By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 25, 2007 7:12 PM
UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 25 -- President Bush announced new sanctions against the military government of Burma Tuesday, figuratively joining hands with tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of Rangoon and challenging the United Nations to join him in a broader "mission of liberation."
Addressing the annual U.N. General Assembly, Bush called on the world body to do more to fight tyranny, disease, ignorance and poverty, and pointedly demanded that it reform its own institutions. He singled out for condemnation a familiar list of repressive nations, including Belarus, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe and Cuba, leaving unmentioned undemocratic nations that are allied with the United States.
The president used his speech here to focus particularly on Burma, where Buddhist monks and other demonstrators returned for an eighth day of peaceful protests against the junta that rules the Southeast Asian nation. Government troops, including an army division that helped put down a 1988 peaceful uprising by shooting into crowds and killing thousands, converged on the country's biggest city a day after the government warned the dissident monks to halt the protests and return to their monasteries.
"Americans are outraged by the situation in Burma, where a military junta has imposed a 19-year reign of fear," Bush told the U.N. assembly. "Basic freedoms of speech, assembly and worship are severely restricted. Ethnic minorities are persecuted. Forced child labor, human trafficking and rape are common. The regime is holding more than 1,000 political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party was elected overwhelmingly by the Burmese people in 1990."
Bush said he will tighten economic sanctions against government leaders and their financial backers and expand a U.S. visa ban on those deemed responsible for "the most egregious violations of human rights." He also called on other nations "to use their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom."
Burma has occupied a prominent spot on the White House radar screen since first lady Laura Bush became personally upset about the situation in the country now called Myanmar by its leaders. In recent weeks, she called on U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to urge more action on Burma and summoned reporters to condemn the government -- unusually public moves by the first lady.
But the United States long ago imposed tough trade and arms sanctions against Burma and has few diplomatic weapons left in its arsenal. Bush's announcement here was more a symbolic show of support for the demonstrators that might produce tangible results only if other nations follow suit -- particularly China, Burma's chief trading partner and regional ally.
In his speech, Bush made little mention of Iran, whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was sitting in the audience listening and was spotted at one point checking his watch. Ahmadinejad's visit to New York has stirred emotional protests and denunciations. It included a combustible appearance on Monday at Columbia University, where he jousted with the school's president over whether the Iranian is a dictator.
Bush mentioned Iran in a list of nations that repress their people but did not elaborate.
"Every civilized nation also has a responsibility to stand up for the people suffering under a dictatorship," he said. "In Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Iran, brutal regimes deny their people the fundamental rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration" of Human Rights. He said "the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end" in Cuba, called Zimbabwe's behavior "an assault on its people" and condemned "repression" and "genocide" in Sudan.
But he said nothing about Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt or other U.S. allies with autocratic governments, although the White House on Monday night released a written statement criticizing Cairo for trying to close a human rights group and sentencing newspaper editors to jail.
The president's speech, part of a three-day diplomatic mission here, drew several hundred protesters outside the U.N. building who expressed opposition to his Iraq war and terrorism detention policies. Some wore orange jumpsuits to demonstrate concern over prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay military prison, and about a dozen were arrested for civil disobedience, according to the Associated Press.
Bush also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and plans to participate in a round table on democracy and a Security Council meeting on Africa.
As he has in the past, the president confronted the United Nations, saying it must do more to live up to its own ideals.
"This great institution must work for great purposes: to free people from tyranny and violence, hunger and diseases, illiteracy and ignorance and poverty and despair," he said. "Every member of the United Nations must join in this mission of liberation."
He also offered blunt criticism of U.N. institutions. "The American people are disappointed by the failures of the Human Rights Council," he said. "This body has been silent on repression by regimes from Havana and Caracas to Pyongyang and Tehran, while focusing its criticism excessively on Israel. To be credible on human rights in the world, the United Nations must first reform its own Human Rights Council."
Bush also offered support for expanding the Security Council and giving Japan a permanent seat, along with the five nations that already have perpetual places on the panel: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
"Other nations should be considered as well," he said. "The United States will listen to all good ideas, and we will support changes to the Security Council as part of broader U.N. reform."