General Assembly Opens with Environment in the Back Seat

NEW YORK New York, September 23, 2003 (ENS) - The use of preemptive force to deal with threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction by nations acting without the backing of the United Nations Security Council will be reviewed by a high level panel of eminent persons, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today in his address to the opening of the 58th session of the UN General Assembly.

With the invasion of Iraq as the unstated point of his remarks, Annan said the panel would consider the contribution which "collective action" can make in addressing issues of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan tells the General Assembly the time is ripe to reform UN institutions. (Photo courtesy UN)
The panel will review the functioning of the major organs of the United Nations, including the structure of the 15 member Security Council, formed when the UN had just 51 member countries. Today the international body has grown to include 191 nations. The panel will recommend ways of strengthening the United Nations, through reform of its institutions and processes, and will report back before the opening of next year's General Assembly.

Environmental concerns took a back seat to issues of war and peace in the speeches of most leaders today, but Annan linked the two, and said the United Nations must take on all these threats and challenges. It must be fully engaged "in the common struggle to protect our common environment, and in the struggle for human rights, democracy and good governance," he said.

"All of us know there are new threats that must be faced," Annan said, "or, perhaps, old threats in new and dangerous combinations: new forms of terrorism, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

"But, while some consider these threats as self-evidently the main challenge to world peace and security," he said, "others feel more immediately menaced by small arms employed in civil conflict, or by so-called “soft threats” such as the persistence of extreme poverty, the disparity of income between and within societies, and the spread of infectious diseases, or climate change and environmental degradation."

"We now see, with chilling clarity, that a world where many millions of people endure brutal oppression and extreme misery will never be fully secure, even for its most privileged inhabitants," said Annan.

Defending the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, President George W. Bush told the assembly, "Our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq were supported by many governments, and America is grateful to each one. I also recognize that some of the sovereign nations of this assembly disagreed with our actions. Yet there was, and there remains, unity among us on the fundamental principles and objectives of the United Nations."


U.S. President George W. Bush addresses the United Nations General Assembly today. (Photo by Tina Hager courtesy The White House)
While President Bush did not mention environmental issues such as global warming, he highlighted U.S. efforts to eradicate nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

"For more than a decade," he said, "the United States has worked with Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union to dismantle, destroy, or secure weapons and dangerous materials left over from another era." The President urged other nations to join the G8 in ridding the world of these lethal materials."

"The deadly combination of outlaw regimes and terror networks and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be ignored or wished away," said President Bush. "If such a danger is allowed to fully materialize, all words, all protests, will come too late."

Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, too, said that, "Two of the greatest threats to peace and development today are terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Berlusconi appealed to North Korea to "completely dismantle its nuclear program in a prompt, transparent, verifiable and irreversible manner," and he urged India and Pakistan to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to engage in dialogue, not weapons, to settle their conflicts.

"The European Union expresses its growing.concern over the development of the Iranian nuclear program and the risks of proliferation that it involves," Berlusconi said.

The resolution of environmental problems is at the heart of the European Union's "special commitment to Africa," Berlusconi said, a commitment that should be seen in the framework of the UN Millennium Development Goals agreed in 2000, "aimed primarily at eradicating poverty, hunger, disease, social and gender inequality and environmental degradation."

Berlusconi linked environmental protection with progress towards safeguarding human rights and fundamental freedoms. "The defense of our environment, also through the implementation of the commitments undersigned in the Kyoto Protocol, is the benchmark of our ability to foster a lasting development that reconciles the demands of economic progress with the need to protect natural resources."

"These two goals are not alternatives but rather the pillars of the Johannesburg Declaration," said Berlusconi, referring to the statement agreed by governments at the close of last years' World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

French President Jacques Chirac, too, linked environmental protection and global security. "We now realize," he told the assembly, "that globalization demands stronger economic, social and environmental governance."


The UN General Assembly in session (Photo courtesy UN)
On behalf of France, Chirac proposed the creation of "a new political forum" representative of the present state of the world economy in all its diversity. "This council would be entrusted with the responsibility for providing the necessary impetus to the international institutions, for improving their coordination, and for anticipating and tackling global problems more effectively."

"Against the chaos of a world shaken by ecological disaster, let us call for a sharing of responsibility, around a United Nations Environmental Organization," Chirac said.

Reporting for ENS from United Nations headquarters, Curtis Ellis of ieAmerica Radio said that President Chirac called a news conference to announce "the innovative concept of an international financial facility." France wants to meet a target for overseas development assistance of .7 percent by 2012, Ellis reports.

Today's most eloquent speaker on environmental issues and their link to terrorism was Joseph Urusemal, President of the Federated States of Micronesia, a group of 607 islands in the North Pacific Ocean. "War and terrorism are only consequences of their deeper root causes, poverty, human injustice, and more recently, environmental degradation," he said.

"For my family and me, the issue of climate change is a present reality," he said. "Everything we are, and hope to achieve as a people, is under grave threat because of global climate change."

"Having confirmed that the climate change crisis is real, the entire world also now possesses indisputable evidence that its steady progression can be laid at the doorstep of human activity," President Urusemal said. "Yet some of the worst polluters among the industrialized countries see it as their top priority to protect vested interests. They are purposely delaying the immediate action that is required to begin to turn the tide of destructive climate alteration."


President Joseph Urusemal of the Federated States of Micronesia (Photo courtesy FSM )
The Micronesian President, whose low-lying islands face catastrophic flooding due to rising sea levels brought on by melting polar ice caps, said it "very sad" that the Kyoto climate protocol "has been converted by some governments into a political target - a rallying cry for the worst polluters."

He called the protocol, an agreement to limit the emission of six greenhouse gases by industrialized nations, "nothing more than a small first step that must be followed up by strong subsequent actions if the war against climate change is to be at all effective."

"The scornful attitude toward the protocol shown by some countries will doom the entire [UN] Framework Convention [on Climate Change] to utter failure if the current situation remains unchanged," he said.

"I remind us all of the well known precautionary principle, which has been enshrined in virtually every United Nations document related to environment and development, he said. "Yet, it is being mocked."

The Micronesian President called for reversal of the "serious decline in the health of coral reefs all over the world." He lamented the disappearance of tuna and other ocean species, and said his country would lobby for "an aggressive oceans resource protection policy in both the regional and international arenas."

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien expressed confidence in "multilateral cooperation," and called the environment an "urgent challenge" on the level of controlling weapons of mass destruction.

Chretien was among several leaders who warned that the failure of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations earlier this month to drop agricultural subsidies challenges global peace and security. "The outcome of the World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun is very worrisome," he said. "Agricultural subsidies of developed countries must be radically reduced to give developing countries, particularly in Africa, the chance to prosper. The developed world has an obligation to act. And to act quickly."

Brazilian President Lula da Silva, in office just nine months, said, "Let my first words before this World Parliament be of confidence in the human capacity to overcome challenges and to move towards higher forms of partnership, both within and among nations."

President da Silva, who was a major player in the Group of 22 developing countries at the WTO, said, "We are entirely in favor of free trade as long as we can all compete on a level playing field. Liberalization should not require countries to abandon the prerogative of formulating industrial, technological, social and environmental policy."


Latvian President Vaira Vike Freiberga addresses the UN General Assembly (Photo courtesy UN)
From the northern European country of Latvia, President Vaira Vike Freiberga also expressed concern over environmental degradation. "During the 20th century," she told the assembly, "mankind has inflicted more environmental damage to our planet than during all of the previous centuries combined."

"If we do not devote greater efforts to the reduction of environmental pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions,," she said, "then future generations stand to inherit a planet with increasingly disruptive climate changes, and with forest cover that is restricted to scattered nature reserves."

"We must avoid reaching the stage where the earth's energy and food resources become irreversibly depleted," President Freiberga said. "People and governments must be willing to make difficult economic sacrifices for the sake of a cleaner environment."

Freiberga, said "few would disagree" that changes within the structure of the United Nations are needed as the world body "has been criticized for being slow, unwieldy and ineffectual."

"For the moment," the Latvian President acknowledged, "it appears that any substantial changes within the UN will have to await a renewed climate of consensus, which is not likely to precede the resolution of the crises in the Middle East, the settling of trade disputes and the establishment of greater unity about agricultural subsidies, arms proliferation and environmental issues."