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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2678

Will Libyan Leader Make his Maiden U.N. Appearance?

By Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service

United Nations, 11 Jun, (IPS): Every September, most of the world's political leaders make their annual pilgrimage to New York to address the General Assembly sessions of the United Nations.

The 192-member General Assembly, the U.N.'s supreme policy making body, has routinely served as a high-profile international platform for over 150 world leaders who also try to boost their image back home with their political grandstanding in New York.

But there are several controversial leaders, including Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi, the late Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and Kim Il Sung of North Korea, who for reasons of their own, scrupulously avoided the world body - or were forced to.

Still, there were many, like Cuba's Fidel Castro, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Yassir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), who braved a hostile reception in New York to make their way to the United Nations despite, in some cases, unruly street demonstrations.

The election of Ali Abdessalam Treky, Libya's Minister of African Union Affairs as the new president of the General Assembly, has led to speculation whether Qaddafi will make his maiden appearance at the United Nations in mid-September to celebrate his country's accomplishment.

"We have no official confirmation," says one U.N. source, "but he may well spring a surprise - considering the fact that Libya has strengthened its political and diplomatic ties with the United States, the U.N.'s host country."

While congratulating Treky Wednesday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations was familiar territory to the new president who has served three times as his country's U.N. ambassador, most recently in 2003.

James Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS the United States has often failed in its responsibilities as host country to welcome legitimate visitors to the United Nations (whether heads of state, diplomats, experts or representatives of non-governmental organisations), also by denying visas.

"This takes away from the U.N.'s capacity to hear all points of view and to act as a truly international forum," he said.

In the past, he pointed out, it is quite certain that the United States would not have permitted a Qaddafi visit.

"But if Qaddafi comes to the U.N. now, it will not be as the radical pariah of the past, but as the more Western-friendly leader of today, welcomed back into the fold and forgiven for his past sins," Paul noted.

Barbara Crossette, a former U.N. Bureau Chief for the New York Times, told IPS that she once discussed the non-appearance of some heads of government/state with a former secretary-general because he was unable to persuade even his own head of state to come to New York.

His sense was that some of the world leaders were often afraid to come to New York for their own security, knowing how exiled opposition groups will turn out, possibly with weapons.

"I don't think Kim (Il Sung) ever came to New York for a General Assembly session, though Iranian leaders have come pretty regularly," said Crossette, who covered the United Nations from 1994 through 2001.

"I would guess that American governments, and of course New York City, have not been too upset that they have not had to protect some of these heads of government whose presence would create domestic political flak," she said.

"Given the low level of mainstream reporting from the U.N. in the U.S. these days, I don't know how much attention what anyone said would get - beyond a one-day wonder story."

"When I first joined the Times decades ago, the foreign staff always had to compile daily summaries of all heads of governments' speeches. Now there isn't even a list, and all the attention is on bilaterals and other things happening on the fringes," said Crossette.

An Asian diplomat told IPS that some political leaders are so insecure at home they fear a possible military coup during their visit to New York.

In September 2006, the Prime Minister of Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted from power in a military coup, while he was in New York to address the General Assembly sessions.

As a result, some world leaders have been jokingly advised to bring their army, navy, air force and police chiefs along with them to New York, in order to avoid a potential coup back home.

Regarding a possible visit by Qaddafi, Paul of the Global Policy Forum told IPS that the turning point for the Libyan leader came in 2003, not accidentally, during the time of the Iraq War.

Qaddafi then agreed to abandon Libya's nuclear weapons programme (the public reason for his rehabilitation). More importantly, however, he agreed to allow western oil companies to again exploit Libya's oil reserves.

There was even an event in Tripoli marking this tremendous change, attended by no less than Tony Blair, then Britain's prime minister, Paul said.

Libya, it will be recalled, had been subject to long sanctions, accused of responsibility for terrorism, and even the object of a direct air attack by the United States in April 1986, an attack that targeted the leader personally.

"Qaddafi remains today a colourful figure, with grand ideas. It would be interesting to have him visit the U.N. It seems unlikely that the U.S. would now stand in the way," Paul added.

And if he is still as flamboyant as he was in his youthful days, says a senior U.N. official, Qaddafi is expected to arrive with a retinue of female body guards and may literally pitch his tent outside the U.N. (as he has done at several overseas gatherings by refusing to stay at hotels).

But perhaps this time, the ageing leader, who is the current chairman of the African Union, may opt for a five-star hotel.

At the AU election last February, Qaddafi was hailed as the "king of kings" while he continued to peddle his pet project: a United States of Africa with its own common currency and modeled on the European Union.

- Asian Tribune -

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