It is quite some menagerie in New York as ever for the 70th edition of the U.N. General Assembly. Hotel prices shoot up every year as the world's leaders - that motley crew of despots, Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers compete for airtime and attention. Typically, there is enough hot air to launch a thousand Zeppelins. This is when minnows can get a stage, when major Presidents can grandstand. For sure there are many heads of state but how few leaders. As I have argued before one wonders if the U.N. General Assembly achieves much at all?
But it always delivers entertainment and theatre. We have had the 11-year-old son of Alexander Lukashenko's turning up to represent Belarus. San Marino, with slightly more than a third of the population of Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, gets a meeting with Lithuania. And how can you beat Robert Mugabe, even at the age of 91 (he was 21 when the U.N. was founded), for his "we are not gays" diatribe.
The ‘star’ act for 2015 has been, of course, Vladimir Putin. He smartly positioned himself and Russia as the go-to-power for resolving Syria just at the key moment when Europe and the US finally realized that the crisis was actually hitting them and their interests. Vladimir is offering to sort out Syria with his grand bargain putting the crushing of ISIS before any power transition in Damascus. His price is to maintain his grip on Damascus. His post-Crimea isolation, much to the chagrin of the Ukrainian leader, Petro Poroshenko, is pretty much all over. Barack Obama grudgingly acknowledged Putin’s revival with their chilly 90-minute summit.
Despite not addressing the U.N. for a decade, Putin had lost none of his confident brio on stage. "The United Nations is a structure that has no equal when it comes to legitimacy, representation, and universality…. Whatever actions a state takes bypassing this procedure [of passing resolutions] are illegitimate, run counter to the U.N. Charter and defy international law." Where were the hecklers when you need them to scream Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine? One wonders whether Vladimir has ever bothered to read the U.N. Charter let alone stick to its principles. This is a man who understands power and how to wield it. Does anyone seriously believe he will ever give the Crimea back to Ukraine? (Perhaps if Ukraine becomes a part of Russia)
Contrast Putin’s speech to Obama’s - the latter still seems idealistic and detached, with fine words and intentions but is there an end product? "Laws and agreements mean something", he proclaimed. He left out the word ‘should’. (As with Putin, there was no heckler to chant Israel and Gaza) His words were skewed to criticize Russian expansionism but he offered no solutions to global challenges not least Syria.
Obama may or may not like this, but those that argue that the world has to engage with President Assad appear to be winning the debate to the delight of the Russian leader. The British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and even President Erdogan of Turkey have now acknowledged that there could be a role for Assad in a transition.
And Hassan Rowhani has found out what it means not to be in the limelight. The auditorium was only half full for his speech and there were no mass walkouts. Nevertheless a heckler was needed when Rowhani proclaimed that Iran was “prepared to bring about democracy in Syria and Yemen”. He did not explain why his own country should not get this privilege.
Iran has not been such a divisive issue at the U.N. this year. Netanyahu will of course make up for this in spades when he speaks on Thursday in his annual war dance.
But Rowhani’s speech epitomized the dangers and pitfalls of the U.N. General Assembly debate. This was the perfect opportunity for him to grandstand for domestic Iranian consumption. From the first sentence he tore into Saudi Arabia’s handling of the Hajj, “the incompetence and mismanagement of those in charge.” Whatever the rights and wrongs of the horrific events at Mina, publicly pillorying Saudi in such a fashion is hardly an effective let alone diplomatic way of increasing Iranian influence or the much needed rapprochement with Riyadh.
If ending speeches is too radical, why not at least reduce the number of speeches every yearChris Doyle
So as all these worthy and not so worthy orations take place, a wide range of meetings on the margins foster the real work and arguably make the General Assembly worthwhile.
So as ever it is the sidelines not the headlines that matter. If the public speeches were removed from the agenda and the bilaterals retained my suspicion is that far more would be achieved. In a world, oversaturated with crises and conflicts, it is often wiser to restrict the opportunities to grandstand and point score against opponents.
And this is what the General Assembly debate has become - a boxing match with no knock-outs. It is Putin versus Obama, Netanyahu versus Abbas, Iran versus Saudi and so forth. Most of the worthy speeches are ignored for the jousts and barbs from conflicting leaders.
Are the world’s problems solved? How relevant were these speeches to the 60 million refugees and displaced peoples across the planet? Putin ludicrously suggested that once ISIS was crushed, Syrian refugees could just return home, no doubt dodging the barrel bombs as they cross the border. And on the refugees, Obama’s straight face was impressive when saying “in the faces of suffering families, our nation of immigrants sees themselves” knowing that the US has only offered to take an extra 10,000. For the first time in his U.N. speeches Obama made not one mention of Israel nor Palestine.
So my humble proposal is to end these set piece speeches. Are they needed in a world where unlike in 1945, the public views of Presidents, Kings and leaders are well aired not just locally but across the globe in multiple languages? Most of salient points get trailed in the media beforehand. We have yet to hear ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s speech but mix and match his Congress speeches with previous U.N. General Assembly efforts, and I suspect we shall hear little fresh. If ending this is too radical, why not at least reduce the number of speeches every year.
Perhaps other leaders could follow the example of the star of the show, and speak just once every ten years.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.