October 31, 2010

World Leaders Address UNGA (originally posted Sep. 24, 2009)

It was farcical and almost amusing to hear Libya’s Col. Muammar Qaddafi remind the delegations to the United Nations that New York is a terrorist target and so out of the way that most of the guests still have jet lag when they give their speeches.

I remember the day 20 years ago when I learned of Pan Am 103 and heard over the radio the mothers shrieking in agony upon learning that their children would not be stepping off the plane at JFK. I was horrified, and still am. So it was at best ironic to hear Qaddafi suggest New York has outlived its usefulness as a host city for the UN Headquarters.

Separately, he got a healthy laugh from the delegates when he said the Security Council should be renamed the “Terror Council” – even he seemed amused.

I imagine Qaddafi will refrain from accusing Israel and the United States of violating the UN Charter, a document he pretended to tear in half during his 96-minute stream of consciousness lecture. If he were truly committed to abandoning the UN status quo – which he claims is based on original sin – he could have led a permanent walkout by all the African delegations, in his capacity as chair of the African Union. That would have made an impression, and would probably reduce the UN to a catering hall. For better or worse, he clearly intended no real changes, just a rhetorical advantage. (Note: sometimes, less is more.)

Another continuing curiosity at Wednesday’s big day was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose speech prompted about a dozen delegations to walk out. More curious was that while some seemed to leave when he turned to his stock denials of the Holocaust, other departures were timed to his rants about Western double standards – not the most offensive remarks he had uttered. Or maybe, it was just a long day.

The substantive speeches to watch, of course, were U.S. President Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak, Russia’s Dmitry Medvedev, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, United Kingdom’s Gordon Brown, Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and serious African leaders like Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (who, speaking right after Qaddafi, referred to the Libyan’s speech as “long”).

The overall theme was climate change and economic justice. Speaking to a full house of world leaders, President Obama laid out four pillars to making the future a reality: “non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; the preservation of our planet; and a global economy that advances opportunity for all people.” More significant was the fact that a U.S. President was addressing his counterparts as a peer and possibly the first among equals, not only promising to lead but actually showing the way forward. He pushed a strong set of policies, all of which do fit into the UN Charter and mission. Ending the use of torture got a big round of applause. The President reported his commitment to withdrawing from Iraq, reducing nuclear missiles, reducing emissions and investing in clean energy.

Lula, who spoke just before Obama, made a strong case for international financial regulation. Hu rejected trade barriers on behalf of the poorer nations (and China…) while avoiding mention of Iran’s nuclear defiance. Lee touted his proposal to resolve all outstanding issues with North Korea if the North abandons nuclear weapons. Kirchner noted that, far from extraditing the suspects in two catastrophic Buenos Aires bombings, Iran has appointed one of them as its new minister of defense. Museveni gave a sober critique of international development policies and highlighted Uganda’s commitment to economic progress. Sarkozy called it unacceptable that Africa has no permanent seat on the Security Council, though he declined to offer up France’s spot; he was more direct in calling for international pressure on Iran.

Brown rejected Qaddafi’s theatrics, saying he was here to support the UN Charter, not to tear it up. He reprised the points in his New York Times op-ed the same day, focusing on the need for collective leadership and action. He also welcomed an agreement by several of the poorest African nations to provide free health care to 10 million who currently have no access; maybe they could add the 45 million uninsured Americans to this list of basic needs?

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe devoted most of his speech to the fight against narco-terrorism, which is a real threat facing his country even though his responses to it have been controversial, a reminder that the real world has yet to catch up with the newest world order.

It was a day, but there is still much more this week and – as Prime Minister Brown outlined – in the next six months which could truly be epoch-making (or breaking): climate change, international terror, nuclear proliferation, the global economy, and assuring shared prosperity. The responses to these challenges will be critical, right up to and beyond the G-20, Copenhagen, probably another round of sanctions on Iran, and hopefully a stronger Palestinian mandate for peace with Israel.

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