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UN General Assembly Opens 59th Session - 2004-09-13


The United Nations General Assembly's 59th session opens this week with questions about the world body's role and relevance in the 21st century. Since it was founded in 1945, the United Nations has grown from 51 to 191 member states. But many of its functions and methods of operation have remained frozen in time. As the world body approaches its 60th anniversary, it is rethinking how to respond to global security threats.

At least 89 heads of state and government will address the opening of the 59th U.N. General Assembly meeting over the next few weeks.

President Bush will be here next Tuesday for the start of the annual General Debate. Others coming for the opening week include the leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as presidents or prime ministers from India, Pakistan, Japan, and Brazil, just to name a few.

Among the highlights of this 59th Assembly is expected to be presentation of a study by a panel of eminent persons on streamlining the world body to meet the challenges of the future. The report is due in December, but its expected recommendations are already shaking the organization to its foundations.

Among the controversial issues being debated is reorganizing and expanding the Security Council. The five permanent veto-wielding Council members -- Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States -- reflect the global reality at the end of WWII.

Roughly 59 years later, there is a general consensus that the old order must be updated. But there is little agreement on how.

Another big question is which, if any, countries should be allowed to have veto power.

Julian Hunte, foreign minister of the Caribbean island state of St. Lucia, served as president of the 58th General Assembly. At a farewell visit with reporters on his last day in office, he suggested adding at least ten seats around the Security Council table.

"The general feeling is that the membership would like to see [the] Security Council enlarged to not less than 24, not more than 26," he said. "And as to what is contained with that 'who' and what area they come from, are matters to be discussed."

Among the countries already pushing for permanent Council seats are Germany and Japan, which already pay more than their share of U.N. operating expenses. From among developing countries, the leading contenders include Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, India and Indonesia.

Another contentious issue facing the world body is how to fight terrorism. As with expansion of the Security Council, there is a consensus that terrorism is an evil. But the agreement stops there. As outgoing General Assembly President Julian Hunte points out, it is proving difficult, if not impossible, to agree on what terrorism is.

"One man's terrorist is another man's liberator, and so given the problems you have around the world, you will find difficulty in defining that to the satisfaction of all concerned," said Mr. Hunte.

The chairman of the panel of eminent persons studying these issues is Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister of Thailand. As he took up the job, Mr. Panyarachun said that despite the seemingly intractable issues his panel faces, he was hopeful that acceptable compromises might be found.

"I can't afford to be a pessimist. I like to look ahead with a certain degree of optimism," he said. "It's true that the United Nations has a mixture of good and disappointing results. But be that as it may, in recent years people have perhaps gone to the extent that the credibility of the United Nations is at stake. If the United Nations is found to be wanting, it is found not to be as effective as people expect in terms of maintenance of peace and security, that could prove to be that we are moving toward the end of the United Nations system, but I don't think that's going to happen."

The United States is among those pushing for reform of the world body. At least two prominent Republican Party leaders implicitly criticized the United Nations at last month's party convention in New York.

In a reference to the Security Council's refusal to endorse military action against Iraq, Vice-President Dick Cheney told the convention President Bush would never seek a permission slip to defend the American people.

But as Mr. Bush prepares to address the General Assembly next week, outgoing Assembly President Hunte predicts U.N. diplomats will give the U.S. president a warm welcome.

"I have no doubt he will be well-received," he added. "You know the United Nations is a place where people discuss the issues of the day. There are strong disagreements from time to time but it doesn't take away the civility of the atmosphere in the organization. And I have no doubt he'll be well received despite the fact that some countries may not necessarily agree with the direction his administration has taken."

The new president of the General Assembly is Gabon's foreign minister, Jean Ping. Mr. Ping noted that his election marks the tenth time an African country has headed the Assembly. More than one quarter of the 191 U.N. member states are in Africa.

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