view the Iraq invasion as "a dangerous act of unilateralism now beset by intractable problems." Some "seemed to perceive an American president weakened by plunging approval ratings at home [and] facing a tough security situation in Iraq."

"Nor did they seem eager to help," says Weisman. "If anything, they appeared more skeptical than ever of Mr. Bush's assertions" and were "unforthcoming" in response to his appeals for assistance in the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq.

Bush also called for UN aid in drafting an Iraqi constitution, building democratic institutions and overseeing eventual elections. But his vision for UN involvement fell well short of the overarching role desired by nations such as France and Germany.

In his own remarks to the Assembly, French President Jacques Chirac "was no less apologetic opposing the war than Mr. Bush had been in urging it." Weisman concludes that if Bush's goal was to persuade other countries to offer substantive help for the Iraq project, his speech "failed to produce any immediate results."


A lead editorial in the London-based "Times" says President Bush appeared "defiant" at the UN General Assembly yesterday, making "no apology for the war that freed Iraq of Saddam [Hussein]."

But Bush emphasized "that if Iraq were to recover, freedom were to flourish and the transition to democracy were to be guaranteed, the country needed the cash, troops, and goodwill of the world community. His General Assembly address was a call to arms," says "The Times." And it is "one to which the world should respond with no less clarity than it did a year ago when the Security Council voted unanimously to force Saddam to open Iraq to arms inspectors."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan pledged that the UN would play its "full part," calling on the international community to help in rebuilding Iraq. "The Times" predicts that "it is this realism that will, eventually, triumph in New York. No country wants the instability in Iraq to continue: even radical governments understand that a lawless land attracting every manner of terrorist with a grudge will become the source of indiscriminate violence."

Stability can be ensured "only by a rapid return to normality, law and order and economic growth." For that, the paper says, UN agencies "can be useful." And they "would be wise to heed [Bush's] call to arms and join the battle to rescue Iraq."


A "Washington Post" editorial suggests President Bush's speech to the UN General Assembly yesterday was "conspicuously" lacking in "passion, determination or vision."

Bush's defense of his decision to go to war in Iraq without Security Council approval was "perfunctory," the paper says. "He spoke one sentence about the so-far unsuccessful search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and provided no new information to an audience that last year heard him describe at great length the threat posed by those weapons. Most remarkable, Mr. Bush had nothing new to say about the struggle to stabilize Iraq and establish a new government."

The "Post" writes, "If the president's intention was to rally international support for a vital cause, [he] missed an important opportunity."

Bush's UN initiatives have been "complicated" by French President Chirac, "who has revived his prewar anti-American coalition behind the irresponsible demand for an immediate transfer of sovereignty to the unelected Iraqi Governing Council. Mr. Chirac must know his proposal is impractical; he makes it only to further complicate the U.S. mission in Iraq and thus advance his own agenda -- which [is] to deter the United States from ever acting again without the explicit approval of the Security Council, where France holds a veto."

Chirac's demand is now supported by former exiles on the Iraqi Governing Council. The "Post" says "these would-be leaders now hope to realize their frustrated ambition to assume power without the consent of Iraqis."


In discussing the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Peter Muench of the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" takes a closer look at the current president of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Ahmad Chalabi. Members of the Council are in New York this week in an attempt to claim Iraq's seat at the UN.

As head of the Iraqi Governing Council, Chalabi is ambassador to the UN only "with the grace of the U.S.," Muench says, and is not officially recognized. But he says, "This is no cause for reticence on Chalabi's part, for that is alien to his nature, and he is well aware that here on the world stage the future of his country is at stake."

As a leader of the exiled Iraqi National Congress, he was much admired and was guided and protected by the U.S. government. "As a Shi'ite with Western leanings, he seemed well suited to be the puppet of a postwar order" in Iraq, Muench says. In this respect, Chalabi has disappointed his patrons, for he has transformed from a protege of the U.S. administration into a sharp critic of the U.S.-led occupation.

"The greater the problems for the Americans in Iraq, the louder Chalabi demands their withdrawal and a transfer of power to the Iraqi people," Muench says.


Today's "Daily Telegraph" says that, in his address to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President George W. Bush successfully rebutted nations such as France who are demanding a quick transfer of power from occupation authorities to the Iraqi people.

The paper says Bush instead called for "an orderly and democratic process neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties." A "confident" Bush "did not admonish, but left his listeners in no doubt of his determination to prevail in Iraq and of his conviction that all nations of good will should contribute to this endeavor."

His speech went beyond the divisions at the UN on Iraq "to what he listed as the scourges of our age -- terrorism, weapons proliferation, HIV/AIDS, famine and the slavery of child prostitution." But the paper says just how persuasive Bush's words were will only become clear in the next few months.

Bush wants a new Security Council resolution authorizing "an expanded but not determining" UN role in Iraq. "Then he would like troop contributions from countries such as Pakistan and Turkey, and increased financial commitments from a donors' conference in Madrid next month. He may yet be disappointed in some of these ambitions," the "Telegraph" says. "But the tone of his speech suggested he thought the worst of UN obstructiveness was over."


A "New York Times" editorial says that in Afghanistan, 45 "brave women" recently drafted "an extraordinary document they have called the Afghan Women's Bill of Rights."

The first amendment "would guarantee an education. Then came health care, personal security and support of widows. Freedom of speech was number five, followed by freedom to vote, with a guarantee of constitutional rights to 'widows, disabled women and orphans' coming much later."

The paper says, "As basic as these rights sound to Western ears, they are still very much in jeopardy in Afghanistan. Violence against women has increased dramatically since the war." But these women "presented their handwritten bill of rights to President Hamid Karzai in hopes that their views will be considered as a new constitution is written over the next few months."

Afghan citizens today "increasingly fear traveling or even going outside because of a growing population of drug lords, warlords and Taliban avengers." Thus the Afghan women were "wise to demand security on a historic document. An earlier constitution provided protections for the 'human being.' Too often, that did not cover Afghan women."


The "Financial Times" says President Bush's justification yesterday for the invasion and occupation of Iraq "showed him utterly unrepentant about the U.S.'s right to wage pre-emptive unilateral war where it sees fit."

UN Secretary-General Annan "denounced the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war for rocking the foundations of UN collective security," but he also chose to respond to the fears underlying it, that of the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The "crucial question" raised by Annan is what to do if nonproliferation efforts fail.

"The classic right of states to self-defense under the UN charter might no longer be sufficient, because a WMD attack might be far more sudden and devastating than any conventional attack," the "FT" says. The secretary-general seemed to suggest the UN Security Council would consider laying out some guidelines for when "a collective pre-emptive response to such threats" might be appropriate. The European Union "has hinted at the same possibility in its recent strategy paper on security."

Part of the trouble is that "[individual] cases tend to make fools of any set criteria." In the case of Iraq, the real limitation "of pre-emptive war has been shown to be intelligence, or lack of it. Fears about WMD cannot be allowed to run ahead of the intelligence. Despite Mr. Annan's understandable quest for criteria, pre-emptive strikes and UN approval for them will have to rely on judgment and persuasion. Iraq has shown the U.S. to be lacking in both."


"The Independent's" Robert Fisk writes from Baghdad concerning the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council's decision yesterday to issue restrictions on media coverage by the Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiyah satellite television channels.

Fisk calls the new restrictions "Orwellian" and says both foreign and Iraqi news organizations can now be shut down if they, in the Council's words, "advocate the return of the Ba'ath Party or issue any statements that represent the Ba'ath [Party] directly or indirectly."

Reports then surfaced that the two Arabic channels would be punished for their alleged transgression of playing a tape purported to be of Saddam Hussein by being refused cooperation or access to Governing Council members for two weeks. They are also accused of inciting violence against the U.S. occupation and its supporters.

The media's new list of "don'ts" "provides an intriguing reflection on the 'democracy'" that U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer "wishes to bestow on Iraqis." Fisk says the specific references to the Ba'ath Party "are clearly intended to prevent Iraqis hearing Saddam's voice. The rule shows just how fearful the U.S. authorities have become of his sympathizers. After telling the world that most Iraqis are delighted with their 'liberation' and forthcoming 'democracy,' the authorities are obviously aware that many Iraqis don't feel that way at all."

Journalists must now "also inform the authorities of 'any acts of sabotage, criminal activity, terrorism or any violent action...before or after an attack takes place.' " But Fisk says journalists "do not receive advance warning of ambushes. The rule is in effect asking them to become assistants to the occupation authorities."


Writing in "The Moscow Times," Peter Rutland of Wesleyan University discusses the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia. This self-proclaimed republic "is not recognized by any state, and peaceful resolution" of the conflict with Georgia "is nowhere in sight." In 1993, Abkhazian separatists expelled Georgian forces from the province in a conflict that "went virtually unnoticed in the West, which was preoccupied with the war in Bosnia."

What little reporting there is, Rutland says, "almost invariably relies on Georgian sources and reflects the Georgian position."

Abkhazia has been resisting assimilation into neighboring states for much of the last 200 years. The 100,000 Abkhaz today "are a distinct ethnic group who speak a language unrelated to Georgian." The Abkhaz "do not want to join the Russian Federation, they want independence and self-rule. Wary of setting a precedent for Chechnya, Moscow opposes secession in principle."

Rutland says "neither Washington, nor Moscow, nor the UN should imagine that they can solve this problem without taking into account the fears of the Abkhaz and their determination to resist absorption into Georgia. [They] see an independent nation-state as the only guarantee that they will not be wiped out as a people."

And yet, says Rutland, "the world community refuses to recognize their independence and views as set in stone the national boundaries drawn by Stalin."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)