- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

NEW YORK Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a pre-emptive strike against U.S. plans for a missile-defense shield, called yesterday for the United Nations to convene a conference against the militarization of outer space.
The beginning of a new millennium "must go down in history as a period of real disarmament," Mr. Putin told some 170 heads of state and government assembled at the United Nations for three days of speeches marking the start of the 21st century.
However, in an apparent reference to the U.S. missile-defense program, he said, "particularly alarming are plans for the militarization of outer space."
Mr. Putin noted that next spring will mark the 40th anniversary of the first flight of man in outer space, the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin on April 12, 1961.
"We are suggesting the organization on that date under the aegis of the United Nations of an international conference on the prevention of militarization of outer space," Mr. Putin said, offering to host the conference in Moscow.
President Clinton, who as leader of the host nation was the first to address the unprecedented gathering of presidents, prime ministers and kings, announced last week that he would leave the decision whether to go ahead with a missile-defense system to the next president.
Asked about Mr. Putin's proposal before a private meeting with the Russian leader, Mr. Clinton did not indicate whether he would accept or object to the idea of a space conference.
"We have worked together on nuclear issues very closely for virtually the whole time I've been in office, and actually, for quite a long time before that, before I became president," Mr. Clinton said.
"The decision that I made last week on our missile defense will create an opportunity for President Putin and the next American president to reach a common position. And I hope they can, because I think it's very important for the future that we continue to work together."
Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott said later that Washington was prepared to open talks on deeper arms reductions but only if they proceed "parallel with meaningful and productive discussion on strategic defenses."
A total of 66 world leaders representing countries as varied as Russia, China, Israel and Pakistan addressed the opening day of the summit yesterday, speaking on issues ranging from global to intensely local concerns.
But the air of excitement and good feeling was marred by the news that three U.N. workers, including one American, had been fatally stabbed and burned overnight in West Timor, Indonesia, a horror that was denounced by several of the speakers.
Mr. Clinton turned the tragedy into a pitch for more U.N. support. He told the audience, which included Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, that the bloodshed in Sierra Leone and East Timor illustrated how the international organization "did not have the tools to finish the job."
"I regret we have to start our proceedings on a somber note," said U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who began the Millennium Summit with a moment of silence.
Mr. Annan pointedly held his powerful audience accountable for improving the lives of their citizens.
"You, ladies and gentlemen, are the leaders to whom the world's peoples have entrusted their destiny. They look to you to protect them from the great dangers of our time, and to ensure that all of them can share in its great achievements.
"In this age when human beings have learned the code of human life, and can transmit their knowledge in seconds from one continent to another, no mother in the world can understand why her child should be left to die of malnutrition or preventable disease," he said.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro made similar arguments in his address yesterday afternoon.
But he focused on the responsibilities of a "hegemonic superpower" and other rich nations to their poor neighbors and former colonies.
"Today, it is their moral obligation to compensate our nations for the harm done to them over the centuries," said Mr. Castro, who also lamented that "nature is being devastated before our eyes" and the "trillions of dollars squandered on luxury goods."
Upon arriving at the podium, the Cuban leader took out a white handkerchief and covered the light warning speakers that they are approaching the limit of time allotted. Mr. Castro, famed for speeches that have run for eight hours or longer, drew laughter from his audience. In the end, he adhered to the seven-minute limit.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called for nations to make peacekeeping efforts more "robust" and demanded that the Burmese government end its house arrest of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin told the world it must lose its old-style Cold War mentality but kept notably silent about a planned U.S. missile-shield plan, which Beijing strongly opposes.
South Korean President Kim Dae-jung asked the special U.N. summit to continue backing his bid to unite the two Koreas but made no mention of Pyongyang's decision to boycott the occasion after an airport frisking.
African leaders lamented poverty, the scourge of HIV/AIDS and festering conflicts across Africa, the world's poorest continent, and made impassioned appeals for global help.
President Sam Nujoma of Namibia, who is chairing the summit, and Kenyan leader Daniel arap Moi said Africa deserved international assistance.
"We cannot celebrate our remarkable achievements in science, technology and other areas of human endeavor while millions of our fellow human beings continue to live in a world of deprivation and even starvation," Mr. Nujoma said.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame dismissed the usual excuses for failure to prevent conflict by saying that nations must recognize that every conflict is unique.
As leader of the host country, the president of the United States is always given the first speaking slot at formal U.N. assemblies. After that, positions are awarded by lottery.
This can create apparent incongruities. For example, Mr. Clinton was followed by Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea.
Status is also important, with heads of state trumping mere foreign ministers for morning podium time.
But horse trading abounds, as when Nicaragua quietly traded its coveted slot yesterday morning to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. And Iraq postponed Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz's address until today so that Chinese President Jiang Zemin could speak on the first day, within moments of Mr. Clinton.

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