"Our commitments have not been fulfilled. That is a sad fact," Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen said in the keynote speech to the U.N. General Assembly. "We could have done better, much better."
The world body began a weeklong special session to take stock of progress -- or the lack of it -- since a 1995 U.N. conference hosted by Denmark at which nearly 120 heads of state and government pledged to eradicate poverty.
"Millions of poor, disadvantaged men, women and children around the globe expected us to do better," said Nyrup Rasmussen.
Delegations were presented with U.N. reports indicating that the number living in absolute poverty -- on less than a dollar a day -- has actually grown, to 1.2 billion from about 1 billion in 1995.
The World Bank says that figure will not decrease over the next eight years unless something is done.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged member nations to recommit themselves to battle against "human misery," going beyond a proposed goal of halving the proportion of people in extreme poverty by the year 2015.
"Fifteen years from now, will there still be tens of millions of primary-age school children who are not in school?" Annan asked. "Will small children and pregnant women still be dying every minute from malaria and other preventable diseases?"
"Will treatment for AIDS still be priced far beyond the means of those suffering from it in developing countries?" he added.
Annan said Sunday that "globalization" the lowering of barriers to trade, investment and business around the world offers hope of changing things.
"But clearly at the moment millions of people perhaps even a majority of the human race are being denied those benefits," Annan said.
Swiss President Adolf Ogi, host of the current session, said that, while grinding poverty continues, "not a day goes by without our hearing of another merger, the birth of a new giant of the economy and the disappearance of thousands of jobs."
The United Nations has dubbed the gathering the "social summit." It will be attended by about 15 heads of state or government, mainly from Africa. Representatives of 168 governments, and nine observers, are expected to speak during the week.
While the discussions continue in the United Nations' second headquarters --the Palais des Nations -- organizations hoping to work toward the same goal will be meeting nearby in a "parallel summit."
And across town an "alternative summit" of more critical organizations will be demanding more radical solutions.
Thousands of protesters from the third group marched peacefully through the streets f Geneva on Sunday to urge the cancellation of the debt owed by poor countries.
"The 'social summit' organizes social misery," said some signs.
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