The annual United Nations debate of the 68th General Assembly got off to a contentious start on Sept. 24 with pointedly worded but divergent speeches by Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, and Barack Obama, the president of the United States.
The two countries traditionally kick off the annual debate, held every September in New York for all 193 member states, but this year Brazil took its allotted 15 minutes to immediately voice its displeasure with the spying the US has been conducting on the Brazilian government, including Rousseff’s e-mails. The US, on the other hand, emphasized its own exceptionalism while acknowledging its political inconsistencies. For the most part, however, the US focused its speech on Syria and Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
The General Assembly debate’s theme is the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, a topic that got short shrift in the daylong speeches, which go on through Sept. 30. Instead, heads of state used the lectern in a transitional meeting space to speak on international hot spots as well as esoteric national concerns. Out of the blue, for instance, Bulgaria recommended that Irina Bokova, a fellow countrywoman, be voted in for another term as chief of Unesco, a UN agency.
In a war of words, Rousseff called the spying by the US government on Brazil “totally unacceptable,” and said that her nation was a “democratic country” that “respects international law.”
“Tampering in such a manner in the lives and affairs of other countries is a breach of international law and, as such, it is an affront to the principles that should otherwise govern relations among countries, especially among friendly nations,” she added.
Obama, undeterred by international criticism for his country’s sometimes contradictory actions (like calling the change in government in Egypt this summer a “removal of power” rather than a coup), spoke at length on Syria and use of chemical weapons there. He also delved into a possible “breakthrough” on the nuclear program in Iran; the stillborn Arab-Israeli peace talks; how the UN “continues to be tested” on its relevancy; sovereignty versus outside military intervention in conflicts; terrorism; and the fact that the US will not “disengage” from the Middle East or elsewhere when it comes to issues of peace and security worldwide.
“In the near term, America”s diplomatic efforts will focus on two particular issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Obama said.
He also did not rule out use of force. “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region,” Obama said. “We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.”
His boldest remark centered on why America “must remain engaged for our own security” in some of the world’s conflicts and major problems, saying, “I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”
Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, spoke before national speeches ensued. He dived into the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the American threat of force in response, saying, “Military victory is an illusion.” Referring to the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, Ban noted that they have reduced poverty in many nations, but “some goals, we lag badly.” Inequality is growing, he added, and too many people face daily exploitation.
Ban was also one of the few speakers on the opening day to mention women, saying that future MDGs must take into account their needs: “Moreover, the rights of women and girls must be at the heart of all such efforts,” and that the 21st century should be the century of women.
Besides Rousseff, only a handful of other women leaders have spoken so far in the debate, all presidents: Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; Joyce Banda of Malawi; and Cristina Fernández of Argentina, revealing that leadership remains the province of men worldwide.
The annual scene at the UN revealed heightened security concerns, with entry into the UN requiring walking in labyrinths even by people with UN passes. The media were formidably corralled, unable to sit in the General Assembly meeting, which is housed in a small interim space this year (but still graced with its trademark green-marble podium).
Instead, the visiting media were confined to a room where live Webcasts of the General Assembly speeches were at best spotty. Reporters reverted to listening to live streams from other sources, such as Al Jazeera. Reporters are also being “escorted” during the debate by UN personnel to media stakeouts, making access to officials nearly impossible. The notion of freedom of the press seems to have been disregarded for military style handling.
Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, speaking in the afternoon, said the MDGS were faltering because “the global economic meltdown has brought about new developments that are detrimental to the developing world, especially Africa.”
France’s president, Francois Hollande, emphasized its role in curtailing terrorism in northern Mali, where it still has troops installed, and called on the UN to set up a peacekeeping contingent in Central African Republic, which has lost any semblance of a functioning state.
Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera, detoured in the debate to UN Security Council reform, suggesting among other ideas that the council abandon the veto (held by the five permanent members, Britain, China, France, Russia and the US) and create a supermajority rule to pass major decisions. A call to drop the veto held by the so-called P5 in crisis situations, such as genocide or the civil war in Syria, has been amplified lately, given the council’s inability to pass a resolution this year condemning any violence in Syria, thanks to vetoes by China and Russia.
By late afternoon, when Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, stepped to the lectern, the delegates in the meeting hall listened as intently as they did to the morning speeches by Rousseff and Obama. Western news reports about friendly signals from Iran to the US have been reminding readers that an American president has not met formally with an Iranian leader since the country’s revolution in 1979. This year, that could change, reports suggested.
Rouhani spoke at first in dramatic terms about global “fears” of deadly confrontations; religious, ethnic and national identities; violent extremism; and the loss of human dignity and rights. He spoke of “new hopes,” such as the “universal acceptance” of “yes to peace and no to war” and “the preference of dialogue over conflict, moderation over extremism.”
Iran, Rouhani said, wiping his brow, “is an anchor of stability of a region of instabilities” and “poses no threat to the world and the region.”
He then rejected in less pacific tones the international sanctions imposed on his country by the US and others to curb Iran’s nuclear program, comparing the punishments to steps taken against Iraq while Saddam Hussein was in power. He also made no mention of Iran’s proxy role in the Syrian war, aiding the government of Bashar al-Assad in his slaughter of fellow Syrians, as the death toll rises and millions of people are homeless, the majority of them women and children.
He declared that “vulnerability is a global phenomenon.” And by the end of the day, Reuters reported that a meeting between Rouhani and Obama was not going to happen at the UN this week.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she 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 near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York 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.