Many diplomats spoke their piece – if not rambled – at the newest United Nations General Assembly session this week, delivering speeches by at least 120 heads of state on a revolving door of themes. Yet in this sometimes theatrical, often wearying annual event held in New York, no one ranted along the lines of Libya’s Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, whose appearance at the UN in 2009 found him tearing up the UN Charter.
When the general “debate” – back and forth at the UN happens privately – began on Sept. 25, it got off to a promising start with Dilma Roussef, Brazil’s president, enunciating the triumphs of her country and its contributions to the rest of the world.
“Once again, a woman’s voice is opening the debate of the United Nations General Assembly,” she said in Portuguese, adding that women wish to be “half the earth” and not only “half the sky,” a Maoist saying.
Traditionally, Brazil is the first speaker, followed by the United States, the host country. This year, Roussef went on at length about the global economic situation and how her country has dealt with the recession, revealing her steadfast wonkiness but not necessarily proving that her policies can last for the long term. Citing the feat of lifting 40 million out of poverty in Brazil, Roussef spoke as if she had the solutions for all problems without mentioning her country’s high crime rates.
Brazil’s president is one of only 12 women, about 10 percent, who have spoken so far as heads of state, all doing so eloquently. (Australia’s prime minister, Julia Gillard, could give lessons.) But in another down note, the people escorting speakers to the lectern in the General Assembly Hall were women, while the podium was operated by all men. Perhaps the UN does not know that half the earth can moderate debates, too.
With great expectations, President Barack Obama came after Roussef, dwelling first on the recent death by terrorists of J. Christopher Stevens, a US diplomat, with three other Americans in Libya. Obama then segued into the violent reaction in Muslim countries over the related anti-Islamic video as well as individuals’ right to free speech.
He also touched on Syria – “the future must not belong to a dictator who massacres his people” – Israel and Palestine, Iran’s nuclear program, the ending of the war in Iraq and the transition in Afghanistan, a “weakened” Al Qaeda, human trafficking and women as “equal” partners in politics.
The topic of freedom of speech reverberated throughout his 30-minute delivery – a concept new to young democracies like Libya while still being debated in long-run democracies, too.
“True democracy demands that citizens cannot be thrown in jail because of what they believe, and that businesses can be open without paying a bribe,” Obama said, gesticulating at times. “It depends on the freedom of citizens to speak their minds and assemble without fear, and on the rule of law and due process that guarantees the rights of all people.”
Although Obama galvanized the tightly packed crowd in the hall, he left right after speaking, never returning again during the UN’s important spectacle to show his support on behalf of the world’s “only viable institution” to draw all nations together, as the Samoan prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, said later in the week.
Many Muslim countries at the debate also delved into the effects of the anti-Islamic video connected at first to the deaths of the Americans in Libya before the Libyans and Washington labeled it an organized terrorist attack. Some speeches called on the criminalization of blasphemy, including Libya, whose newly elected president, Mohammed el-Megarif, suggested that the General Assembly criminalize “insulting symbols of all religions.”
At the same time, Megarif praised his country’s rapid progress in building a democracy and “freedom of expression and press” in a state formerly run for 42 years by a “lunatic despot” – Qaddafi. Libyans have protested the American killings, sacking offices of radical Islamists, while the country’s leadership apologized to the US.
At an event held by the International Peace Institute near the UN, Megarif later regaled the audience with his low-key iteration of how far Libya has come since its revolution. But forces – Qaddafi supporters outside the country as well as extremists inside – remain “very active in trying to create problems.” He also reminded the mostly Western group before him that Libya is a deeply national, religious country with its future bound to that ethos.
The speeches delivered this week were a mix of stream of consciousness for some leaders and sharp declarations by others. In the brief time that the General Assembly overshadows the Security Council (which was busy holding closed sessions), the themes heard repeatedly centered around old and fresh matters: the Syrian conflict, climate change (the despair of small-island nations), Israel and Palestine, Security Council reform, the Sahel, the economic crises, poverty, democracy, Islamophobia, gender and income inequalities, Middle East revolutions, Iran, African conflicts, hunger, disease and platitudes on diplomacy.
That’s the short list. (Drug trafficking was evoked by several Latin American and Caribbean nations, with the Mexican president, Felipe Calderón, particularly vehement on the subject, blaming drug demand in the US for his country’s chaos in the north.)
“This is not a television program,” said President Tsakhia Elbegdorj of Mongolia, and “we at the UN are not spectators,” he added, referring to inaction by the Security Council on Syria and nearly 30,000 dead there since spring 2011. He switched gears to champion women, however, citing his 92-year-old mother’s profound influence on his politics.
“Have you ever heard of a woman bloody dictator or tyrant? I think not,” he said. “If there were more women in power, I think we would have more harmony, more engagement and less suffering and less conflict.” He noted that in Mongolia’s last elections, the number of women in Parliament tripled. Too bad he didn’t let one of the women stand at the lectern in his stead.
The annual debate actually had a theme, resolving disputes through peaceful means, though few countries stuck closely to that, straying in other orbits while occasionally remembering they were there to advance the cause of the UN Charter and universal peace. Although speeches were meant to be confined to 15 minutes, fewer than a dozen have kept to that so far – Germany, of course, ever punctilious, but also Afghanistan, Bhutan, Guinea and Norway, a far-flung coterie. (Rwanda raced in at 9 minutes, the fastest yet.)
With cellphones, laptops and other e-devices at hand, attention among the Group of 193 in the Assembly Hall appeared as sporadic as a kindergarten class, sending a subtle message to speakers that they blindly ignored.
For small and midsize countries, the chance to address the world from the UN is a once-a-year grant that raises their visibility and reminds bigger nations that the problems that less potent countries face, as in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia, are not, in fact, narrow and solvable alone.
“Small island of developing states . . . are clearly among the world’s most vulnerable nations,” said Denzil Douglas, prime minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, on Sept. 28. Decisions that affect his “highly indebted country,” he added, are made by “more powerful” distant countries – on climate change, the global economic crisis, drug trafficking and other social ills.
The debate is also a time for dozens of open meetings to be shoehorned in so big-name officials like David Cameron, prime minister of Britain, can sit next to small fries like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, president of Liberia, to shine and promote, say, the work of setting post-Millennium Development Goals. But the many “side events” require delegates, media and all others to swim like lemmings to keep up while an undertow suggests that all the hoopla may be counterproductive.
Even Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who is holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of sexual assault, got his dibs in via video link at a side event organized by Ecuador on freedom of expression and diplomatic rights.
Other goings-on happened in not-so-private prefabricated meeting spaces, where envoys and their staff members (mostly men, alas) conducted their diplomatic bartering; Belarus and Iran, for example, sat clustered in one such area, smiling gleefully to accompanying delegates’ cellphone cameras. And if you caught sight of the entourage of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, in the Assembly Hall the night he spoke, you discovered a new meaning of toughness.
Other surprises popped up. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, took a muted if somewhat incoherent turn in his debate speech. Ahmadinejad, famous for his invective against Israel, saved his harshest remarks for a private discussion and lunch held at the Warwick Hotel on Sept. 24, a day before his UN appearance.
Among the guests at the lunch were journalists, diplomats and policy experts who stomached the Iranian leader’s provocations, said a person in the group. The “talk” – mostly one way – included Ahmadinejad’s anecdote about his government allowing Christmas cookies to be sent to the prisoners during the US embassy hostage crisis, way back in 1979. Though his second term ends in June, Ahmadinejad has given no absolute assurance that he will not try to run again despite constitutional limits.
The annual debate ends Monday, Oct. 1, with such disparate countries as Austria and Sudan left to speak. This year’s spotlight on Israel was similar to that of the past. But when Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, used a simple illustration of a bomb to emphasize Iran’s chilling potential to soon annihilate Israel, the press went wild. Sometimes props can work better than words in the UN.
But who can resist the Dickensian parting remarks by Sprent Dabwido, the president of Nauru: “God bless the Republic of Nauru and God bless the United Nations.”
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.