(AP), 9 June 2006
UNITED NATIONS – A pioneering lawyer and women’s rights advocate from Bahrain has been elected UN General Assembly president, the third woman in history and the first from the Middle East ever to take the post.
Shaikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa, the legal adviser to Bahrain’s Royal Court, was chosen for the job Thursday. She is taking over at a time of turmoil, with UN under fire from critics in the US and many of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s proposals to reform the world body bogged down in a power battle between rich and poor nations.
Shaikha Haya’s most important job will likely involve the decision to replace Annan, whose second and last five-year term ends in December. The General Assembly traditionally rubber stamps the Security Council’s choice for UN chief, but some member states have demanded it play a greater role this year.
In a speech to the General Assembly,Shaikha Haya said that reforming the UN is vital. She urged world leaders to agree on a “comprehensive and practical strategy” to fight terrorism, and pledged to fight injustice against women around the world.
“Their suffering drives me to work with you to find suitable solutions to alleviate their pain and uphold the principles of the UN charter, which emphasizes fill respect for human rights,” Shaikha Haya said.
Shaikha Haya, who is a member of Bahrain’s royal family, will oversee the General Assembly’s yearlong 61st session, which begins with a two-week plenary meeting of the UN body in September. She takes over from Jan Eliasson of Sweden, who will turn over the gavel to her then.
The General Assembly, which includes all 191 UN member states, often takes a back seat to the more powerful Security Council. Yet its president can play an important role and is often asked to help settle disputes between blocs of nations.
Eliasson, for example, oversaw negotiations to create the new UN Human Rights Council. He also intervened last week when delegates at a major HIV/AIDS conference could not agree on a document meant to spell out their strategy for fighting the virus over the next 10 years.
Shaikha Haya is the third woman to be General Assembly president in the 60-year history of the UN Liberia’s Angie E. Brooks had the job in 1969, and Vijaya Lakshmi Pandi of India presided in 1953.
“I met her yesterday and I found her quite impressive,” Annan said. “All the member states are determined to work with her and to support her, and I think she’s going to bring a new dimension to the work here.”
Shaikha Haya served as Bahrain’s ambassador to France from 2000-2004. She is one of the first two women to ever practice law in Bahrain, and has argued for greater rights for women before Islamic courts.
The post of General Assembly president goes through a regional rotation each year. Bahrain is part of the Asian group, which inherited the job from Western Europe.