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UN's focus on Middle East overlooks other urgent global matters

There's concern that issues like the debt crisis in Europe, an increase in the Pakistani heroin trade, and an armed struggle in Mali, to name a few, are being overlooked this week during the UN General Assembly.

By Hannah AllamMcClatchy Newspapers / September 27, 2012

Myanmar President Thein Sein addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the UN Headquarters in New York, September 27, 2012.

Lucas Jackson/REUTERS

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New York

Casual observers of this week’s United Nations General Assembly could be forgiven for thinking that the Middle East was the only region of concern for world leaders.

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The civil war in Syria, Israeli-led anxiety over Iran’s nuclear program and anti-American riots in Arab countries are dominating this 67th gathering of heads of state, overshadowing other pressing issues of global importance, say analysts and visiting delegates.

Even when raised by leaders as prominent as President Barack Obama, problems such as human trafficking, climate change or the global financial crisis have barely registered this week. While the General Assembly’s official agenda listed more than 160 topics, delegates struggled for an audience if they dared to broach issues not rooted in the perennially troubled Middle East.

“Are there some?” James Paul, the director of the Global Policy Forum, asked with mock incredulity.

Paul, whose organization monitors policymaking at the United Nations, said he’d heard scant mention of the U.S. government’s trillion-dollar deficit, the euro crisis or the sense that the world economy was “on the edge.” At most, he said, non-Middle East issues arise in sideline meetings, and even then are couched in jargon about “multi-stakeholders’ dialogue” and “pro-poor policies.”

“The most important things are not coming up here, and that’s what’s disappointing,” Paul said.

Seemingly every bland comment about Syria has become news, but there was little buzz when the United Kingdom pledged more than $1.5 million to combat sexual violence in conflict zones.

Or when the Pakistanis announced that the heroin trade had increased by 3,000 percent and was fueling deadly terrorist groups.

Or when the Senegalese sounded alarms over the fact that heavily armed Islamist militant groups now occupy two-thirds of Mali, “sowing despair among the population and destroying symbols of World Cultural Heritage.”

The continent of Africa, whose problems take up an estimated 70 percent of the U.N. Security Council’s agenda, appears downright neglected when compared with the attention lavished on the Middle East this week. The crisis in Mali, for example, shares some common features with Syria – jihadist haven, refugee exodus – but the United Nations so far hasn’t named a special envoy, which would propel that conflict to more prominence.

Syria, meanwhile, is on its second high-profile envoy in 18 months.

“Syria is so visible. It’s a real civil war and you have Syrian opposition documenting it and sending it out,” said Tiffany Lynch, senior Africa policy analyst at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan watchdog commission that makes policy recommendations to the U.S. government. “There’s really a lack of press coverage on Mali.”

“What happens in Africa doesn’t get much attention,” she added.

African delegates were diplomatic about the U.N.’s focus on their northern neighbors but concerned that there wasn’t enough action to help African countries get on track to meet their Millennium Development Goals, eight benchmarks that U.N. member countries are striving to reach by 2015. They include establishing universal primary education, eradicating hunger and empowering women.

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