November 10, 2001
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General Assembly focuses on terrorism, finally

Amberish K Diwanji at the United Nations

Last year, when the United Nations General Assembly hosted the historic Millennium Summit, with leaders from across the world flying down to speak at the session, it was believed that such a huge gathering of leaders would not occur for a long time.

But much has happened between September 2000 and November 2001, most notably the terrorist attacks on the United States. And for the second year in a row, leaders from across the world have flown down to personally deliver the address on behalf of their nation.

If last year the theme was the new millennium and the hope for it, this year it was far more narrow and focused: eliminating terrorism. In that sense, it was perhaps a triumphant moment for India.

For the past few years, India has been warning the world about the dangers of terrorism that knew no boundaries and pointing out that those who harbour terrorists are as dangerous as the terrorists themselves.

These statements were dismissed by the rest of the globe as a reference to Pakistan and India's ongoing conflict over the Kashmir issue.

But this year, from the moment UN Secretary General Kofi Annan made his preliminary remarks, down to United States President George W Bush, the theme was terrorism, the financing of terrorism and the fact that no State that supports terrorism should be spared.

Bush spoke forcefully of how committed the US was to fighting terrorists, and insisted that those providing a safe haven to them would not be spared too. He was clearly referring to Afghanistan.

In his speech, Vajpayee asserted there could be no ideological, political or religious justification for terrorism, a point harped on by speakers before and after. He categorically declared that self-serving arguments seeking to justify terrorism according to its root causes in certain parts, while condemning terrorism elsewhere should be rejected by the world.

The prime minister called on the world to coordinate the efforts of the international community to stop countries from sponsoring and sheltering terrorism. He said that there were two key elements to fighting terrorism: stopping the financing of terrorism, and denying the terrorists safe havens for training, arming and operation.

Every Indian present knew that Vajpayee's reference was not just Afghanistan that hosted Osama bin Laden, but also Pakistan that supports thousands of terrorists who operate in Kashmir. But whether this message against Pakistan went out to the rest of the world or not is something that only time will tell.

The first day's speeches at the General Assembly tended to focus on terrorism and the Palestinian cause. Many speakers said it was time the UN, which decades ago established the state of Israel, should take the initiative to create an independent Palestinian state.

Vajpayee's speech carried no reference to the conflict in the Middle East. A senior government official later said India's position on the issue is well-known, and hence there was no reason for India to reiterate itself.

About half the prime minister's speech was devoted to the impact of globalisation and the need to fight poverty, seen as one of the sources of terrorism. Perhaps the fact that the World Trade Organisation's negotiations have just begun in Doha, Qatar, preyed on the minds of the prime minister's speechwriters. India has strongly opposed the WTO draft declaration at Doha and sought key changes in many of the proposals listed.

But it did appear that Vajpayee's shift to economics seemed to lessen the stridency of his call against those who support terrorism. Again, the senior official said the government felt the need was for a well-rounded speech rather than a single-point approach. He insisted it was a good speech and well delivered!

The prime minister's speech, delivered in Hindi, lacked the wit and vigour that usually accompanies his speeches in Hindi. Vajpayee read out from a prepared text, and in fact read so fast that he finished his address in 10 minutes, well within the 15 minutes allotted to each speaker.

This is only the second time that the General Assembly has been addressed in Hindi, one of India's two official languages (the other is English). The previous speech in Hindi was also delivered by Vajpayee in 1977, when he was India's foreign minister.

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