Environment Tops UN Agenda


THE 44th United Nations General Assembly opens today with delegates heartened by a broadening global d'etente but apprehensive about ecological threats to the planet. The two perceptions will dictate the session's mood and course in dealing with its nearly 150-item agenda.

Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar set the tone in his State of the World report delivered on the eve of the session. Despite some seemingly intractable problems, he said, there is an ``extraordinary improvement of the international (political) climate'' because the ``two major power blocs have started an assiduous search for bases of stable peace between them.''

At the same time, he expressed apprehension over the environmental crisis ranging from the ozone layer depletion to the ``vexatious issue of the trans-border disposal of hazardous wastes.''

Initial attention will focus on the scores of presidents, premiers, and cabinet ministers present. Beginning next Tuesday and continuing for three weeks, each will mount to the lectern for general debate speeches and wide-ranging national policy statements. President Bush is expected to speak in the United States' customary No. 2 spot.

The star attraction is likely to be Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat. His appearance, however, hinges on receiving a US visa. Last year, Arafat was denied one (though he eventually spoke to the Assembly when it reconvened in Geneva specifically for that purpose). But now, diplomats say, it will be difficult for the US to justify denying Arafat a visa. They point out that, since last year, Arafat has foresworn terrorism and the US has been carrying on talks with PLO representatives in Tunis.

The Middle East remains high on the agenda with flickering hope that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's recent peace initiative involving Israel and the Palestinians and the Arab League commission's mediation efforts in Lebanon will help to defuse explosive regional conflicts.

Renewed emphasis is also expected to be given to the drug crisis, in the light of the cocaine cartels' challenge to Colombia's central authority and possible implications for other governments - notably Bolivia and Peru.

Refugees, poverty, disarmament, and the third-world debt crisis will be dealt with in speeches and resolutions. But these issues will be addressed substantively, if at all, either bilaterally - as in the case of US-Soviet arms talks - or, as with debt, in other arenas.

Afghanistan and Cambodia, two decade-old agenda items, will be reprised, but in a lower key. The Soviet Army has left Afghanistan, and Vietnam has promised to have its forces out of Cambodia by Sept. 27. In both cases, the focus now is on achieving a settlement among internal factions.

The character of other Assembly debates also has been changed by events. In Africa, Namibia is moving by fits and starts toward independence under the nervous eye of the UN Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG). The territory is almost certain to be admitted at a resumed 44th General Assembly session as the UN's 160th member when it completes the transition to independence by spring. In Morocco, an accommodation on the Western Sahara between Rabat and the Polisario guerrillas appears to be in the works.

In Central America, a UN peace operation that eventually may span the five-nation region from Guatemala to Costa Rica is under way. The first component is already deployed to monitor Nicaragua's election process.

As for the environment, an outpouring of pronouncements and actions has pushed the issue to center stage. Most recently, concern has been formally extended to outer space in a new agenda item proposed by Malta. The proposal calls for the ``environmental protection of extraterritorial spaces for present and future generations.'' Another agenda item is keyed to the greenhouse effect and the ozone-layer depletion.

In addition, Costa Rica's President Oscar Arias - who is expected to attend the Assembly session - has proposed a global reforestation program to halt and reverse the climatic changes caused by the destruction of the world's forests.

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