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At UN, Bush And Ahmadinejad Talk Poverty, Tyranny

By Heather Maher

September 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Although tensions between Tehran and Washington have been rising over issues ranging from nuclear weapons to arming Iraqi insurgents, U.S. President George W. Bush and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad both delivered speeches to the United Nations General Assembly on September 25 that were surprisingly nonconfrontational.

Bush and Ahmadinejad could not have known that they would almost agree on two points in their separate addresses. But on the subjects of poverty and UN reform, they came very close.

On the suffering caused by poverty, Ahmadinejad said: "Daily 800 million people go to bed hungry and 980 million suffer from absolute poverty, meaning their purchasing power is less than $1 a day. People in 39 countries, a total of 9 percent of world’s population, have a life expectancy of 46 years, which is 32 years less than in affluent countries. The gap between the rich and the poor in some parts of the world has increased 40 times. In many countries, people are deprived of education."

On the UN’s duty to help alleviate poverty and disease, Bush said: "When millions of children starve to death or perish from a mosquito bite, we're not doing our duty in the world. When whole societies are cut off from the prosperity of the global economy, we're all worse off."

Bush criticized the UN Human Rights Council, which he said has been "silent on repression by regimes" in North Korea, Iran, and Cuba but "excessively" critical of Israel.

Ahmadinejad singled out the UN Security Council, whose "credibility has been tarnished," he said, accusing it of acting as "prosecutor, judge, and executioner" toward countries who don’t follow its wishes.

Attack On U.S. Policy

During his 40-minute speech, Ahmadinejad attacked several aspects of U.S. policy. He didn’t mention the United States by name, but it was clear which country he was talking about.

"Unfortunately human rights are being extensively violated by certain powers, especially by those who pretend to be their exclusive advocates," he said. "Setting up secret prisons, abducting persons, trials and secret punishments without any regard to due process, extensive tapping of telephone conversations intercepting private mail, have become commonplace and prevalent."

Indeed, Ahmadinejad mentioned the United States by name only once or twice, instead referring to it as the "big power," "the arrogant power," and -- when talking about Iraq -- "the occupier."

Americans, he said, "don’t have the courage to declare their defeat and exit Iraq."

On the subject of his country’s most polarizing issue, its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad insisted that Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons technology and that "all activities have been peaceful and transparent."

He said other countries had tried to deny Iran its rights as a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and had politicized the issue of nuclear research.

"In the last two years, because of abuse of power on the Security Council, arrogant powers have tried to intimidate with military action and threatened economic sanctions," he said. "But because of its belief in God and national unity, Iran continued to walk ahead, step by step. And now Iran as a country has the industrial scale fuel cycle capability for peaceful purposes."

He added: "In our opinion, the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed and has turned into an ordinary agency matter."

No Mention Of War

When Bush spoke earlier in the day, he surprised many by not addressing Iran’s nuclear program, or the U.S. belief that Iran sponsors terrorism or is aiding insurgents in Iraq. Indeed, he didn’t mention the war in Iraq.

Instead, he chose to talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which he said "stands as a landmark achievement in the history of human liberty."

Members of the UN disagree on many things, Bush said, but can agree on the fact that the world body must address the suffering caused by disease and hunger, poverty and illiteracy, tyranny, and violence.

Bush challenged member nations to help people who live in countries where citizens are oppressed and fear their government. "Every civilized nation also has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under dictatorship," he said. "In Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Iran, brutal regimes deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration."

In his only mention of the two places where the United States is fighting wars, he urged the UN to support countries that are struggling to achieve democracy.

"The extremists are doing everything in their power to bring down these young democracies," Bush said. "The people of Lebanon and Afghanistan and Iraq have asked for our help, and every civilized nation has a responsibility to stand with them."

New Sanctions For Myanmar

Bush reserved his strongest words for the military junta that rules the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar. Thousands of monks and citizens have been conducting peaceful protests in the streets of the main city, Yangon, in recent days, calling for democracy and an end to military oppression.

Bush announced that the United States would tighten economic sanctions on the country’s leaders and their financial supporters, and slap a wider travel ban on the "most egregious" human rights abusers.

"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear," he said. "Basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and worship are severely restricted."

Bush also spoke of a Cuba without Fidel Castro, the 81-year-old leader of the communist-run government. He said "the long run of a cruel dictator is coming nearing its end" and predicted that Cubans are "ready" for freedom.

Finally, Bush urged the UN to step up its internal reform process, including considering expanding the Security Council. Bush said Japan, for one, is "well-qualified" to gain a permanent seat on the 15-member council.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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