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UN world summit for social development opening in Geneva

The official symbol of the world summit

Representatives of about 100 countries will be seeking ways of bridging the gap between rich and poor nations at an international summit getting underway in Geneva.

The special session of the United Nations General Assembly - the first to be held at the UN's European headquarters at the Palais des Nations in Geneva - will bring together some 4,000 officials, but there are no heads of state or government leaders from industrialised countries attending the five-day conference.

The summit is a follow-up to the meeting held in Copenhagen five years ago at which a social charter, signed by scores of heads of state and government leaders, promised measures to combat world poverty.

Analysts say little has been achieved since the Copenhagen meeting, and expectations are low in Geneva.

Speaking on the eve of the summit, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, said efforts to lower barriers to trade, investment and business around the world "can benefit mankind as a whole".

"But clearly at the moment millions of people - perhaps even the majority of the human race - are being denied those benefits" he said.

Since the Copenhagen meeting, the number of people living in absolute poverty - living on less than one dollar a day - has increased by about 200 million people to reach 1.2 billion, according to UN estimates.

Although it is not a member of the UN, Switzerland is represented by several cabinet ministers. The president, Adolf Ogi, is taking part in the opening and other ceremonies. Also attending are the interior minister, Ruth Dreifuss, the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, and the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin.

On the eve of the meeting, several thousand anti-globalisation protestors took part in a demonstration in Geneva. They condemned the summit as a "masquerade". They marched on the Geneva headquarters of both the UN and the World Trade Organisation, which were sealed off by police.

Swiss soldiers were placed on standby to boost the UN's own security personnel, but police reported no incidents and said the demonstrators were peaceful. They mostly consisted of Third World organisations, unions, women's groups, green activists and young socialists, and marched under the slogan, "Let's globalise our resistance."

swissinfo with agencies


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