- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 23, 2000

Anybody else wondering what happened at the recent United Nations Millennium Summit, loftily billed

as the "defining moment for world leaders"?

Aside from a picture of the 150 presidents, prime ministers, kings and other world leaders that was amusingly reminiscent of an elementary class photo and the hullabaloo following President Clinton's handshake with Cuban President Fidel Castro there was very little news coverage of the event.

This was surprising, considering that the press has faithfully covered nearly every major U.N. conference over the years, even though they rarely yield anything other than vague calls for action with very little substance. Even the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995, which drew far fewer world leaders attending and boasted a less substantive agenda, received nearly incessant press coverage.

So why the low profile this time? Because even a glitzy guest list couldn't disguise the fact the summit was a non-event. The "millennium declaration" approved at the culmination of the three-day summit was drafted months ago and very little changed during the summit. The press had already seen the proposals, leaving very little "new" news to discuss.

As a result, the summit itself was easily outshone by side discussions, meetings and negotiations over topics such as the Middle East peace talks and ballistic missile defense. Even the traffic jams (de rigueur in New York) got more media attention than the speeches and the discussions.

Prior to the summit, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sought to deflect criticism by acknowledging that the agenda was "absurdly ambitious." Mr. Annan saw this as a virtue that annunciating impossibly high-minded aims was nobler and better than pursuing more realistic goals.

But the agenda's fatal flaw was not its ambitiousness, but its ridiculously vague and self-aggrandizing nature. Mr. Annan identified six values "of particular relevance to the new century: Freedom; Equity and Solidarity; Tolerance; Non-Violence; Respect for Nature; and Shared Responsibility" and urged the member states to adopt resolutions that would promote these values.

Member states responded by approving the Millennium Declaration, in which they pledged to "spare no effort to free our peoples from the scourge of war, whether within or between states" and "[make] the right to development a reality for everyone, and to freeing the entire human race from want." And let's not forget efforts "to free all humanity … from the threat of living on a planet irrevocably spoilt by human activities." It sounds eerily reminiscent of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact to outlaw war and will likely prove as effective.

Does anyone seriously believe that adopting a "Millennium Declaration" will advance these values? That freedom will flourish in Cuba, that China will embrace religious tolerance, that peace will reign in the Middle East, or that sub-Saharan Africa will embrace democracy because a new declaration has been signed? There have been scores of other U.N. declarations against discrimination, poverty and terrorism, and their impact is plain to see.

The nearly complete lack of detail on how these objectives should be achieved further mocks the significance of the summit. In the end, the declaration merely confirms the impression that the United Nations remains wedded to the delusion it can offer everything to everyone if only it were granted the power, resources and authority to pursue that ideal.

World leaders know better because they understand how power is wielded in the real world. The United Nations will likely remain more show than substance because it must operate through consensus. Any declaration it adopts has to satisfy many masters, which means they are often watered down to the point where they are virtually meaningless. Plus, countries that exhibit the problems these declarations are supposed to address have every reason to hold out for vague language that allows them to stick to business as usual.

This may explain why each national representative at the summit was granted only five minutes to address the General Assembly on issues. Not surprisingly, few speakers chose to discuss the objectives of the summit, because five minutes was far too short to address anything in a substantive fashion.

In retrospect, the secretary general got it half right: Any expectation that the summit would actually result in a useful agenda was certainly absurd.



Brett Schaefer is the Kingham fellow in international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

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