updated 9/21/2004 5:57:59 PM ET 2004-09-21T21:57:59

Before a vast assembly of world leaders, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Tuesday criticized the violation of basic laws around the globe — from cold-blooded massacres and prisoner abuses in Iraq to the seizing of children in Russia and widespread rape in Sudan.

“Today the rule of law is at risk around the world,” Annan said. “Again and again, we see fundamental laws shamelessly disregarded — those that ordain respect for innocent life, for civilians, for the vulnerable — especially children.”

President Bush and Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi were among the VIP representatives listening in the hushed General Assembly chamber to the secretary-general’s plea for those with political power to do more to foster the rule of law at home and abroad.

“In too many places ... hatred, corruption, violence and exclusion go without redress. The vulnerable lack effective recourse and the powerful manipulate laws to retain power and accumulate wealth. At times even the necessary fight against terrorism is allowed to encroach unnecessarily on civil liberties,” Annan said.

At this year’s General Assembly ministerial meeting, leaders and representatives of the 191 U.N. member states confront a depressing global agenda dominated by new terrorist threats, a humanitarian disaster in Sudan, turmoil in Iraq, and a growing gap between the richest and poorest inhabitants of planet Earth.

The United Nations said 66 heads of state and 28 heads of government will address the General Assembly along with dozens of ministers.

Bush shifts focus
Bush shifted the U.S. focus, which for the last two General Assembly sessions has been dominated by the prelude and aftermath of the war in Iraq. This year, Iraq is sharing the spotlight with humanitarian issues.

Bush spoke about the need to improve health, expand prosperity and extend freedom. But even before the meeting began, the United States was criticized by French President Jacques Chirac for refusing to endorse a declaration backed by 110 countries to fight hunger and to increase funds to help millions escape the poverty trap.

In his address to the assembly, Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq, urging the world community to turn its attention to fighting the war on terrorism and humanitarian concerns.

He told a subdued audience that the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein delivered the Iraqi people from “an outlaw dictator” and urged the world community to “fight radicalism and terror with justice and dignity.”

During the gathering, Iraq’s Allawi shook hands with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in the U.N. corridors, a rare contact between the two countries, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said.

At the annual ringing of the Japanese Peace Bell on Tuesday morning, Annan urged greater efforts to strengthen the system of collective security to meet the threats of the 21st century and greater solidarity to tackle humanitarian emergencies like the one in Sudan’s western Darfur region.

“We need to do better in forging a true global partnership for development, to fight hunger, ignorance, poverty and disease,” he said. “And we need to promote greater tolerance and understanding among the peoples of the world. Nothing can be more dangerous to our efforts to build peace and development than a world divided along religious, ethnic or cultural lines.”

‘In cold blood’
In his speech to the General Assembly, Annan said that regardless of the findings of an international commission he is appointing to determine if acts of genocide have occurred in Darfur, “things are happening there which must shock the conscience of every human being.”

“In Darfur, we see whole populations displaced, and their homes destroyed, while rape is used as a deliberate strategy,” he said.

The 19-month conflict in Darfur has killed more than 50,000 people and forced more than 1.2 million more to flee their homes.

In the southern Russian town of Beslan, where a school was seized, “we have seen children taken hostage and brutally massacred,” Annan said.

He condemned the massacre of civilians in Iraq “in cold blood, while relief workers, journalists and other noncombatants are taken hostage and put to death in the most barbarous fashion.”

But he also said Iraqi prisoners have been “disgracefully abused,” an implicit criticism of the U.S. treatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

“In Israel we see civilians, including children, deliberately targeted by Palestinian suicide bombers. And in Palestine we see homes destroyed, lands seized, and needless civilian casualties caused by Israel’s excessive use of force,” he said.

Annan has appointed a panel to determine the major challenges facing the world in the new millennium and recommend ways to address them, including reforming the United Nations itself.

The panel’s report, expected in December, will be the basis of a major report by the secretary-general to U.N. members in the spring.

Annan plans to invite all world leaders to next year’s ministerial meeting of the General Assembly to act on the recommendations and to assess progress toward meeting the goals that world leaders agreed on at the 2000 Millennium Summit.

They include halving the number of people living in dire poverty, and ensuring that all children have an elementary school education, that all families have clean water, and that the AIDS epidemic is halted — all by 2015.

Security alert
Also at the United Nations, photos of an upstate New York man were circulated among security officials after a neighbor reported finding a poster picturing Bush and the words “dead man” spray-painted nearby.

According to law enforcement officials, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, the Secret Service put out a nationwide notice to other law enforcement agencies which said James Ward, 57, of Bainbridge, N.Y., had left house keys with a neighbor before driving away on Sept. 9 with a rifle in his truck.

The neighbor later entered the house and found the photo and spray-painted words, the notice said.

UN security was notified because Bush was speaking there on Tuesday morning. Law enforcers said Ward, who was not believed to be in the New York City area, was last seen in Virginia on Sept. 12. Wisconsin was one focus of the search.

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