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UN: General Assembly To Start New Year

Feinstein says Kofi Annan (pictured) will be remembered as a great secretary-general (epa) NEW YORK, September 8, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN General Assembly opens its 61st session on September 12 in New York. The order of business for the upcoming 12 months includes the election of a new secretary-general as Kofi Annan steps down following 10 years at the helm.

Also on the agenda are several issues that so far have defied repeated UN attempts to address them, including the Iran nuclear crisis, global terrorism, and Darfur. For a look ahead to the highlights of the new session, RFE/RL correspondent Nikola Krastev spoke to Lee Feinstein, an expert on the UN at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

RFE/RL: What will be the dominant directions in the work of the 61st session of the UN General Assembly?

Lee Feinstein: I would assume that four issues will dominate. One is Lebanon, [another is] Darfur, [third is] terrorism since it will be the fifth anniversary of September 11, and [fourth is] who the next [UN] secretary-general is going to be. I guess that will also add Iran and presumably my guess is that the [UN] Security Council will not reach agreement on sanctions.

RFE/RL: As you say, Kofi Annan has been at the helm of the UN for 10 years and now he will be leaving soon, at the end of this year. What will be his legacy?
"I think Annan will be seen as somebody who has been a strong voice for individual human rights, for the promotion and advance of democracy, for the principle of state responsibility."

Feinstein: Any secretary-general or any head of an organization who's been in charge for that long, particularly a political leader which the secretary-general certainly is, has his share of scrapes and bruises and scandal. And Annan has had all of those things. But I think he will have a positive legacy.

Certainly from an American perspective -- and I would say much more broadly from an international perspective -- he's been an important figure who has helped move the institution from a Cold War framework, from a very state-centered framework, from a framework which focused on a narrow, hard, traditional security issues, to a framework that focuses much more on individual [rights], on importance of government accountability, the importance of democracy in accomplishing the goals and aims of the UN, to the importance of the UN being effective in peacekeeping and genocide prevention, and also for the UN to play a much bigger role in a variety of soft-security issues like HIV/AIDS prevention, like dealing with malaria, like dealing with poverty.

So I think Annan will be seen as somebody who has been a strong voice for individual human rights, for the promotion and advance of democracy, for the principle of state responsibility. That legacy will be clouded to an extent by his weaknesses as a manager but I think in the scheme of things he will be seen as an important secretary-general, and a secretary-general who moved the institution from one era to another and created a basis for a UN that can effectively manage 21st-century challenges.

RFE/RL: What kind of a leader is most likely to succeed Annan?

Feinstein: It's very hard to say. Supposedly it's the turn of the Asia chair, its mainly men who are in the running. What I would like to see for the next secretary-general is a doer.

I think that the direction has been very well set by Annan in terms of what countries' responsibilities are to their own citizens and what countries' responsibilities are toward one another. What I think now needs to happen is somebody who can work effectively with the differing interests at the UN, to build an institution that can begin to deliver on some of these principles.

RFE/RL: Is there a possibility that a non-Asian candidate may be selected?

Feinstein: I don't think it's impossible, I think there has yet to emerge a candidate that is such a strong and popular figure that the P5 [the five permanent members of the Security Council] are prepared to rally around that person. To my knowledge there's yet to emerge a figure that has won a strong support from the United States or any other of the P5, so it's all still very much up in the air.

RFE/RL: There was speculation that former U.S. President Bill Clinton may be interested in the job but at the same time there is a rule that the UN secretary-general should not be a citizen of a P5 country. Is that so?

Feinstein: It's not a rule per se, but yes, the tradition is that the P5, which has veto power in the Security Council, does not put forward its own candidates as secretary-general because of the perception in reality that you would like somebody in that role who would represent a different constituency which isn't already very well represented and empowered in the Security Council.

Bill Clinton has himself said that he's not interested in the job and his wife [U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton] may be interested in another job [the U.S. presidency], and his [possible] decision to serve as the secretary-general of the UN would greatly complicate that. But he would be a fabulous secretary-general, but I don't think it will happen.

RFE/RL: The United States is often criticized for allegedly using its influence and financial might over the UN budget to push forward agendas that alienate UN members in certain parts of the world. Are we increasingly seeing the UN do the bidding of the United States as it enters its 61st year?

Feinstein: I think that the United States actually is very ineffective at using the United Nations [because it] does not prioritize the United Nations in its foreign policy. And in truth there are a number of small governments which for good or ill are much more effective at leveraging the UN to advance goals that they support.

Pressure to enlarge the number of permanent Security Council members is growing (CTK file photo)

But I think that the criticism that you cited reflects a view of a growing in a large number of countries, which is that the UN essentially does the bidding of the United States. I think an effective U.S. ambassador [to the UN] and an effective American administration would take that quite seriously because there are a lot of times when the UN can do certain things that the United States on its own can't do.

RFE/RL: There is also considerable resentment in some parts of the world over the exclusive veto powers reserved for the five permanent members of the Security Council. Could that arrangement change in the future? Could we one day see the P5 losing their veto power or, alternatively, the number of veto-wielding countries being increased?

Feinstein: I don't see a circumstance in which the permanent five members would give up a veto [power], nor do I see a circumstance in which a permanent member would be enthusiastic about giving the veto [power] to additional countries. What I can imagine is a circumstance in which the Security Council membership grows from 15 to some other number and where the exercise of the veto becomes much rarer, I can imagine that. What that would take -- I don't know.

But as India becomes an even stronger economy and begins to play a larger role, it will be harder and harder to deny it a [permanent] seat on the Security Council whether with or without a veto [power]. And I think the same is probably true for Brazil and possibly Japan. I think [that] Germany may have missed its moment because its relative importance in the world is declining.

RFE/RL: Finally, there has been much attention in past years to the need for reforms within the UN system itself -- to combat waste and build credibility. Those issues will carry on into the 61st session, but where does the progress stand now?
"I think that the United States actually is very ineffective at using the United Nations [because it] does not prioritize the United Nations in its foreign policy."

Feinstein: The reforms that are within the authority of the secretariat of the UN, the reforms that the secretary-general himself can do, have made some pretty significant progress in terms of oversight responsibilities, whistleblower protection, some reforms of the way the UN audits its own work, that has been positive. In terms of reforms that require agreement among the member states, the progress has been slower.

There have been a couple of more or less positive developments, one of which is the creation of the Peace Building Commission, which exists primarily to better coordinate reconstruction and stabilization assistance for countries emerging from conflict where there has recently been a peacekeeping agreement, that's been positive.

There's a new Human Rights Council, which replaces the old discredited Human Rights Commission. The new council is better than what existed before [but] not as good as could have been or should have been. [There] seems to be a fixation on certain countries' human rights records and a lot of silence about human rights records in other places and that is disappointing. But it's still very early and I wouldn't want to prejudge.

UN Human Rights Council

UN Human Rights Council

UN General Assembly delegates applaud the creation of the UN Human Rights Council on March 15, 2006 (epa)

A FRESH START ON HUMAN RIGHTS: The United Nations General Assembly on May 9 elected members to its new Human Rights Council, a step that reformers hope will help improve the United Nations' sullied record on defending human rights. The UN's old human rights watchdog -- the Commission on Human Rights -- had long been criticized for granting membership to countries with dismal human rights records, such as Cuba, Sudan and Zimbabwe.
Every member of the new body has to pledge to promote human rights. (more)


General Assembly Votes To Create New Rights Council
Vote On Human Rights Council In Limbo Over U.S. Objections
At 60, UN Gripped By Debate on Human Rights Reform


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