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Address by H.E. Dr. Vaira Vike Freiberga,
President of Latvia,

at the 58th session of the UN General Assembly
 New York, 23 September 2003

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary General,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to begin by extending Latvia's heartfelt congratulations to Mr. Julian Hunte on his appointment as President of the UN General Assembly. Latvia highly values your extensive experience, Mr. President, and is confident that you will succeed in your efforts to hasten the pace of reforms within the Assembly. I am pleased that a broad consensus on the main goals of these reforms was attained during the previous session of the General Assembly, and wish you success in your responsible duties.

Three days ago the people of Latvia made a historical decision that will influence their country's course of development over the next foreseeable decades, or even centuries. On September 20, the people of Latvia decided in a referendum to join the European Union. In voting for accession to this influential body of free and democratic nations, my country became the last of ten candidate States to confirm its commitment to a strong and united Europe, and to the extension of a growing family of secure and prosperous nations.

It is our hope that this extended Union of 25 member States will serve not only to promote the welfare of its citizens, but that it will also become an even more significant contributor to international stability and worldwide prosperity. The EU is already the world's largest provider of development assistance, and Latvia looks forward to undertaking the responsibilities and commitments that this entails. This includes taking an active part in the formulation of priorities to ensure that the assistance provided by the EU reaches those who need it most.

Latvia and her Baltic neighbours reappeared on the international stage only twelve short years ago, following half a century of totalitarian rule under Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Our success story of rebirth and renewal testifies that through hard work and dedicated effort, the reestablishment of democratic societies and functioning market economies can be realized within a relatively short period of time.

Many other nations in transition are now undertaking similar paths of development and reform. Latvia is already sharing its experiences with other developing countries, and will continue to do so in the future.

Twelve years ago, when Latvia became a member of the United Nations, the Soviet Union was in the process of breaking up, and the Cold War was coming to an end. As the threat of a nuclear conflagration between two mutually hostile superpowers receded, new challenges to world security were coming to the fore, and older ones were showing no sign of going away.

Perhaps humanity's greatest problem lies in its propensity for violence, which manifests itself in all levels of society, starting with the abusive individual in the family household and ending in an armed conflict in the international arena. Even peaceful countries with lengthy traditions of non-intervention and domestic tranquillity are finding themselves faced with tragic acts of senseless violence that include the beating and killing of immigrants and political assassinations.

The unrest and turmoil in the Middle East, which has lasted for well over five decades, shows no sign of abating and can only hope to come to an end once violence is firmly forsaken as a means for obtaining political ends. Latvia views the Road Map for Peace, which foresees a free and secure State of Israel living in peace alongside an independent Palestinian State, as the only feasible means for ending the dangerous impasse that both sides have now reached. The alternative is a continuing escalation of bloodshed; a never-ending cycle of killing and mounting mutual hostility.

Latvia is ready to promote the establishment of a lasting peace in the region, both under the auspices of the United Nations and of the European Union. We encourage the interested parties to do everything within their means to de-escalate tensions and put the peace process back on track.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The establishment of a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians would also have an additional benefit. It would remove the Palestinian cause as an excuse for terrorists to justify their actions of murder and destruction. As the events of the last few years so poignantly reveal, terrorism and arms proliferation have become two of the largest threats to world security today.

Currently the international community is deeply divided about the ethics and feasibility of implementing direct military action against governments that are deemed to support and sponsor terrorism. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, where undeniably repressive regimes were removed by force through outside intervention, the military measures undertaken by the US and her allies will have to be followed by comprehensive international efforts to help these countries rebuild their societies and their economies. I am certain that most of the people in this room would agree to the need for reconstruction and security, regardless of their opinion about the foreign military presence in these two countries.

Within the limited means at its disposal, Latvia has sent humanitarian assistance and military medical personnel to Afghanistan, and has dispatched a military contingent to help maintain order in post-war Iraq.

Ladies and gentlemen,

      As we collectively seek to avoid a clash of civilizations between different societies of the world, so we must seek to reduce the growing discrepancies between the rich and the poor. Poverty afflicts every single member country of the United Nations. About three billion people, or half of the world's population, struggle to subsist on the equivalent of less than two dollars a day.

Seventy percent of the world's poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their subsistence. The Millennium Goal of reducing poverty and of halving the proportion of people earning less than one dollar a day can only be achieved by improving the plight of poor farmers and creating viable agricultural communities. Poor farmers in the developing countries cannot compete with products subsidized by the treasuries of the world's richest countries.

At this month's World Trade Organization conference in Cancun, Mexico, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the WTO member States "to say 'no' to trade policies that aggravate poverty" and "to say 'yes' to bold and sensible steps that will revive the global economy and set a new course for [sustainable] development."

Poverty also provides fertile ground for modern-day slavery and the trafficking of humans, which continues to occur in nearly all regions of the globe. At the beginning of the 21st century, an estimated 27 million people are still being bought, sold, held captive, brutalized and exploited for profit. Together with NGOs that are working to stop slavery and through international organizations such as the UN, our governments must help these slaves break free from their chains.

We all live in a world where such deadly diseases as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and lately SARS - to name but a few - know no borders. It is only through the continued vigilance of our countries' health officials and through close international cooperation that we will ever be able to keep these mortal dangers in check. I hope that yesterday's AIDS conference has strengthened the resolve and confidence of its participants to overcome this great affliction.

The Government of Latvia is actively pursuing its commitments under the Millennium Declaration to attain the Millennium Development Goals. It has, for example, prepared a national action plan to address the needs of children in consultation with local authorities, NGOs and children themselves. In cooperation with the UNDID office in Riga, it has also established a working group that is devoting particular attention to the reduction of child mortality and the improvement of mothers' health. During the 20th century, mankind has inflicted more environmental damage to our planet than during all of the previous centuries combined. If we do not devote greater efforts to the reduction of environmental pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions, then future generations stand to inherit a planet with increasingly disruptive climate changes, and with forest cover that is restricted to scattered nature reserves. We must avoid reaching the stage where the earth's energy and food resources become irreversibly depleted. People and governments must be willing to make difficult economic sacrifices for the sake of a cleaner environment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since its foundation in 1948 the United Nations has seen the number of its member States increase almost four-fold. It has seen European colonialism, the Cold War, and apartheid come to an end. It has successfully brokered the cessation of hostilities in Cyprus, East Timor and other

countries. It has provided trillions of dollars of development assistance to numerous countries. Latvia believes that the UN should remain the principal world body for the mediation of international disputes and for the formulation of universal rules of conduct abided to by all.

However, the UN has also been criticized for being slow, unwieldy and ineffectual. Few would disagree that the UN has reached a point where changes within its structure are required so that it can effectively deal with the new challenges of the 21st century. Let us recall that a working group on the reform of the Security Council was created already ten years ago, shortly after the collapse of the bipolar world order that had dominated international relations for decades. At that time there were hopes that an unprecedented degree of unity might be reached within the UN community. For the moment, however, it appears that any substantial changes within the UN will have to await a renewed climate of consensus, which is not likely to precede the resolution of the crises in the Middle East, the settling of trade disputes and the establishment of greater unity about agricultural subsidies, arms proliferation and environmental issues.

Latvia firmly believes in the universal ideals that this organization embodies, and is ready, within the limited means at its disposal, to contribute to their realization. The United Nations presents our 191 member states with the unique opportunity to work together for the benefit of humanity. Let us hope that our efforts will be coordinated and constructive, so that we may make the 21st century one of security, peace, and continued development.