As the United Nations prepares for its busiest month of the year, three of its main decision-making chambers are under the presidency of East European representatives. This is mainly a matter of coincidence and geographical rotation, but it provides diplomats from the region an opportunity to display their skills in a high-profile setting and help shape an agenda crowded with issues ranging from terrorism to sustainable development.
United Nations, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When the United Nations General Assembly opens its 57th session next week, a former Czech foreign minister will strike the opening gavel and introduce speakers.
In the smaller confines of the UN Security Council, a Bulgarian representative will preside over meetings that explore Iraqi weapons inspections and discuss the 11 September terrorist attacks.
Croatia's UN ambassador, meanwhile, will be directing the work of the Economic and Social Council as it follows up the world summit on sustainable development that concluded yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa.
A rare conjunction of schedules has provided Eastern European diplomats with the opportunity to guide discussions in the three main UN organs during the same month. Though the positions are in many ways ceremonial, presidents of these organs can distinguish themselves, and their countries, by the way they guide discussions, meet timetables, and address the public.
The former Czech foreign minister, Jan Kavan, elected this summer to serve as General Assembly president for the next 12 months, acknowledges the coincidence involved in having three diplomats from his region reaching these posts at the same time. But he tells RFE/RL it is also an indication of how far the former communist states have progressed as states in transition: "It is an acknowledgement of the way, of the path they have progressed since 1989. It's a coincidence, but I think it's an illustrative one. It indicates that we are now part of the world's democratic family and that's a good thing."
Bulgaria's UN ambassador, Stefan Tafrov, this week assumed the presidency of the Security Council, a title that rotates monthly. Bulgaria began its two-year term on the 15-member council in January, after winning a competition against Belarus within its regional grouping at the UN. It is an important role for Bulgaria at a time when it is seeking membership in NATO and fostering hopes for eventually joining the European Union.
Tafrov tells RFE/RL that Bulgaria brings to the council the perspective of a country committed to political and economic reforms, institution building, and human rights. Countries from elsewhere in the world, Tafrov says, have taken note of the challenges undertaken by nations in transition and have noticed their emergence: "They can see a new assertiveness coming from Central and Eastern Europe which is very welcome, which is a very constructive one, a very positive one. It strengthens the UN."
Croatia's UN ambassador, Ivan Simonovic, took over the presidency of the 54-member Economic and Social Council -- known as ECOSOC -- earlier this year. The council coordinates the work of numerous UN special agencies in fields such as development, education, health, and human rights.
ECOSOC, among other duties, is charged with trying to produce concrete commitments from the pledges made by members at major conferences such as this year's Monterrey summit on financing for development and the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development.
Simonovic told the "UN Chronicle" publication earlier this year that transitional states like Croatia share some of the experiences of developing countries as well as the goals of developed countries. This helps Croatia, he said, understand the problems of many member states and makes it a credible partner in dialogue.
Whether acting as Security Council spokesman or pressing an agenda through the General Assembly or ECOSOC, presidential figures can make an impact, says Jeffrey Laurenti, a senior analyst with the United Nations Association, an independent think tank that closely follows UN affairs: "Basically these are showcase positions. Basically these are positions, where you can, by a graceful style, get more attention and help steer agendas. These are also positions where you can also have a negative effect by being arbitrary, by being timid, by being abrasive."
Bulgaria's Tafrov said one priority of his government in the Security Council this month was to pay proper attention to the security situation in the former Yugoslavia. There are two public meetings scheduled -- today on Kosovo and on 24 September on Bosnia -- that will focus on developments ahead of elections next month in both entities.
Tafrov says Bosnia and Kosovo have benefited from UN engagement as well as the attention of the nearby EU countries, which have an interest in the stability of Southeastern Europe. But in countries such as Afghanistan, East Timor, and Sierra Leone, he says, the Security Council has taken broader responsibility for areas of peace building not imagined by those who put together the UN Charter.
The UN system, Tafrov says, requires a more comprehensive approach to preventing and solving conflicts. At present, he says, the council is not in a position to provide peace-building support for long periods of time for weak states: "Every day we are working on the edge of our mandate for very understandable reasons because otherwise, our efforts and the resources committed can be lost. We need a better mechanism for peace building."
The General Assembly, too, has a crowded agenda. This autumn's session under Kavan's presidency has 168 agenda items. They include the admission of new members East Timor and Switzerland, the financing of peacekeeping missions, and a convention against the reproductive cloning of human beings.
Pervading the work of the assembly as well as the Security Council will be the topic of terrorism. The council has scheduled a special high-level meeting on 11 September to mark the anniversary of last year's attacks and discuss antiterrorism efforts.
The assembly will renew efforts to reach a consensus on a definition of terrorism to improve the effectiveness of international conventions. UN members have clashed this year on the issue in the context of the Middle East, where the Palestinian attacks against Israelis have been defended by some as legitimate resistance and criticized by others as terrorism.