NEW YORK — President Bush yesterday called on the United Nations to reform its human rights panel and urged the world body he once dismissed as irrelevant to live up to its responsibility to spur change in countries ruled by brutal regimes.
“This great institution must work for great purposes — to free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and disease, illiteracy and ignorance, and poverty and despair,” the president said at the U.N. General Assembly. “Every member of the United Nations must join in this mission of liberation.”
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In addition to upbraiding foreign leaders for inaction in places such as Sudan, Burma and Zimbabwe, the president said the long rule of ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro is “nearing its end.” The stern words prompted the Cuban delegation to walk out of the grand hall.
In his 20-minute speech, Mr. Bush repeatedly cited articles from the U.N.’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as he laid out his call for swifter action from the organization.
“To be credible on human rights in the world, the United Nations must reform its own Human Rights Council,” he said. “This body has been silent on repression by regimes from Havana to Caracas to Pyongyang and Tehran while focusing its criticism excessively on Israel.”
Mr. Bush has twice rejected calls to seek a seat on the council. The State Department said in March that the panel had lost its credibility through its repeated attacks on Israel, ignoring serial offenders such as Burma, Iran and North Korea. The council has condemned just one nation — U.S. ally Israel — and in June, even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the panel.
The 47-seat council last year replaced the former Human Rights Commission, which was widely criticized for the election of Libya to its chairmanship in 2003.
While Mr. Bush said the United States is “committed to a strong and vibrant United Nations,” he added that “the American people are disappointed by the failures of the Human Rights Council.”
In a rare show of bipartisanship in the Democrat-controlled Congress, the House in June voted to prohibit U.S. funding of the council; the measure is not included in a Senate bill.
Mr. Bush also criticized Cuba and its ailing leader, predicting that “the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end.”
“The Cuban people are ready for their freedom. And as that nation enters a period of transition, the United Nations must insist on free speech, free assembly and, ultimately, free and competitive elections,” he said.
The Cuban delegation, led by Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, stood and walked out. In a statement later, the delegation said its departure was a “sign of profound rejection of the arrogant and mediocre statement by President Bush.”
Pressing the United Nations for swifter reform, Mr. Bush urged an expansion of its Security Council, charged with maintaining peace in the world. There are five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, China, France, Russia and Britain — but Mr. Bush said the United States is “open” to adding more.
“Some have also called for reform to the structure of the Security Council, including an expansion of its membership. The United States is open to this prospect. We believe that Japan is well-qualified for permanent membership on the Security Council, and that other nations should be considered, as well,” he said.
Later in the day, Mr. Bush appealed to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move more quickly on political reconciliation. Mr. al-Maliki, though, pushed back, saying he was unhappy about the killing of Iraqi civilians by private U.S. security contractors.
While Mr. Bush said “we want his security forces well-trained, mobile and capable of handling Iraqi security on their own,” Mr. al-Maliki defended his government’s performance, saying “the task before us is gigantic.”
At the United Nations, Mr. Bush avoided talk of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, bringing up Iran only as one of several briefly listed countries that squelch freedoms.
Outside, about a dozen people were arrested during a peaceful demonstration of about 400 opposed to the Iraq war and the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.
Mr. Bush’s speech also had a technical glitch that exposed one of the drafts of the text. The draft was publicized on the U.N.’s Web site, complete with phonetic pronunciations for names of foreign leaders and locales.
“I don’t know how the draft of the speech — it was not final — was posted, but it was, and it was taken down,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said.