RELUCTANT VISITORS: MAURITANIA ON THEIR MIND - United Nations Special Session of the General Assembly



9 September 2005

Officially, 122 Heads of State are listed to attend the Special Session of the General Assembly. Let's count how many of them really show up in New York on 14 September.

Except for leaders of democracies truly elected by popular vote, many of those listed have recently got a reality check. No, it's not the growing difficulties facing the general document they're expected to sign. That's hardly relevant. "For Wider Freedom" is a farcical title to those who took and help power by suppressing it. Most of them believe the title was concocted as a variation on a popular theme in certain powerful countries. So they go along to get along, smiling discreetly in their heavily guarded armed plated limousines.

In fact, the title put forward under the signature of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan is blatantly lifted from the declarations of someone they secretively regard as an intellectual lightweight -- it is U.S. President George W. Bush who launched internationally and unflinchingly the Wider Freedom Campaign. The means used by his administration may and should be questioned in a free world. But, like it or not, that title really belongs to the 43rd President of the U.S. elected by popular vote for a renewed second mandate.

The fact is that most heads of state plan to visit New York either for convenient bilateral meetings or getting to Washington D.C. Those with tentative appointments will certainly come. The doubtful will keep trying. The hopeless will either show up for a group photo and a joyful respite, in New York's September glory, or find excuses to stay elsewhere.

It is not a failed platform that led such unelected heads of state to hesitate. That is a matter for their Foreign Ministers. The reality check was what happened recently in Mauritania. As its head of state for the last 20 years went away to attend the funeral of King Fahd in Saudi Arabia, his own security chief replaced him - amidst popular jubilation. Initial noises were made by the U.N. Secretary General, the European and African Unions and others about an undemocratic process. The noises receded after it was pointed out by popular groups that the deposed President for life was a despotic symbol of non-democracy. Visiting delegations were assured of forthcoming elections, the country's ambassador to Paris was appointed Prime Minister and the traveling Ould Taya found a welcome reception in starving Niger. That gave many of his counterparts, particularly in the region, cause to pause.

Even if assured of an official free lunch and a group Kodak moment, how many of those autocrats would risk a week's absence in faraway New York? Particularly when they realize that even their host, the U.N. Security General, is himself hanging in there for whatever its worth, would they leave their seat of imposed power to join in giving him much needed support?

Now that the walls of fear have fallen in varied spots around the globe and people are encouraged to stand up for their human dignity, how many of those who used to nonchalantly parade as storymen in Manhattan will now take a miscalculated risk? And if not this year, how about next year?