U.N. General Assembly Off to the Right Start, U.S. Official Says

By Amor Safi
Washington File United Nations Correspondent

United Nations - The 61st U.N. General Assembly got off to a good start by emphasizing the desperate situation in Darfur, the Middle East peace process and the need for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment, says Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations Kristin Silverberg.

"This was a successful General Assembly.  It has gotten us off to the right start in this United Nations year," Silverberg told the Washington File September 26.

President Bush opened the assembly's general debate September 19 asking the people of the Middle East to support democracy and moderation and assuring them that the United States is not at war with Islam. He also announced his appointment of Andrew Natsios as his special envoy for Darfur. (See related article.)

The president's speech, Silverberg said, "was very well received, in particular his efforts to communicate directly with the people in the Middle East, with the people of Iran, the people of Lebanon, the people in Syria.  We heard a number of very positive responses from other members of the General Assembly about his remarks."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted a ministerial level meeting attended by 27 nations on Darfur and attended a meeting of the Quartet on Middle East peace, a Security Council ministerial meeting on Lebanon and Israel, a meeting of NATO ministers on Afghanistan and held several discussions on Iran.

"All of our partners reiterated their support for Security Council Resolution 1696 and our intention, if Iran fails to suspend uranium enrichment, to move forward on negotiations over sanctions," Silverberg said.

The Security Council is in the process of selecting a secretary-general to replace Kofi Annan, whose second five-year term ends December 31.  Who will lead the United Nations for the next five years was one of the main topics of conversation as the heads of state, foreign ministers and diplomats met on the sidelines of the assembly.

"Most countries are keenly interested in making sure that there's a good secretary-general who is capable of leading this complicated organization," Silverberg said.  "It is such an important time in the U.N.'s history."

The assistant secretary did not indicate whom the United States favored among the seven announced candidates and the several others rumored to be ready to throw their hats in the ring.  She did say, however, that American officials discussed the U.S. qualification criteria for the next secretary-general.

"We reiterated the importance we place on finding somebody who's committed to sound management of the organization, someone who will hold it to high ethnical standards and who believes in fiscal discipline and sound management practices, as well as our interest in finding someone who will be a committed partner in the democracy effort," Silverberg said.

Major U.N. donors, referred to as the Geneva Group, held their biannual meeting September 26 to discuss progress on U.N. reforms and budget issues.   The group pressed secretariat officials "on the importance of continued progress on ethnics and oversight ... and the need to make sure that we have a recruitment process that puts the best and brightest international civil servants in important positions and also makes sure that the system rewards people for success," she said.


The protection of human rights is a priority for United States at the United Nations and the opening week of the General Assembly provided another opportunity to pursue that agenda.

President Bush hosted a meeting of the Democracy Fund, a group that was created at his suggestion to provide a way for established democracies to help new democracies and strengthen democratic institutions around the world.

First lady Laura Bush convened a roundtable discussion on Burma September 19 to highlight the repressive and destabilizing situation in Burma and the plight of its famous pro-democracy leader and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, currently under house arrest. (See related article.)

The Security Council will meet on Burma September 29, Silverberg pointed out.  U.N. Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs Ibrahim Gambari will brief the council on events since he visited Burma earlier this year. (See related article.)

"We expect he will tell the council that the regime has not taken any of the steps they have committed to during his visit," she said.  Gambari is planning to return in October so the meeting "will be an opportunity for the Security Council to talk about the agenda for that trip and how we can continue to keep pressure on the regime."

Although the newly created Human Rights Council has been "a disappointment" to the United States, Silverberg held out hope for more constructive human rights work when the General Assembly's Third Committee takes up the issue later this year.

The Geneva-based Human Rights Council "has focused exclusively so far on Israel and hasn't taken any effort to address serious situations in Burma, or North Korea, or Cuba," the assistant secretary said.  "We have a lot of concerns with the current direction."

The United States is working with other nations to pursue resolutions in the Third Committee, she said.  "Last year was one of our most successful committee sessions in recent memory.  We were able to defeat a number of 'no action' motions against our resolutions.  We're hoping to follow up this year with some strong resolutions focusing on some of the key human rights problems."

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