Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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A defining moment

By Hani Shukrallah

The largest ever gathering of heads of state and governments opened at the UN headquarters in New York yesterday with 150 heads of state and government, five vice-presidents, three crown princes, including Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, three "highest ranking officials", including Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, four deputy prime ministers, including Iraq's Tarek Aziz and 11 top ranking ministers, including Egypt's Foreign Minister Amr Moussa in attendance. The summit opened against a backdrop spelling out "We the people," the first words of the 1945 UN Charter and the title of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's report on "The role of the UN in the 21st Century."

Accompanied by predictably large delegations as well as a huge media pack (some 2,500 reporters were given accreditation for the event, according to the UN Secretariat), the descent of so many world leaders brought havoc to the host city. Hundreds of policemen have been deployed, roads have been sealed to the public and bus routes diverted while road blocks and police checkpoints seem to stretch out for miles from around the UN headquarters causing the inevitable traffic jams. And, of course, there were demonstrations, the largest of which, on the summit's eve, Tuesday, was staged by Iran's perennial political exiles, for whom the significant presence of President Mohamed Khatami at the summit was an occasion to express their anger at the Islamist regime.

Surprisingly perhaps, the pandemonium had a relaxed and easygoing feel about it. The heavy police presence on the streets -- unusual in a first world city -- seemed both efficient and benign. There was no sign of the heavy-handedness that US security personnel at Frankfurt Airport apparently used against the North Korean delegation to the Summit as they were about to board a plane to New York, with the result that North Korea became the only UN member to boycott the summit.

New Yorkers, for their part, appear to be taking the whole thing in their stride, occasionally stopping to gaze curiously as yet one more siren-wailing procession of police cars, bodyguard vans and mean black stretch limousines passes by.

"Will there be an NGO conference at the summit?" asked an elderly African American woman, sitting down on a street bench to rest her tired legs uncomplainingly. She had been forced to walk uphill several blocks because her bus route to work had been diverted.

There will be no NGO conference at this particular UN event, however, notwithstanding the "we the people." The role of both civil society and business organisations in joining with governments to eradicate poverty and bridge the gap between the world's rich and poor features heavily in Annan's report, and will no doubt feature as strongly in the scheduled 180 (or more probably 179, after North Korea's absconding) five-minute addresses that world leaders began delivering yesterday and will go on delivering today and tomorrow.

THE DIFFICULT QUESTIONS: Secretary-General Kofi Annan rang the "Peace Bell" at UN headquarters on Tuesday, officially opening the Millennium Summit (top). At the meeting, world leaders are debating issues of major importance to humanity. Whenever such existential questions are broached, the inextricable relation between religion and politics necessarily imposes itself, as those pondering the status of Jerusalem are sure to realise. Nor can the complexity of competing claims to a city venerated by adherents to the three main monotheistic faiths escape even those who visit it in search of spiritual solace; here, a pilgrim approaches the Coptic Church in the Old City (left). While fear of conflict looms over the proceedings, however, the summit is also a forum for optimistic endeavours: the discussion of shared hopes, or the performance of "My Dream" (right), presented by the China Disabled People's Performing Arts Troupe
(photos: Reuters, AP)


Described by Annan as a "defining moment for the world's leaders," and, perhaps more aptly, by yesterday's New York Times as "a world-class sideshow," the summit oozes noble sentiments and lofty ideals. Annan's report includes such ambitious goals as "halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty [1 billion people]... by 2015;" "demonstratively narrowing the gender gap in primary and secondary education by 2005... and ensuring that, by 2015, all children complete a full course of primary education;" developing "an effective and affordable vaccine against HIV;" bridging the digital divide, providing innovative solutions to low agricultural productivity in Africa, "reducing by half, between now and 2015, the proportion of people who lack sustainable access to adequate sources of affordable water."

Yet, according to a senior Egyptian diplomat responsible for the UN file there is little in the report, or indeed in the current attitude of the industrially advanced states, to inspire confidence that such goals are achievable.

The real debate at the summit, and later at the General Assembly, is likely to focus on the rift between the developed and developing countries regarding the character of the international order in the age of globalisation, and the role the UN will play in shaping such an order.

Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, who will address the summit in President Hosni Mubarak's name tomorrow, is expected to underline the major trends in the developing countries' thinking, trends that Egypt has acted to help shape. Essentially, while recognising the importance of issues such as humanitarian intervention, human rights, Egypt -- in concord with many other developing countries -- insists that the two fundamental goals of the UN Charter, world peace, security and development, should be upheld. Accordingly, the principles of equal sovereignty of states, non-interference, the illegitimacy of the seizure of the territory of one state by another, etc. need to be strengthened.

Moussa's speech is also expected to stress that the application of the principles of human rights should be de-politicised in a manner that guarantees impartiality and credibility. As for the question of humanitarian intervention, Egypt, according to delegation sources, insists that any intervention must be backed by international legitimacy and conducted in accordance with international law. The first instrument for such legitimacy is the Security Council. But, if the Council is paralysed, then recourse should be made to the General Assembly under the "United for Peace" formula used during the Korean war.

On reform of the UN, Egypt urges greater democratisation of the international organisation by giving considerably more say to the developing countries which comprise the great majority of the UN members. Egypt, delegation sources say, would like to see the Security Council's membership expanded, and would like to see the body's working style reformed. In particular, it would like to see the exercise of veto power subjected to a code of conduct that would restrict its indiscriminate use, which has often paralysed the top international decision making body in the past.

 

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