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Annan urges UN ministerial meeting for West Asia to embrace region's thirst for freedom, reform

Annan urges UN ministerial meeting for West Asia to embrace region's thirst for freedom, reform

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has challenged senior ministers gathered in the Syrian capital of Damascus to respond to their peoples' thirst for progress, freedom and reform to realize the great potential of West Asia's rich human and natural resources.

"You meet at a time of ongoing political tension and instability in the region, which have clear implications for socio-economic and political development," Mr. Annan said in a message to the twenty-third session of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), which opened yesterday and will run through 12 May. The message was delivered by Mervat Tallawy, the regional body's Executive Secretary.

Mr. Annan said that conflict and turmoil had not diminished the West Asian people's thirst for progress and reform, and he urged the political officials and social, economic and media figures in attendance to be prepared to take collective action this coming September in New York, when the world's nations will gather to consider the comprehensive agenda he put forward in his report "In Larger Freedom."

"The basic thrust of my proposals is that we cannot have security without development, we cannot have development without security and we cannot have either without respect for human rights and the rule of law," Mr. Annan said. "I urge you to do your part – for your people through engaging actively in UN-ESCWA, and for all people through your support for bold decisions this coming September."

In her address to the meeting, Ms. Tallawy said that most of the countries in the Arab region were facing difficulties that were depriving the people of the opportunity to pursue the same path towards sustainable development as the other regions of the world. But notwithstanding those very real challenges, the ESCWA region has been able to make progress, she said, highlighting improvements in economic performance, low inflation, a 90 per cent primary school enrolment, and, among other things, increased attention from foreign investors.

Many challenges nevertheless remained, she said, emphasizing that countries in the region would need assistance to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). "Strenuous efforts must be made to achieve regional integration, increase cooperation between countries in the region…increase joint undertakings by Arab country and private sector and civil society institutions aimed at activating the economic role and directing greater activity towards productive activity."

Another highlight of the session's first day was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on maritime transport cooperation in the Arab Mashreq, the eastern half of the Arab region. On the heels of respective agreements on international roads and international railways in the Arab Mashreq, the new measure aims to bolster economic cooperation and integration, and acknowledge the importance of maritime transport in serving and enhancing intra-regional trade. The MOU was signed by representatives from Jordan, Syria, Qatar, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

Today the Commission held a roundtable discussion of peace and security and its effect on development, with Ms. Tallawy stressing the need for member countries of the region to prepare meticulous, constructive notes pending discussion of Mr. Annan’s report at the United Nations in September. That would give the vision, interests and worries of the Arab region the attention they deserve in the report, and hence in the policies of the international community, she said.

She also quoted a number of experts as saying that Western Asia could have reached a growth rate approaching that of countries in South-East Asia, and that unemployment could have been cut in half, had the area not suffered the wars, occupations and instability it did.

“The whole world might have avoided a lot of anguish had the situation in the region been different,” she said. “Owing to this region’s position and its resources – here I am not only referring to oil or other natural resources but also to its vast human resources – the developments, tensions and events that befall our countries have a global effect economically, culturally and socially. Hence, it is no surprise to find the attention of the whole world focused on this region in particular.”