Does the U.N. General Assembly achieve anything?

Another diplomatic jamboree in midtown Manhattan rumbles to an end

Chris Doyle

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Another diplomatic jamboree in midtown Manhattan rumbles to an end. Over 140 heads of state have descended on the United Nations and bombarded it with speeches, rants and sermons. But is all of this worth it? Did it provide any solutions to the multifarious intractable problems the world faces, not least in the Middle East?

This annual get together is a mix of diplomacy, spin and theatre as well as tedious repetition. Perhaps 2014 was a tad low on theatrics, nothing to rival Moammar Qaddafi’s infamous first visit to the United States in 2009. His full-throttle speech lasted over six times the allotted slot of 15 minutes with the ripping up of the U.N. Charter a dashing highlight as he compared the United Nations Security Council to al-Qaeda. At least he did not try to rival Fidel Castro who once entertained with a four hour 29 minutes oration.

There is nothing like a General Assembly to expose divisions and rifts

Chris Doyle

So, with no Qaddafi, no Ahmadinejad, no Chavez, how have the world’s leaders used their 15 minutes of grandstanding?

Leaders from war zones typically depicted their enemies to be the most dangerous, even more so than al-Qaeda. This year, ISIS has replaced al-Qaeda as the yardstick to measure all enemies. It was the main theme of most of the Western leaders notably President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron who are anxious to justify their latest military adventurism. Walid Mouallem, the Syrian foreign minister, rushed to depict the Syrian regime as in the vanguard of fighting ISIS, the victim of a grand terrorist conspiracy. He was notably quiet about the barrel bombing of Syrian cities by his own government, the insidious way in which it has deliberately assisted extremist groups to flourish.

But not everyone wants ISIS to get top billing. If you believe Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and few at the U.N. do, Hamas is just one branch of the same poisonous tree. “Hamas is ISIS and ISIS is Hamas.” And Iran of course was even more dangerous but he did not entertain us with doodles of bombs and red lines.

Divisions and rifts

There is nothing like a General Assembly to expose divisions and rifts. President Erdogan tore into the new Egyptian authorities and called Mohammad Mursi Egypt’s legitimate president. Egypt accused him of spreading lies, Russia accused Ukraine of doing the same and Netanyahu came to address the “brazen lies” about Israel. Netanyahu can trade lies with the best of them claiming that “ Israel was using its missiles to protect its children.” Palestinians in Gaza might have a different view of this, of how Israeli missiles smashed their homes, schools and hospitals. Four million metric tons of rubble stand testament to this alternative practice. Then again, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian President did not even mention Gaza once, a sign perhaps he understands that Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza has won few friends.

Hypocrisy overflowed. Human rights abusers proclaimed their adherence to international law. Obama was at it too: “America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future.” This is from the president of a state that arms a nuclear power, Israel, to continue a decades old occupation against a defenseless Palestinian population.

Netanyahu enjoys his yearly jibes at the U.N., decorated with great sound bites for the domestic support base back home and major donors to Israel groups such as Sheldon Adelson applauding in the audience. The eternal lack of gratitude for the very body that voted Israel into existence is quite something. Criticisms of the United Nations and in particular the Human Rights Council that Bibi termed the “terrorist rights council,” are in part fair but it is rank hypocrisy from a state that has shown so little respect for international law. Nevertheless, respect for the U.N. is undermined when Libya under Qaddafi had headed the Human Rights Council, a decision almost as farcical as making President Mugabe of Zimbabwe a U.N. “leader for tourism,” when he was subject to a global travel ban.

Barely fit

The reality is that the United Nations is barely fit for purpose as a diplomatic forum, a fossil of a bygone age. Conflicts are raging and the major powers have done little but stir them up, arming one side or another and failing to come together to resolve them. The question of Palestine has yet to be answered 67 years on since 1948. There is not even a chance of a political process to resolve the world’s worst crisis in Syria. And Russia and the United States continue to lock horns over Ukraine.

It is no surprise to hear the annual calls for U.N. reform. The presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria, South Africa and Turkey all reiterated their demand for serious reform of the U.N. Security Council and for it to be more inclusive. Their calls appear to be in vain. Although it would be welcome, if a few more states were granted permanent membership of the Council, would it truly change? Will the disparity in power between the Security Council and General Assembly be allowed to continue?

For all the expense and time, is this the best that this grand gathering can achieve? All the private bilateral sessions hopefully make it worthwhile as the behind the scenes talks are where the serious business gets done. For the first time since 1979, an Iranian president met a British prime minister. Diplomacy is not made for cameras. The worst thing the U.N. General Assembly does is occasionally grant leaders a global platform and mass media attention, the irresistible temptation of a television camera. Brilliant statesmen might use the occasion to shape world politics for a better horizon but I struggle to name one. Instead it is a festival of hypocrisy, blame games and self-justification that shines darkness on the world’s problems and betrays the very charter of the body that hosts them.


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.

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