UNITED NATIONS -- Burdened by debt, war, poverty and AIDS, Africa is getting special attention at the U.N. Millennium Summit with world leaders calling for a new commitment to bring the continent out of its misery and give its people hope.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a summit address focused entirely on Africa and U.N. peacekeeping, called Wednesday for world governments to enter into a new partnership with the continent to help it settle its conflicts and encourage its economies to develop.
"There is a dismal record of failure in Africa on the part of the developed world that shocks and shames our civilization," Blair said. "We should use this unique summit for a concrete purpose: to start the process of agreeing a way forward for Africa."
About 150 world leaders -- the greatest assembly of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and other rulers in history -- listened as Blair, President Clinton, Cuba's Fidel Castro and a long line of others on Wednesday addressed the unprecedented session. Dozens more were getting their turn on the soapbox Thursday, including leaders from South Africa, Sierra Leone and Zambia.
Africa also was expected to take center stage Thursday afternoon, when the heads of state of the 15 Security Council members hold a special open council meeting on peace and security in the next century.
The wars in Sierra Leone, Congo, and Eritrea-Ethiopia were almost certain to be discussed as they represent the biggest challenges today to the United Nations.
The U.N. peacekeeping department has taken on enormous duties in recent months in Africa, but has found itself at a loss to carry them out effectively because of poorly trained and equipped troops spread over large areas -- Congo itself is one-fourth the size of the United States.
In Sierra Leone, 500 U.N. peacekeepers were taken hostage last May by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front -- an embarrassing debacle that led to calls for U.N. member states to provide peacekeeping troops who are trained, equipped and willing to counter such challenges with force.
A recent U.N. report, commissioned by the secretary-general for the summit, recommended a complete overhaul of the peacekeeping department. It called for the equivalent of a ministry of defense to modernize and professionalize the peacekeepers, so troops can deploy rapidly and take action in clear cases of aggression.
The report by a panel of international experts has been widely applauded by world leaders at the summit, who say the U.N. failures that led to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica must never be repeated.
"The darkest pages were written in Rwanda where, under the indifferent eye of all of us, a genocide was committed," said Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, whose country lost 10 U.N. soldiers in the opening days of the massacres in central Africa.
He called for a new concept of operations for peacekeeping that would include rapid-reaction regional peacekeeping capabilities. Blair called for a similar radical change.
Beyond peacekeeping, several African speakers called for the United Nations and its members to address the root economic causes.
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