New York is set to host its first major international event since 11 September when the UN General Assembly opens its long-delayed general debate tomorrow. Terrorism will be the dominant theme, as U.S. President George W. Bush promised recently, but a series of meetings alongside the debate will attempt to tackle issues ranging from Middle East violence to the future of Afghanistan. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 9 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last year the United Nations made history by hosting the largest-ever gathering of world leaders. This weekend, many leaders will be back for the General Assembly's annual debate, but amid historic security measures.
Large trucks have blocked off the avenue in front of UN headquarters in New York since the terrorist attacks two months ago at the city's World Trade Center, about 10 kilometers away. U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels ply New York's East River, inspecting the waterfront that borders the other side of the UN complex.
As in previous years, hundreds of police and security officials from various agencies are being deployed throughout the site. But a recent statement from suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden criticizing the United Nations has put authorities on special alert.
Inside the General Assembly chamber, U.S. President George W. Bush will be one of the first speakers in the week-long debate, which begins tomorrow. He has said he will focus on rallying support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
The debate is expected to be a catalyst for more countries to sign UN counterterrorism conventions, including a key treaty on suppressing the financing of terrorism. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard told reporters yesterday that the antiterrorism effort offers the opportunity for renewed cooperation in UN peace-building initiatives: "After 11 September, all nations are rethinking their security policies and the secretary-general [Kofi Annan] has sensed a keener interest on the part of almost all countries to work more closely together."
Eckhard said many member states are hoping that intensive talks on the sidelines of the assembly debate could lead to progress on a return to negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat are to address the assembly, but there are no plans for a meeting between the two. U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday ruled out a meeting between Bush and Arafat, saying Arafat has not taken serious steps to lower the level of violence by Palestinians.
A new European Union peace initiative for the Middle East was expected to come up in the sideline discussions.
Eckhard says Annan has also been trying to arrange bilateral meetings to help spur progress on a number of other long-lasting disputes, including Kashmir and Cyprus.
Bush, meanwhile, is due to meet tomorrow with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who has provided crucial assistance in the U.S.-led campaign against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda terrorist bases in Afghanistan. Bush will also holds bilateral talks with presidents of African and Latin American nations as well as Annan.
A past member of the White House National Security Council, Gary Sick, told RFE/RL that Bush's first appearance before the UN Assembly -- coming amid antiterrorism fervor -- opens up possibilities for the U.S. to develop new ties with a range of nations: "I do think that right now this will be a very interesting moment for certainly the United States to explore new sorts of relationships with a number of other countries, taking off on the issue of terrorism."
Sick said UN Security Council resolution 1373, passed on 28 September, provides a solid, practical basis for UN members to work together on terrorism issues. The resolution requires UN members to help track down terrorists and cut off political and financial support for them. Sick says the U.S. leaders in New York can begin to explore how far they aim to push the war on terrorism.
Sick, who directs the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, also sees opportunities for improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations. He expects no direct meetings involving Iranian President Khatami and U.S. officials, but the two countries' mutual interests will be highlighted during the UN session.
This is especially true of the UN-led efforts to devise a post-Taliban government that serves all Afghans. A meeting on 12 November of Afghanistan's six neighbors (China, Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan), plus Russia and the United States (commonly called the "six-plus-two" group), will hear a proposal from UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on how to move ahead on the political front. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi will sit at the same table, although no bilateral talks between the two are planned.
Sick says the two countries have the basis for at least tacit cooperation, in part due to their mutual support for the Northern Alliance opposition in Afghanistan: "Iran is positioning itself at the present time -- at least part of its government is positioning itself -- to say that they support a worldwide campaign against terrorism, that they are prepared to cooperate as much as they possibly can through the UN, not with the United States, and they are quite aware of the fact that the United States and Iran share some very specific interests in this region."
Khatami met late yesterday with Annan. UN spokesman Eckhard says Iran has become a key member of the effort to bring about a lasting political solution for Afghanistan: "Iran is one of the six-plus-two group on Afghanistan and is a pivotal player, I would say, in our efforts to get not only the Afghan parties but the Afghan neighbors all pulling in the same direction."
One key U.S.-Iranian dispute not likely to be resolved soon involves Iran's support for Lebanon's Hezbollah group and the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
That support has caused Washington to place Iran on an official list -- compiled before 11 September -- of countries promoting terrorism. Iran has said the groups are fighting a legitimate struggle for liberation from Israeli occupation, a stance backed by a number of Arab states.