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Western Press Review: The UN's Millennium Summit

Prague, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of most of the United Nations' 188 member-states gathered in New York today for a three-day millennium summit meeting to debate some of the key issues facing the international body. Many Western newspapers carry commentaries assessing the 55-year-old organization's past successes and failures. They discuss what the much-criticized body needs to do in the future to make itself a more effective mechanism for promoting human rights, keeping the peace and helping to forge worldwide economic development.


The Christian Science Monitor runs a commentary by Guillaume Debre which says that one of the UN's chief tasks is to set up effective peacekeeping forces to implement what he calls the organization's "core mission to bring peace to warring nations." He writes: "Pressure is growing for a major overhaul of UN peacekeeping methods. Most of the 20 new UN operations launched this past decade -- compared with 13 in its first 40 years of existence -- have turned into fiascoes."

Recent UN failures include thousands of Muslim civilians massacred by Serb militias, genocide in Rwanda and its own ill-equipped peacekeepers being held hostage by rebels in Sierra Leone. Debre says: "The UN's reluctance to give up its notion of neutrality and to override state sovereignty prevents it from intervening efficiently in today's conflicts that have become mostly internal. The UN reluctance to resort to violence hampers its own peace operations. The lack of a military culture among UN officials, poor strategy, and weak rules of engagement often doom operations before they even start."

Debre also says that a UN plan for the creation of brigade-sized forces of 5,000 troops each that could intervene within 30 or 90 days -- depending on the complexity of the mission -- would bring the organization what it lacks the most: flexibility. He is optimistic that the scheme could work because he says that it is being prompted not only by external criticism but by the desires of those running the UN themselves.


The London Times writes in an editorial: "Special United Nations summits have a dispiriting track record. Both its 40th and 50th anniversary events are remembered chiefly for the gridlock around Turtle Bay (the New York City area where UN headquarters is located), the parties, vacuous speeches, and bad-tempered drafting committees."

But the paper is optimistic that the UN's current leader is determined that the event should be more than a pointless talking shop, writing: "Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, who sees this event as a 'stocktaking' rather than a celebration, is banking on it to give him and his secretariat a mandate to reshape the UN. He is entirely and commendably serious about seeking to cut out obscure and pointless activities, concentrating the UN's moral authority and scant funds on the small number of areas where it has a distinctive, irreplaceable contribution to make and where the extra margin of effort at global level can make a difference."

The Times believes that Annan's grand theme is that governments should see globalization not as a threat but as a force that, intelligently embraced, could lift countries out of poverty. The paper calls Annan "shrewd," saying: "He seeks support, at the highest political level, for such ideas as public-private partnerships to draw in new skills, his 'global compact' with business, and more robustly professional UN peacekeeping. The response in capitals has been positive."


In a news analysis for the French newspaper Le Monde, Afsane Basir also discusses Annan's role, saying that "from the beginning of his arrival at the head of the UN, Kofi Annan -- who was expected to make rapid and spectacular changes in the organization -- declared that ' reform is evolution, not a revolution.'" But he expresses some disquiet that, "without asking permission from them (UN member-states), the Secretary-General created a partnership with the private sector, [a partnership, the writer says] which is actually an alliance between the UN and more than 50 multinational societies." Basir says that not all UN members states are sympathetic to such an alliance, but "the openness of the UN to partners other than states is there whether we like it or not."


An editorial in the New York Times examines attitudes toward the location of UN headquarters in New York. It argues that if the UN was created today, it would likely be headquartered in Geneva or The Hague, rather than in the United States. New York was initially the UN's temporary home and other U.S. cities like San Francisco and Philadelphia competed for the distinction of being the world body's permanent host.

These days, though, according to The New York Times, many New Yorkers are not excited by the UN's presence in their city. It says: "Though the city gains cachet and, by its own estimate, more than $3 billion a year in economic activity from housing the UN, New Yorkers feel no compulsion to be grateful, or to pay a price, for the honor of being designated as the world's capital. More than a few residents think New York adds more to the UN than the world organization adds to New York."

But the newspaper writes that the long list of debates, decisions and dramas played out in the UN building have added to the city's rich history. "The constant stream of foreign leaders convening in New York, and their permanent representatives there, help to transform the city from mere financial center to world capital." And it concludes that "New York's UN campus is a fitting mirror of the city's own history as a mixing point of cultures and aspirations."


David Usborne in the British daily Independent also discusses the attitude of New Yorkers to the summit. He writes: "Perhaps Mayor Rudolph Giuliani summed up New York's love-hate relationship with the UN when he offered this observation last week about the leaders and their impending summit, 'They'll get protected better than any place in the world,' he said. 'But, as far as I am concerned, some of them I think are despicable, horrible human beings.' Welcome, in other words, to New York." Usborne goes on: "One of the people [the mayor] was referring to was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who Giuliani labeled a murderer.


Similarly, The Washington Times, in an editorial, makes clear it believes the UN "would not be worse off without the diehard Communist leader's presence." The newspaper says that whatever some leaders think about America's economic sanctions against the Communist island state, they should not forget Castro's track record of repression and the brutal nature of his regime.

The Washington Times urges that "they must continue to speak out against Fidel's repression. Fidel wasn't democratically elected and he propagates his own power through bare-knuckled coercion. He can't be allowed to pose as a legitimate ruler."


A Washington Post editorial printed in today's International Herald Tribune says that the leaders attending the UN summit should spare a few moments' thought for someone who should be one of their number but will be absent. The paper writes: "Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's rightful leader, is effectively under arrest, captive of a thuggish military regime that refuses to accept the results of an election she won a decade ago. In the past few days, the generals have tightened the screws on her and her party, jailing supporters, stealing documents and cutting off telephone connections to her house and those of her associates."

The editorial adds that the plight of the Nobel Peace laureate represents, among other things, a failure on the part of the international community that will be celebrating its achievements at the United Nations.

ABC: Spain's ABC comments that the UN is one of the most criticized organizations in the world. Nevertheless, it reminds its readers, "our earth (after World War Two) has proved to be a very inhospitable place to live in, and there was no better organization than the UN to ensure that the worst aspects did not become a habit." But, adds the paper, "if [they] want avoid an ocean of words [with no impact], the leaders [assembled in New York] should make sure that things don't stay at the stage of wonderful but unrealized plans and fascination with round numbers (that is, 2000)."

The paper predicts: "All that will emanate from the UN this week is largely hollow talk. "No one can expect anything of substance to emerge from the summit.


In Denmark, the daily Information runs a commentary by Martin Burcharth which says: "From the standpoint of the United Nations, the most significant event during the three days of the summit will be a mini-summit of the five permanent members of the Security Council [the United States, Russia, France, Britain, and China]. Kofi Annan." he adds, "hopes to set off a serious debate about wide-ranging reforms of both the UN's peacekeeping forces and the way they operate. The idea is to create a system whereby the expenses of the UN peacekeeping operations is covered in a more just fashion." And he writes further: "The UN will try to convince the United States, which is formally obliged to pay as much as 30 percent of the UN's expenses, to repay a debt of $1.4 billion as soon as possible."

But Burcharth agrees with Spain's ABC, concluding: "The mini-summit aside, no one can expect anything of substance -- just talk -- to emerge from the summit."

(RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego in Prague and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report)