Amid fresh calls for collective political will, reform, and dialogue, the world's leaders gather today for a summit that seeks to define the goals of the new millennium. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports that globalization has emerged as a key theme at the outset of three days of their debates.
United Nations, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Three days of speeches, meetings and special events involving 150 world leaders begin today (Wednesday) amid hopes that the United Nations will be invested with a fresh sense of purpose at the start of the new millennium.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has set out an agenda for this Millennium Summit with ambitious goals in areas such as massive poverty reduction and the reversal of the AIDS epidemic. There will also be discussion among the world powers of reforms in peacekeeping and changing the composition of the UN Security Council to make it more representative.
Annan told reporters yesterday (Tuesday) that as the main forum for global debate, the UN could also be the main instrument for global progress.
"I have no illusions that a single summit in itself can change the world. But I believe this meeting provides a unique opportunity for leaders to renew our mission and our purpose."
U.S. President Bill Clinton will be the first of 66 today's scheduled speakers, each of whom has been limited to a five minutes in his address. Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the fifth speaker and afterward he is due to meet with Clinton. They are to discuss issues that include the situation in the Balkans and Afghanistan, arms control, and what U.S. officials describe as concerns about press freedom.
Other speakers today include the heads of state of Macedonia, Latvia, Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The United States is the UN's largest financial contributor and has been engaged in talks to reform the world body, including a reduction in its membership fees. But this has drawn some criticism from members upset at the U.S. failure to pay current dues, which amount to more than $1 billion. A range of activities, from paying peacekeeping to renovating UN headquarters, are dependent on U.S. funds.
U.S. National Security Adviser Sandy Berger indicated on Tuesday that UN reform would be a key issue for the United States at this summit.
"The basic question underlying the discussions over these three days will be essentially how we reconcile, as an international community, the growing need for global collective action with the still real inadequacies of the United Nations as an instrument for collective action. How do we improve the not only the collective sense of priorities, but also the collective machinery for meeting those priorities."
Part of that collective machinery is the UN General Assembly, often criticized for being an obstacle to meaningful change at the world body. The assembly opened its 55th session yesterday by adding its 189th member, the Pacific Island of Tuvalu, and welcoming a new president, former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri.
In his opening address, Holkeri said it is understandable to have some partisanship and political maneuvering in the General Assembly. But he called on member states to cooperate to help the organization face the challenges ahead.
"There are genuine differences in member states' interests and world views. However, the General Assembly can lose its effectiveness if this turns into a stifling block mentality and an 'us-versus-them' mind-set. During this Millennium Assembly, I plead to member states to work in the spirit of partnership and solidarity."
Like other speakers yesterday, Holkeri spoke of the need to harness the world's stunning technological advances for the hundreds of millions of its less privileged people.
Also yesterday, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami presided over a session at UN headquarters devoted to what was billed as a "dialogue of civilizations" dedicated to peacemaking and creating deeper cultural bonds among nations. Khatami also cited the role of technology and globalization. He said new technology can bind different civilizations together and form a dialogue between developing and developed regions.
Annan has repeatedly discussed the impact of globalization as a main theme of this summit. His recently concluded "global compact" with leading world businesses is an attempt to harness the influence of private firms, some more powerful than member states, in tackling problems such as poverty and humanitarian crises.
Some civil society organizations have criticized Annan's outreach to companies accused in the past of being polluters and human rights violators. But Annan says his compact makes sense by committing the growing global business sector to UN standards in areas such as labor practices, human rights and environmental protection.
"We all have to accept -- whether we like it or not -- that the business world and the private sector [have] enormous power in today's world. They are the ones who are creating wealth. They are the ones who have the money, the technology, and the management to carry forward quite a lot of the things that we are talking about."
Another neglected voice in the global debate is that of women. There are currently nine women heads of state or government in the world, and the entire group met yesterday in New York to discuss issues they would like to address at the summit. The issues include better access to education for girls, combating violence against women, and a bigger role for women in peacemaking initiatives.
One woman head of state, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, said the meeting was a sign of progress of sorts. But she told reporters she looks forward to the day when women heads of state are not so uncommon. She said progress for women, like many other long-standing challenges, is within the capability of UN members to achieve. But she stressed political will needs to be mustered.
"In the years of its existence, the United Nations has managed to convince its constituency that it's to the benefit of all to have the widest possible dissemination of the sorts of standards -- of living, of security of opportunity, of economic security -- that the more advanced nations have. We do have a clear idea of what we'd like to achieve. It's a matter of overcoming the obstacles that prevent us from doing it."
Among the many bilateral and multilateral sideline meetings taking place in New York today will be a gathering of heads of state of the GUUAM Group -- Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine.