The UN General Assembly is sometimes decried as a multi-million dollar waste of time – a junket for world leaders which inconveniences New Yorkers and offers little more than elitism and empty promises in return. But this time, the stakes are unusually high. Almost 200 presidents and prime ministers have descended on the “City That Never Sleeps” to share their thoughts on issues ranging from child mortality rates and poverty, to Iran’s nuclear program and the bloody conflicts in Syria and the Holy Land.
Although, at times, criticism of the Assembly is warranted, the 68th annual meeting of world heads of state promised – and has delivered – several key statements which may shape the future of millions around the globe.
On Sept. 24, the General debate began with an address by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, who surprised many by attacking United States electronic surveillance operations. Brazil has long been a close ally of the United States, but Rousseff held nothing back in accusing the Obama administration of “violating fundamental human rights.”
Documents leaked by Edward Snowden show that the NSA intercepted sensitive communications from “Brazilian diplomatic missions, among them the permanent mission to the UN and the office of the president of the republic itself,” and had also spied on Petrobras, the state oil corporation.
Clearly angered, Rousseff told the assembly that, “Tampering in such a manner in the affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and is an affront of the principles that must guide the relations among them, especially among friendly nations.”
Washington’s attempts to explain the need for such extensive international surveillance have not appeased the Brazilian president. “The arguments that the illegal interception of information and data aims at protecting nations against terrorism cannot be sustained,” she said. “Brazil, Mr President, knows how to protect itself. We reject, fight and do not harbour terrorist groups.”
Nevertheless, President Obama found an opportunity in his lengthy presentation – which immediately followed Rousseff’s – to address these concerns. “We’ve begun to review the way that we gather intelligence so that we properly balance the legitimate security concerns of our citizens and allies with the privacy concerns that all people share,” Obama said.
Given America’s role as the “world’s policeman” the United States president had a lot of ground to cover. He spoke of the need to preserve that crucial role, and stressed that diplomacy was preferable to militancy in most cases, and that democracy was a preferred system of government in every case. Saying that, “the world is more stable than it was five years ago” – a frightening thought considering the present turmoil in so many nations – President Obama assured the global community that peaceful strategies will be pursued whenever possible. There has been no weakening of America’s resolve to help those in need, he said, but “Iraq shows us that democracy cannot simply be imposed by force.”
President Obama alluded to many concerns of the modern world, but chose to focus on three. These were Syria, Iran and the ongoing tensions between Israel and Palestine.
With regard to Syria, the president called on the international community to enforce the ban on chemical weapons and made it clear that he believed the Assad government was solely to blame for their use in that country. To those who worry about United States involvement – or non-involvement – in the conflict, he said: “I do not believe that military action by those within Syria or by external powers can achieve a lasting peace. Nor do I believe that America or any nation should determine who will lead Syria. That is for the Syrian people to decide.”
However, there would be no peace if Assad was allowed to retain power. “A leader who slaughtered his citizens and gassed children to death cannot regain the legitimacy to lead a badly fractured country,” Obama said, adding that he welcomes “the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war.” This was partly directed at Iran and Russia, whose insistence on an Assad rule was dismissed as a “fantasy” that will “lead directly to the outcome that they fear: An increasingly violent space for extremists to operate.”
Less of a fantasy, perhaps, was Iran’s claims that they will seek a peaceful resolution over their development of nuclear power – a gesture that was acknowledged by the U.S. president. In one of the key moments of the 68th General Assembly, Obama said that while he accepts President Rouhani’s demands for access to “peaceful nuclear energy,” suspicions dating back to 1979 will prolong the reconciliation process.
“America prefers to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program peacefully,” Obama told Rouhani and the rest of the world, “although we are determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.” As a sign that the ice had thawed since the admittedly moderate Rouhani was elected, Obama expressed his belief that “If we can resolve the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, that can serve as a major step down a long road toward a different relationship, one based on mutual interests and mutual respect.”
Finally, the issue of a divided Holy Land, “a conflict that goes back even further than our differences with Iran,” according to Obama. While asserting that “the United States will never compromise our commitment to Israel’s security, nor our support for its existence as a Jewish state,” President Obama said that the belief of his administration was that Palestinians also had a right to their own sovereign state.
Talks have been taking place between the age-old enemies, and most in the international community see this as a profoundly positive step. The only solution is a division of this contentious land, for, as Obama suggested, “Just as the Palestinian people must not be displaced, the state of Israel is here to stay.”
There was more – much more – in Obama’s speech, and although it will no doubt produce the most talking points, it was by no means the only speech of note in the opening days of the Assembly.
Hassan Rouhani’s much anticipated turn at the podium was missed by Israeli delegates who chose to boycott the Iranian president’s first major address to the world. This was as a response to Iran’s overt support for Palestinian independence and the assertion by Rouhani’s predecessor – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – that the Holocaust was a myth.
The new president was rather more conciliatory, however, and although Benyamin Netanyahu has called Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”, Israeli finance minister Yair Lapid labelled the boycott “a mistake” which made it appear that his country is “uninterested in peaceful solutions.”
Rouhani carefully avoided suggesting any relocation of Israeli Jews, but did say that, “Palestine is under occupation. The basic rights of the Palestinians are tragically violated, and they are deprived of the right of return and access to their homes, birthplace and homeland.” In an interview with CNN after his speech, Rouhani reversed the views of the fiery Ahmadinejad and said that he accepted the Holocaust as a “reprehensible and condemnable” crime against humanity.
The Iranian president was also forthright on the matter of nuclear weapons. He hoped that President Obama would not be influenced by “warmongering pressure groups” and that the strict sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations would soon be lifted. ”Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions,” he told the 193-strong Assembly.
Rouhani later told a UN disarmament meeting that, in the interests of fair play, Israel must come clean on the world’s worst-kept military secret and join the 1979 Non-Proliferation Treaty. “No nation should possess nuclear weapons, since there are no right hands for these wrong weapons,” he said. Undeniably, he has a point.
President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana spoke of strong political and economic growth in Africa, but acknowledged that the road ahead was still difficult. “We cannot continue to be exporters of raw material and primary produce,” he said, adding that with the help of foreign investors, African nations can provide jobs for their enormous numbers of young people.
Mahama also endorsed the importance of women to the future of his continent. In a part of the world where women are often second-class citizens, education and control over fertility will be critical, he said. “It’s not enough to put girls in school and allow them just enough education to be deemed literate. We must keep them in school. Removing teen girls from school for any reason, let alone to marry them off, is an unacceptable practice that must end. African women have always been the backbone of our societies. Imagine the change they could effect in our countries if only we’d help them reach their full potential.”
Mahama’s nation – and its government – is commonly cited as one of the most corrupt in the world, but his speech was a reminder that the UN General Assembly is about more than just seeking an end to conflicts. It is also about seeking an end to poverty and discrimination, and this year’s Assembly is focused on setting new goals which will take the world forward in the years beyond 2015.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged all member nations to recommit to meeting Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and to set aside 0.7 percent of their gross national income for development assistance programs. Although the MDG initiative has seen great progress made in reducing global poverty and providing safe drinking water to millions of people, several targets remain well off-track. There is a long way to go before the world can say it has done enough in the fight against gender discrimination, child mortality, and diseases like AIDS and malaria.
The 68th UN General Assembly will continue until Oct. 1. It may be elitist at times and be guilty of promoting a westernized agenda, but as an opportunity for world leaders to get together and freely express their hopes, grievances and strategies for change, there really is nothing quite like it.