United Nations World Summit 2005

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

14-16 September 2005 saw the largest gathering of world leaders, at the United Nations World Summit.

On this page:

  1. Purpose of Summit: Review Progress on Millennium Declaration
  2. Concerns leading up to the meeting
    1. Fears that primary purpose of UN Summit May take back seat
    2. Draft Outcome Document Leads to Concerns of Weak Text
    3. US Wants to Do Away With Most Text, even the Millennium Development Goals
    4. Power: Using a Bargaining Position because one can
  3. Summit Meeting Outcome
    1. Undemocratic process in getting a final document
    2. Strengths and weaknesses of the outcome document

Purpose of Summit: Review Progress on Millennium Declaration

The main purpose for this World Summit was to review progress since the Millennium Declaration, adopted by all Member States in 2000. This Declaration contained what became known as the Millennium Development Goals. These goals, which all 191 member states have pledged to meet, all for 2015, include:

  • A halving of hunger and poverty;
  • Attaining universal primary education;
  • Drastic reductions in child and maternal mortality;
  • Promoting gender equality;
  • Improved environmental sustainability;
  • A fairer global trading system; and
  • Reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases.

The above would form a major part of the Summit dubbed Freedom from want. Other issues that the Summit were to be addressed included:

  • Security (Freedom from fear)
  • Human rights (Freedom to live in dignity)
  • UN reform (Strengthening the United Nations)

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Concerns leading up to the meeting

There were a number of serious concerns leading up to the meeting.

Fears that primary purpose of UN Summit May take back seat

In the wake of the Iraq war, the Security Council issues that it highlighted and a scandal about corruption in the United Nations Oil For Food Program, UN reform has been back on the agenda in a major way.

Under pressure after the beginning of 2005, in the wake of these Iraq-related issues and scandals, UN General Secretary Kofi Annan, released a report titled In Larger Freedom calling attention to the need for UN reform. In particular he wanted Security Council reform issues to be resolved before the 2005 World Summit. Unfortunately, that has not happened.

Inter Press Service (IPS) reported (August 16, 2005) that many developing country diplomats were worried that development issues would take a backseat, in favor of UN reform as that would be of more interest to richer and powerful nations.

Draft Outcome Document Leads to Concerns of Weak Text

Leading up to the Summit, a number of drafts of the outcome document for the Summit were released. However, various countries and blocs have concerns for different reasons. For example, the 117 members of the Non-Aligned Movement sought to weaken the text on issues such as the proposed new Human Rights Council and the increasing powers for the UN Security Council to intervene militarily in conflicts around the world.

Reasons that these countries have typically been weary of such issues include that

  • They often have poor human rights records themselves;
  • They see the richer countries being more influential in these areas, especially the UN Security Council, where they have little say and thus could feel quite powerless, and sometimes even threatened.

Equally of concern was that the drafts failed to take into account legitimate concerns raised by developing countries on various development issues, and instead had adhered to an approach favoring richer countries.

US Wants to Do Away With Most Text, even the Millennium Development Goals

It is perhaps the US stance that had concerned most countries, though, including allies.

As the Washington Post reported (August 24, 2005), the Bush administration has thrown the proceedings in turmoil with a call for drastic renegotiation of the draft agreement that all the attending world leaders would sign.

The proposed changes, submitted by controversial US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, touched on virtually every aspect of UN affairs and provide a detailed look at US concerns about the world body’s future. For example:

  • As the Post continued, the United States introduced more than 750 amendments that would
    • Eliminate new pledges of foreign aid to impoverished nations;
    • Scrap provisions that call for action to halt climate change and urge nuclear powers to make greater progress in dismantling their nuclear arms;
    • Strengthen language to underscore the importance of taking tougher action against terrorism, promoting human rights and democracy, and halting the spread of the world’s deadliest weapons.
    • Strike any mention of the Millennium Development Goals
    • Impose greater oversight of U.N. spending
    • Eliminate any reference to the International Criminal Court
    • Oppose language that urges the five permanent members of the Security Council not to cast vetoes to block action to halt genocide, war crimes or ethnic cleansing.
  • Additional examples noted by The Guardian include:
    • Deleting respect for nature;
    • For the right of self-determination of peoples, deleting which remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation;
    • Deleting to provide the [United Nations] organisation with the resources needed to fully implement its mandates;
    • Deleting remain concerned, however, by the slow and uneven implementation of the internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium development goals;
    • Deleting corporate responsibility and accountability when discussing fighting corruption;
    • Deleting encourage pharmaceutical companies to make anti-retroviral drugs affordable and accessible in Africa in regards to fighting AIDS;
    • (See Road map for US relations with rest of world, Guardian, August 27, 2005 for more information)
  • The administration publicly complained that the document’s section on poverty was too long!
  • Instead, the United States sought to highlight the importance of the Monterrey Consensus, a 2002 summit in Mexico that focused on free-market reforms, and required governments to improve accountability in exchange for aid and debt relief.

The Post also added that In meetings with foreign delegates, Bolton has expressed concern about a provision of the agreement that urges wealthy countries, including the United States, to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross national product in assistance to poor countries. This is despite the fact that the Monterrey Consensus reiterates that commitment (which the US was pushing and signed up to) and that countries agreed to this over 30 years ago, and the US, along with many other rich nations, have hardly ever provided close to that amount.

Furthermore, Bolton has also objected to language that urges nations to observe a moratorium on nuclear testing and to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Bush administration opposes.

Why would the US be so hostile to the United Nations goals, considering it is its largest funder? The answer is complex and perhaps too deep to answer quickly here. In short though, a few reasons include:

  • The US, as sole superpower, has often found itself going against international opinion, which is often expressed at the United Nations.
  • The ability of the US to flex its muscles, so to speak, is often constrained (or attempted to be) at the United Nations, as the recent Iraq War exemplified. This has led to people in the US to call for withholding even more UN funding than it already withholds until it is reformed (in the ways that best meet US interests), or some to even say that they should pull out of the body all together.
  • Some in the US also see a conspiracy in the UN trying to be a sort of world government which would restrict the rights of the US.

Some of the above reasons are quite extreme, but gain popular attention in the right wing of US politics.

Take for example, John Bolton himself. He is a member of the ultra-conservative Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and was Senior Vice President of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute.

PNAC has outlined the ideas behind global dominance and empire in the form of a global Pax Americana and has described peace-keeping missions as demanding American political leadership rather than that of the United Nations and hence this is a view that Bolton is associated with.

In addition, in 1994, Bolton said of the United Nations: There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is only the international community, which can only be led by the only remaining superpower, which is the United States. He also stated that The Secretariat building in New York has 38 stories. If it lost ten stories, it wouldn't make a bit of difference.

Yet, he has also said that the United Nations can be a useful instrument in the conduct of American foreign policy. In other words, Bolton sees using the UN for America’s own agendas as ok. Indeed, he adds that No one ... should be under any illusions that American support for the United Nations as one of several options for implementing American foreign policy translates into unlimited support for the world organization. That is not true now, and it will not be true for a long time to come, if ever.

See also the UN and Development page (warning, that page is quite old, though may provide some context), and various sections through the geopolitics section of this web site for more information.

Power: Using a Bargaining Position because one can

Recently the developing countries have become more united in a positive sense, to withstand further unfair trade rules that rich countries have tried to push in the past. However, this means they can also try to use their new power to resist changes that most would like to see, such as improved human rights.

The US, however, typically has a far more reaching impact as it is far more influential and powerful than the poorer countries.

In short, the US looks to make the outcome of the whole document a weak one without much substance. Given the enormous number of changes the US is proposing, one would not expect them all to happen. However, the US has played a clever tactic here:

  • As the biggest donor to the United Nations, and, its biggest critic, as well as being the most powerful nation on the planet, it therefore has a real bargaining position which it has exploited here;
  • Other countries will have to typically compromise on US terms in order to get the US in on the outcome agreement.
  • The result will therefore be a much weakened document, even if the US does not get most of its 750 changes in there.

This type of bargaining occurred with the Kyoto protocol, for example; other countries agreed to a watered down text to get the US in, but the US later pulled out anyway.

And this all comes at a time when a new UN report warns that globalization is driving inequality.

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Summit Meeting Outcome

Unfortunately, the above prediction of a weaker final document came true. But, also controversial was the manner in which the final document was drafted right at the end.

Undemocratic process in getting a final document

Also of concern was the way in which the final outcome document was agreed to.

Because of the turmoil created mostly by the US leading up to this meeting and with all the reservations and changes they put forward in the document, there resulted a closed-door consensus-based negotiations (which resulted in the final outcome document) where a few governments were allowed to exercise a veto over the will of the overwhelming majority of member states as Inter Press Service noted (in the same article as linked to above). This was seen as a concern for it was undemocratic.

Furthermore, as the Venezuelan delegation noted, the manner in which the final document was then presented to the rest of the UN General Assembly was illegal. It was presented a few minutes before the meetings started, when one of the rules General Assembly, that no proposal shall be discussed or put to the vote at any meeting of the General Assembly unless copies of it have been circulated to all delegations not later than the day preceding the meetings.

Another IPS report cited Bill Pace, executive director of the World Federalist Movement, who said that the five permanent members of the Security Council, namely the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, behave in the General Assembly as if they have veto rights and fiercely refuse to allow any consideration of peace and security issues. And a few others, mostly military governments or permanent member wannabes, wreck the negotiations from the other side.

That same article also ended with criticism of the US:

On Wednesday, the New York Times squarely blamed the United States — and specifically its notoriously undiplomatic Ambassador John Bolton — for the impending failure of the summit.

The Times accused Bolton of insisting on a very long list of unilateral demands. The predictable effect was to transform what had been a painful and difficult search for workable diplomatic compromises into a competitive exercise in political posturing.

As a result, said the Times editorial, the most tragic loss is a genuine opportunity to help the one billion people around the world who each live on less than a dollar a day.

Thalif Deen, UN Summit of World Leaders Under Heavy Fire, Inter Press Service, September 14, 2005

This meant other countries would not have time to understand any changes, which for such a meeting is crucial. This may seem efficient for some, but on such important issues this slight bit of bureaucracy is important.

Former British Secretary for Development, Clare Short is quite vocal in her criticism of the United States, and is worth quoting in length:

It is hardly surprising that, in a bitterly divided world where the world’s hegemonic power has set aside international law and declared that it will act unilaterally whenever its interests are suited, it has been difficult to agree on a reform package for strengthening the UN.

... The ambition [to review progress on the Millennium Development Goals progress] has widened to try to agree on a major package of UN reform.... But given George Bush's resistance and the sour atmosphere post-Iraq, the reform agenda has been too ambitious and generated strong opposition for reasons that were often self-contradictory.

... n particular, those who advocate a new convention on terrorism fail to understand how deeply unhappy people are about the hypocrisy of those who use state power unlawfully and cause massive loss of civilian life - and then expect all countries to sign up to a definition of terrorism that fails to acknowledge the right to resist occupation.

Despite all of this, the commitment to the Millennium Development Goals has probably been strengthened by the US challenge and then the recognition that even for the US, this was a step too far. In addition, the focus on monitoring country-by-country progress against the goals has set up a new spirit of competition between states over reductions in poverty, children in school, better health care for the poor and more sustainable use of environmental resources. Progress is being made.

... We are, without doubt, living through a very disappointing period in world history.

Clare Short, Depression and Mistrust Prevail at the UN, The Independent, September 15, 2005

Strengths and weaknesses of the outcome document

Many non governmental organizations also criticized the final outcome document in this way. Inter Press Service quoted Jim Paul, executive director of Global Policy Forum as saying the final outcome document was weak and full of platitudes and generalities.

Some of the positive aspects of the outcome included the following:

  • On the human rights front, there was agreement to create a Peace Building Commission, and a Human Rights Council.
  • Stopping genocide. Wording on this was more concrete that other issues: nations agreed on a collective responsibility to protect civilians facing genocide and similar atrocities. Governments can no longer use sovereignty and non-intervention norms as excuses to avoid having to act to protect civilians from mass killings.
  • Countries reiterated the need to achieve MDG, even though US initially wanted to strike all mention of it.
  • Education: supporting elimination of user fees for primary education
  • Debt relief: acknowledges the G8 commitments (which were imperfect, though a starting point), and acknowledges that others such as middle-income countries may also need some sort of debt relief.
  • HIV/AIDS: endorsed the G8 commitment to universal access to HIV treatment by 2010
  • Tax evasion: more mention of this problem
  • Reiterated the need for member states to provide the UN with adequate resources as needed (because the UN has a financial crisis of its own whereby some states, the US in particular, has long withheld its dues — and then blamed the UN for being ineffective!)

A number of problems or weaknesses included the following:

  • Generally the final document was quite vague in many areas, and often simply reaffirming past commitments, without adding anything new or substantial.
  • The urgency of reaching the Millennium Development Goals was lacking, it was felt by many. That most of the world is behind on this right now was not really stressed.
  • Trade: risks remaining unequal. There was not much text and what there was was weak and favored rich countries, mostly. There was mention of endorsing trade liberalization but nothing about eliminating the harmful and hypocritical rich country subsidies, or giving more power to smaller/poor countries to have more say in their destiny
  • Poor countries are still subject to neoliberal economic policies prescribed and pressured onto poorer countries by the richer countries and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank
  • Nuclear non-proliferation and Nuclear disarmament was not mentioned. This is a real disgrace, Kofi Annan said (recently the US has indicated the desire to use nuclear weapons more offensively than previously indicated, which is a reverse of the direction the UN wants to go)
  • Terrorism: did not get a definition of terrorism, so while condemnation of it was strong by all, more specific issues were not discussed.
  • The International Criminal Court was not mentioned either
  • Aid: not only was there little commitment to foreign aid, but it was again tied to conditions often deemed as unfair.

The above is a very quick and simple overview. A number of different organizations have provided useful summaries on the final outcome document, and its strengths and weaknesses, including the following:

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Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
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Document revision history

Updates regarding the outcome of the World Summit meeting