Bush urges UN to champion human rights

His speech to the General Assembly Tuesday zeroed in on violations by some UN member nations.

President Bush challenged the United Nations to fulfill the promise of its founding principle of human liberty Tuesday in a speech to the General Assembly that zeroed in on the human rights violations of UN member states including Burma and Sudan.

Using a serious tone and recognizing the differences the United States has often had with the UN, Mr. Bush cited the many areas where he said the two had worked together for global betterment – including addressing HIV/AIDS and malaria – and said more progress could be made by UN members using the principles of freedom and universal human rights as their guide.

Noting that world leaders had come together 60 years ago to draw up the Declaration of Universal Human Rights as part of the founding of the UN, Bush said, "Those standards must guide our work in this world," in addressing both "long-term threats" and "the immediate needs of today."

Bush has not always been universally well-received in his annual address to the opening of the General Assembly, and this year was no different. Some delegations made a point of sitting with hands in their laps as others applauded politely when Bush concluded.

But the president's principal audience may not have been the UN delegates seated before him, anyway, some experts say, but rather the American audience.

This speech and its emphasis "were really directed at the American people, to show that he is standing firm on the principles of human rights," says Jeswald Salacuse, a specialist in international relations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "His primary focus was not necessarily the delegates seated in front of him."

Forgoing the diplomatic niceties of the typical General Assembly speech, Bush singled out Zimbabwe, Belarus, and Sudan as violators of their own citizens' rights.

He spoke of continued "genocide" in the Darfur region of Sudan and praised French President Nicholas Sarkozy for calling a Security Council session on the issue.

On Cuba, he said, "The long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end," and he called on the UN to assist Cuba in a transition to democracy.

But he targeted Burma (Myanmar) – a case that is known to resonate particularly with first lady Laura Bush – and announced a set of new economic and other sanctions by the US. Condemning the ruling junta as particularly "unyielding," Bush challenged UN members to join the US in adopting new coercive measures.

But Bush's tone suggested he may not hold out great hope for a sudden rallying of the UN to his perspective on the world.

"Bush has been very skeptical of the UN ever since he came to the presidency, and he is saying he still has the view that in many ways it's failed to do its job," says Mr. Salacuse.

He says that perspective resonates with many Americans – although others may hear Bush speaking on human rights and think first of the US treatment of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Bush's second focus on "softer" issues such as poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS programs has a better likelihood of resonating with the world audience, says Salacuse.

But he adds that, despite increases in US foreign assistance, America still lags behind other donor countries. "Relative to our GNP [gross national product], the US is still not the most generous, and the delegates there know it."

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