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Annan defends U.N. against criticism, urges leaders to restore its credibility

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Summit discussion turns to terrorism, global economy.

UNITED NATIONS -- After a year of mounting criticism, Secretary-General Kofi Annan defended the United Nations on Wednesday and urged global leaders to restore the organization's credibility by adopting broad reforms needed for the world to act together to tackle poverty, terrorism and conflict.

Addressing a summit that he called a year ago in hopes of winning approval for an ambitious blueprint to modernize the United Nations on its 60th anniversary, Annan told more than 150 presidents, prime ministers and kings that "a good start" had been made.

But he said sharp differences had blocked "the sweeping and fundamental reform that I and many others believe is required."

Instead of a celebration of U.N. achievements since its founding in the ashes of World War II, the summit was much more a somber reappraisal of its shortcomings and a debate about how to meet the daunting challenges of a world becoming more and more interlinked.

It began a week after investigators sharply criticized alleged corruption and U.N. mismanagement of the oil-for-food program in Iraq, and on a day when more than 160 people died in attacks in Baghdad -- a harsh reminder of the fight against terrorism that was a highlight of President Bush's speech.

Hopeful signs

There were some hopeful signs, such as the handshake between the leaders of Israel and Pakistan, whose countries have no diplomatic relations. But there were also reminders of unresolved problems, among them the U.S. decision to have only two low-level officials attend the speech by Iran's new hard-line president.

Bush broadened the terrorism fight beyond the military arena, saying world leaders have "a solemn obligation" to stop terrorism in its early stages. Declaring that poverty breeds despair and terrorism, he challenged leaders to abolish all trade tariffs and subsidies to promote prosperity and opportunity in poor nations, a move that would be worth billions of dollars.

"Either hope will spread, or violence will spread, and we must take the side of hope," he said.

This approach -- and Bush's support for achieving U.N. development goals such as halving extreme poverty by 2015 -- was welcomed by many leaders.

Irish rocker Bob Geldof, who organized the Live Aid concerts and campaigns against poverty, said he was sitting in the General Assembly chamber with U.N. anti-poverty chief Jeffrey Sachs and they couldn't believe what they heard.

"I think he's really throwing down the gauntlet. It's a very bold move," Geldof said of Bush's trade tariff proposal.

He added that he was impressed with the president's acknowledgment that terrorism "comes from despair and lack of hope."

At only the third U.N. Security Council meeting ever attended by the national leaders of the 15 council members, terrorism was also a focus. The leaders unanimously passed two resolutions -- one aimed at outlawing the incitement of terrorism and the other at preventing conflict, especially in Africa.

On the sidelines of the summit, a Russian-sponsored treaty making it a crime to possess radioactive material or weapons with the intention of committing a terrorist act began collecting signatures. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the first to sign, followed by Bush and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

Annan argued that because the world is imperfect, it needs the United Nations.

In a plea for collective action, he said, "whether our challenge is peacemaking, nation-building, democratization or responding to natural or man-made disasters, we have seen that even the strongest amongst us cannot succeed alone." This was an apparent reference to the U.S. problems in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"At the same time," Annan said, "whether our task is fighting poverty, stemming the spread of disease, or saving innocent lives from mass murder, we have seen that we cannot succeed without the leadership of the strong, and the engagement of all."

He said the summit was a test for leaders of all 191 U.N. member states -- "a test of our ability to address the most pressing challenges of our times ... to act in concert in this interdependent world." Development, security and human rights depend on nations helping each other, he said.

But sharp differences were also evident. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad got up to speak, the United States had just two note-takers in the General Assembly hall, although the U.S. mission denied any symbolism in the decision.

Ahmadinejad criticized the United States for not giving Iranian officials easy access to U.N. headquarters. But he skirted the issue of Iran's looming confrontation with the United Nations over its nuclear program, although he issued a veiled warning that the body should not bow to U.S. pressure.

On the other hand, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon approached Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and shook his hand.

"I did shake hands with him, he asked me how I was, I asked him how he was. That's very good," Musharraf told reporters with a smile after initially evading questions about the meeting.


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