A missed chance for leadership at the UN

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It would be naive to imagine that the world leaders who converged on New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week would succeed in resolving international conflict, find ways to defeat global terrorism or end world poverty.

It would be naive to imagine that the world leaders who converged on New York for the United Nations General Assembly this week would succeed in resolving international conflict, find ways to defeat global terrorism or end world poverty.

It is nevertheless regrettable at a time when genocide stalks Sudan, the Middle East peace process is moribund, and Iraq is illegally occupied and in worsening turmoil that a gathering of the planet's heads of state and government could report so few tangible achievements on the crises facing the world.

President George Bush made a grandstanding address on Tuesday in which he ignored the chance the debate offered to admit his mistakes on Iraq and seek international help to begin to put things right. Indeed, the average citizen might well wonder what the UN General Assembly and all its lavish trappings is for. Its resolutions are not binding. The media ignore the speeches of the leaders of the less powerful countries. The leaders themselves barely listen to each other.

But this forum deserves more respect. The General Assembly symbolises the UN's democracy. Without it, the organisation would be utterly dominated by the big five members with seats on the Security Council. The annual debate of the General Assembly is the only forum where the President of Vanuatu gets the same 15-minute speaking time as the President of America.

Smaller states also know that it provides them with a unique and televised platform for airing their concerns to the wider world, and forging regional alliances. Outside the main debate, serious work can be done in the bilateral meetings. The alphabetical seating plan means sworn enemies may be forced to sit side by side. Even the cocktail parties and dinners have their uses. At its best, it has in the past provided a lightning rod for urgent international attention on such global challenges as Aids and the environment.

But this year, more than ever, our leaders needed to use the assembly to set a forceful tone in support of the United Nations itself, to reassert the rule of international law, most urgently as it relates to Iraq, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Sudan and nuclear proliferation. If little or nothing flows from the debate, then it is an indictment of the political leadership of the UN nation states, rather than the unique multilateral forum they have inherited.

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