What did we learn from the 67th UNGA?
Every year, United Nations General Assembly brings world leaders from across the world to New York under a single roof, to address the global issues that stare us in the face. The 67th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was no different, with more than 120 world leaders sharing a single podium to make statements.
The General Assembly convened on 18th September 2012 with the theme “Bringing About Adjustment or Settlement of International Disputes or Situations by Peaceful Means.” The session officially ended on 1st October 2012.
The UNGA is usually a dramatic affair where we see several debate boycotts and menacing threats that are openly made. And this year’s General Assembly did not fail to meet such standards. This year, the GA’s line up had an impressive transition. Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected President addressed the world leaders for the first time while Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke for the last time as Iranian President from the same podium.
As the GA sessions started soon after the Benghazi attacks, the topic of Freedom of Speech was debated heavily. However, Syrian crisis remained the main issue at the UNGA. Almost all countries condemned the spiraling civil war in the region but they could not agree on a solution. Although there was no Muammar Gaddafi to tear up the UN charter this year, the debate was ‘action-packed’ nonetheless.
Once again, the world leaders who met at the UNGA failed to reach an amicable approach to solve the Syrian crisis. In his opening speech during the General Debate, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged all the assembled nations to extend efforts to end the Syrian crisis and to immediately stop all arms flow into Syria. According to UN reports, approximately 28,000 have been killed in the crisis ridden Syria so far and thousands have been forced to take refuge in neighboring countries. Syrian civil war is slowly spilling across its borders, causing tensions in the region.
Neither the nations supporting the opposition nor the nations supporting the Assad regime could eventually come to a unanimous decision on the appropriate steps that need to be taken in Syria. The Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moellem accused several ‘well known countries’ of using the Syrian crisis as a pretence to pursuing their ‘colonial interests’ in the region. He also said that calling for Bashar Assad to step down is a ‘blatant interference in the domestic affairs of Syria.’
US President Barack Obama delivered a speech that highlighted and honored the importance and preservation of freedom of speech. Violence erupted in the Islamic nations after a controversial movie made in the United States about the Islamic Prophet was televised in Egypt. The violence led to attacks on the US consulates and resulted in the murder of Christopher Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya. President Obama’s powerful speech contained the message meant for new Islamic leaders to “speak out forcefully against violence and extremism”. He also termed the video as ‘disgusting’ but maintained that no amount of controversies in video justifies the violence that surfaced in the Middle East. “There is no video that justifies an attack on an embassy. There is no slander that provides an excuse for people to burn a restaurant in Lebanon, or destroy a school in Tunis, or cause death and destruction in Pakistan. Like me, the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs,” he added.
However, Islamic leaders assembled in the UN strongly disagreed with the President Obama’s opinion. Egyptian President Morsy said the contents of the film are ‘unacceptable’. Yemen’s President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi also agreed saying, “There are limits to the freedom of expression especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.”
Iran and Israel
Iranian President Ahmadinejad did not deter from his usual zealous attacks against Israel. He condemned “uncivilized Zionist military threats against Tehran”. He also accused the West for its “oppressive international order” and termed them as “handmaidens of the devil”. Tension has been mounting between Israel and Iran after Israel warned that Tehran is close to achieving nuclear weaponry and Iran maintaining that its nuclear program is peaceful. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed President Obama to clearly set ‘red lines’ for Iran that would initiate military action against Iran’s nuclear developments. Obama took a clear stand against Iran at the UNGA by saying that US will “do what it must do” on Iran. He assured that the consequences of a nuclear armed Iran will be immense.
Meanwhile Netanyahu literally drew the ‘red lines’ for the assembled world leaders to make Israel’s stand on Iran extremely clear. In his speech at the UNGA backed with a chart with a bomb drawn on it, Netanyahu suggested that threshold for a military strike should be set at the point Iran produces enough highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon. “Red lines don’t lead to a war, red lines prevent war”, said Netanyahu in his speech before the UNGA.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood before the General Assembly once again to bid for a full membership of Palestine in the UN. In his speech he condemned numerous attacks on Palestinians by Jewish settlers and claimed that the Israeli polices undermined the functioning of the Palestinian National authority and warned of a possible collapse of the nation. His speech was very well received by the UN leaders who gave him a standing ovation. Israel’s Netanyahu responded by saying that ‘libelous speeches’ at the UN could hardly further the cause of peace.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, India participated in several meetings related to the international and regional stakeholders in Afghanistan after the proposed 2014 withdrawal of foreign forces is completed. Meanwhile, Kashmir once again made it to the General debate in the UN after a remark by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari triggered the issue. Zardari said in his speech that the ‘people of Kashmir have chosen their destinies’ and it was followed up by Pakistan’s Deputy Permanent representative at the UN, Raza Bashir Tarar’s remark that Jammu and Kashmir was never an integral part of India.
India’s External Affairs Miniter S.M. Krishna spoke before the UN members and made it ‘abundantly clear’ that Jammu and Kashmir ‘has always been a part of India’. It must be noted that India always maintained that the issue of Kashmir should never be discussed on the UN podium and even President Obama conceded that Kashmir is an ‘internal issue’ for both India and Pakistan.
Most of the UN member countries asked for strengthening of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The nations asked for disarmament of nuclear weaponry and destruction of chemical weapons. Egyptian President Morsy accused Israel of disrupting peace in the Middle East region by saying, “Middle East no longer tolerates any country’s refusal to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), especially if this is coupled with irresponsible policies or arbitrary threats”. Meanwhile most countries asked for Iran’s complete cooperation with UN’s nuclear wing, International Atomic Energy Agency.
India took a strong stand at the UNGA and asked all the member states to ensure a “zero tolerance” approach towards terrorism. Countering Terrorism was also discussed extensively at the United Nations and many member states pledged support for India’s stance on terrorism.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced the embargo that was put in place in 1960 by the United States. He also added that the embargo has caused several downturns for its economy and that it has caused “invaluable human and economic damage.”
North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Pak Kil-yon criticized the United States claiming that it wants to conquer the Korean Peninsula and use it as a stepping stone to achieving complete Asian domination.
South Sudan’s President Riek Machar vowed to fight poverty in the region through diversifying its economy by utilizing its oil revenue.
Middle East was the center of focus at this year’s General Assembly. This eventually led to many other global issues that were either almost sidelined or merely mentioned callously. The high-level meetings conducted on the Rule of Law at both International and National level only called for the reformation of the UN. Most of the member states called for a structural change in the working of the UN, including extending veto powers to members beyond the Permanent Council. However, issues such as the realization of the Millennium Development Goals found strong supporters among the participating countries. Yet, the session saw a mere reiteration of the importance of completing the goals before the deadline that seems to be closing in very soon. But discussion on efforts that are to be made and solutions to problems that surfaced were limited.
Global warming and other environmental issues also found very few mentions, which could be attributed to the recent completion of the Rio-20 meetings. But considering the fact that the Rio meetings were less than successful, superficial discussion on global climate changes were rather surprising.
Global health issues also found a backseat at the UN this year. At the event “New Alliance: Progress and the Way Forward”, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah discussed U.S. efforts to address global hunger and food security through the Feed the Future Initiative and the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also engaged in the meetings on health and water security pledging US support and efforts that are to be taken to achieve an AIDS free world and dispel wars for water.
Education also did not receive complete focus this year at the UNGA and was only discussed with the Middle East crisis. Governments of several countries addressed the pressing concerns of lack of education in countries that are facing ongoing crisis. In a statement that was circulated on the sidelines of the UNGA, many member states ensured participation to eradicate lack of education in these regions. “Few Education Sector Plans and budgets address disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness, response and recovery. This lack of plans, capacity and resources makes it harder for schools to keep children and youth safe and continue to hold classes when a crisis strikes, to inform communities of risks and actions to take, and for education systems to recover after a crisis,” the statement read.
The 67th United Nations General Assembly focused heavily on the ongoing Middle East crisis. However, the participating nations remained ‘disunited’ on the appropriate solutions that need to be taken to resolve these issues. Such major differences led to an expected silence and complete inaction on other globally significant issues such as health, poverty, education, etc