Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

10th September 2000

Millennium bash of rich and poor

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NEW YORK— Just before a former Sri Lankan prime minister took the podium at a special session of the UN General Assembly years ago, he was told of a five-minute time-limit on speeches, and of a warning light installed on the lectern.

But when the light started flashing indicating he had run out of time, the prime minister threw protocol to the winds, fished out a handkerchief, covered the annoying light — and continued with his speech undaunted.

Last week, addressing the UN's Millennium Summit, Cuban President Fidel Castro went even one better than the Sri Lankan prime minister.

The attention-grabbing Castro, the last of the world's die-hard Communists known for his long-winded speeches, walked to the lectern, pulled out a white handkerchief and covered the timer — even before he could begin his speech.

The crowded Assembly Hall, overflowing with the largest gathering ever of over 150 world leaders, broke into fits of laughter.

Not only did Castro speak for less than five minutes— a miracle by his standards — but also took the opportunity to lambaste Western nations for their callousness towards the world's poorer nations.

Three dozen wealthy nations that monopolise economic, political and technological power, he said, were attending the summit meeting to offer "more of the same recipes that have only served to make us poorer, more exploited and more dependent."

"Nature is being devastated. The climate is changing under our own eyes, drinking water is increasingly contaminated or scarce, the sources of man's sea food are being depleted and crucial non-renewal resources are wasted in luxury and triviality," he added.

The three-day Millennium Summit, which concluded Friday, was not without its high and low lights

A North Korean delegation frisked by US security officials working for an American airline in the Frankfurt airport, pulled out of the summit protesting the violation of diplomatic immunity.

The tiny nation of Tuvalu in the South Pacific, with a population of about 10,000 people, became the newest and the 189th member state of the United Nations.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, according to one news report, delayed his arrival in New York to miss a possible chance encounter with Pakistan's General Pervez Musharaff at a luncheon for heads of state hosted by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Of the nine women heads of state in the world, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga was one of the few to skip the summit. The eight other women leaders were from Bangladesh, Finland, Ireland, Latvia, New Zealand, Panama, Saint Lucia and San Marino.

At the summit itself, speaker after speaker voiced serious concern over the rising gap between rich and poor, the marginalisation of Africa and the failure of the international community to meet its commitments to the world's poorer nations.

Setting the political tone for the summit, Guyanese President Bharrat Jagdeo said when he returns home, his people will be sure to ask: "What good has this summit brought us? Will it serve to reduce poverty and create jobs? Will it help our country bridge the development and digital divides?".

"I would like to be able to respond positively to these concerns and to assure them that the new millennium will bring them both peace and prosperity," he said.

But Jagdeo was not harbouring any illusions of instant redemption. "I know, however, that the hopes and promises of this event will only be realised if there is strong and shared determination by all states to create a new global human order that is free from fear and free from want," he added.

Lester Bird, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, blasted the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the world's industrial nations for the economic injustices meted out to the poor.

The world's economic and political agenda, he said, is now devised by a few of its most powerful governments. The Group of Seven - the US, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan -has "arrogated to itself not only the role of the world's decision-maker, but also of its enforcer," he added

"And, it appears that in arrogating this role to themselves, the members of the Group of Seven have been motivated by narrow, national political concerns at the expense of the wider interests of global economic growth and international political stability," Bird said.

Even the United Nations - "the repository of mankind's highest aspirations" - has become marginalised by the dictates of a few, he added.

Perhaps the strongest case for a war-ravaged, economically depressed Africa was made not by an African head of state but by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"There is a dismal record of failure in Africa on the part of the developed world that shocks and shames our civilisation," he said.

Twenty one of the 44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are affected by conflict which undermines efforts at development, he said. But even worse, ten times as many people died of AIDS in Africa last year as were killed in all the continent's wars combined.

"Nowhere are more people dying needlessly from starvation, from disease, from conflict. Deaths caused not by acts of fate, but by acts of man. By bad governance, factional rivalries, state-sponsored theft and corruption," he added.

Yet, 30 years ago, the same depressing analysis might have been made of parts of Asia and Latin America, Blair argued. "There can be change. There can be hope for Africa. There is political leadership, business opportunity and above all, the will on behalf of people for a better future in Africa. We must be partners in the search for change and hope," he added.

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