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UN Summits: A Spent Force

United Nations "summits" on global topics need a rest. A long one.

The latest one ended Wednesday in South Africa with little to show after nine days of haggling over broad wording on an even broader topic of "sustainable development." The final document has enough wiggle room to allow most nations to claim some sort of victory and do little.

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One reason for such inaction is that these expensive conferences have been hijacked by private activist groups who are generally out of touch with most elected governments. The heckling of US Secretary of State Colin Powell during his speech Wednesday was an example of just how uncivil some members of so-called "civil society" have become.

Stalemates covered up by words don't lead to real action. That's why it may be time for the UN to restore the General Assembly as the best and proper forum for reaching a consensus on such global issues as the environment, poverty, and rights. It is a truer voice of humanity than these "summits" where leaders sign vague documents for the sake of pleasing some constituents back home.

With nearly two-thirds of countries now under some democratic rule, the General Assembly can better serve as a global consensusmaker than it did during the cold war, when US-Soviet tensions and fewer democracies made the body a dead end for debate.

And the UN building itself in New York has a respectful and calm environment that can keep the globetrotting gang of perpetual protesters from disrupting such events.

Of course, plenty of useful ideas were crafted at this conference, such as ways to bring clean water to more people. UN agencies and aid workers need more help in those areas.

But UN conferences, the kind set up to cajole and even coerce, are a spent force for change.