UNITED NATIONS – A key attraction for leaders from more than 170 countries attending next week's U.N. summit is "face time" — that rare opportunity to look each other in the eye and talk about global hotspots from Nepal and central Africa to the Middle East.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan (search) asked heads of state and government to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the United Nations (search) by adopting a sweeping blueprint for tackling the challenges of the 21st century and taking fresh action to fight global poverty. That will be the public focus of the Sept. 14-16 summit, the largest-ever gathering of world leaders.
But Undersecretary-General Ibrahim Gambari (search) said the main reason leaders come to U.N. summits and the annual ministerial meeting of the General Assembly is the rare chance to talk to each other and to the secretary-general in person about key issues.
"The leaders will have to respond to new as well as old threats to international peace and security," Gambari said Thursday. "The new threats include terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, failed and failing states, and HIV/ AIDS. The older ones range from the fight against poverty and disease to conflicts between states."
The leaders are also certain to engage in some old-fashioned behind-the-scenes politicking on two fronts: expanding the powerful U.N. Security Council (search) and choosing a new secretary-general to replace Annan, whose term ends on Dec. 31, 2006. It's supposed to be Asia's turn to choose a candidate, and at least one is expected to be at the summit, Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister Surakiart Sathirathai (search).
In interviews last week and on Thursday, Gambari did a tour of the globe, talking about hotspots likely to be high on the agenda of the heads of state and government and their foreign ministers, who will stay on for the General Assembly's ministerial meeting from Sept. 17-28.
In the Middle East, ministers from the so-called Quartet — the U.N., the U.S., the European Union (search) and Russia — will meet on the summit sidelines to assess Israel's historic withdrawal from Gaza (search). They will focus on the difficulties in reviving the Palestinian economy and getting Israelis and Palestinians to return to the road map peace plan, Gambari said.
Security will top the agenda in talks with Iraqi leaders and the United Nations will also be discussing help for the referendum on a new constitution and the elections to follow, he said.
In talks with Iran's new President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (search), the secretary-general will encourage him "to really engage" with the European Union, which is seeking to persuade Tehran to give up some nuclear activities that can be used to make weapons.
The U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri (search) — and the extent of Syria's cooperation — are also certain to be on some leaders' agendas.
Sudan will be also in the spotlight, with many countries watching progress on implementing the peace agreement between the government and southern rebels following the death of rebel leader John Garang (search). They will also be trying to solve the conflict in western Darfur where peace talks are expected to resume next week.
Elsewhere in Africa, there is concern Ivory Coast may not meet its October deadline for elections. If that happens, President Laurent Gbagbo (search) will undoubtedly want to continue in power but rebels have called for an interim government, Gambari said.
On Zimbabwe, the United Nations is struggling to reach agreement with President Robert Mugabe's (search) government on an appeal for funds to help hundreds of thousands of people evicted from slums. Annan has indicated a willingness to visit Zimbabwe, and Gambari said the trip might be arranged during the summit.
Gambari said the world body will consider how to help Somalia, where efforts to rebuild the failed state are "unraveling" and "the prospect of resuming armed conflict is very real," he asked.
In Asia, there is concern about the impact of another recent assassination — Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar (search) — which raised tensions with Tamil rebels. The U.N. is also closely following Myanmar, trying to promote reforms in the military-ruled country, Gambari said.
The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program are scheduled to resume on the eve of the summit and Gambari said the U.N. needs to find ways to help meet the humanitarian needs of North Koreans.
As for the possibility of renewed conflict between India and Pakistan, Gambari said he believes both countries are trying to make progress on the disputed region of Kashmir, the main flashpoint.
"Whatever can be done to promote good relations between India and Pakistan is good not only for both countries, the region, but for the world because they are declared nuclear powers," Gambari said.
In Latin America, Gambari said leaders are concerned about recurring violence in Haiti, turbulence in the Andean region and Venezuela, threats to democratic governments and weak political institutions.
In Europe, he said, prospects for renunification of Cyprus will be on the agenda but Annan is unlikely to relaunch his peace plan which was rejected by Greek Cypriots (search).