Mon, 06 Mar 2000

Vietnam a rare winner in Mideast peace efforts

By Luke Hunt

HANOI (AFP): Vietnam, cash-strapped and deprived of international attention, emerged last week a rare winner from attempts by the United Nations to break the deadlocked peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

As hosts to a three day conference on the "Palestinian Question", Hanoi never shied from throwing its voice behind the Palestinian cause claiming its own 30-year struggle for independence had emboldened a kindrid spirit for the displaced and dispossessed Arabs.

But any comparisons ended there. Vietnam's win was scored through providing the stage for a lucrative UN talkfest which observers say produced just one tangible result.

Businesses cashed-in and one of the World's last ruling communist parties did gain some diplomacy points in the international arena from where this country has been largely absent, and ignored, since winning full independence in 1975.

Entitled the UN Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the conference was billed as a key plank in bolstering Washington's and the UN attempts to kick- start the peace talks.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, through an envoy, the peace process was at a critical phase but expressed his hope a resolution would be found. An envoy for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat again demanded the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied West Bank.

And the UN issued its Hanoi Declaration backing Palestinian demands that Palestine be admitted to the UN by September this year.

"This was important," said Andrew Vincent, a senior lecturer in Middle East Studies at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Vincent had not expected that much but added "holding it here was good for bringing in Asian countries, and set-piece expressions like 'solidarity' are important."

However, NGO staffer Leif Thybell, a veteran of Israel's Six- Day war in 1967, complained the conference broke no fresh ground in pushing the peace talks along.

"This conference has been about finding fault and concentrating on the lack of will and it never elevates," he said in regard to a series of UN meets on the same subject.

"No one can update anyone on what has changed behind the scenes, it's all just public comment most of which we already know," he said.

Others were less critical but mindful of UN realities.

"It's helpful in the sense it sends a message to the UN and the United States as to how other countries feel and it does have an impact on the country where it's held as it helps bring outsiders into the fray," Mohideen Abdul Kader, legal consultant to The Third World Network, said.

"And this has been more important to Vietnam than Palestine," he said.

The Peace talks broke off last month because of a dispute over a long-delayed Israeli troop withdrawal from the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians want populated areas near Jerusalem to be included in the pullback and have reportedly rejected a compromise Israeli solution to let them choose from within an earmarked 10 percent area.

"The declaration was nice but will it move anything forwards? Israel never comes to these conferences, they got tired of having one group after another slamming them for not carrying out previous UN resolutions."

"So if they're not listening then I'm afraid not much will change," another delegate said. "But it's been a great boost for Vietnam."

More than 240 delegates, diplomats, foreign aid representatives and journalists attended the three day conference providing a financial boost for local hotels and tourist operators while local observers said it had also added some gloss to Hanoi's international diplomacy record.

Vietnam is attempting to raise its diplomatic profile and gain prominence as a communist country, since being left stranded by the collapse of the Soviet Union which ended traditional alliances on its side of the eastern Cold War bloc.

Observers here said the conference was Vietnam's second diplomatic coup, the first coming 10 months ago when Hanoi hosted a summit for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

"They were gracious hosts. Security was tight but not intrusive and Hanoi has attached its name to the Middle East peace process through a UN declaration, they've done well," a delegate said.