Global Policy Forum

The Unreported UN General Assembly

As usual, Presidents Obama and Ahmadinejad hogged the headlines at the annual UN General Assembly last week, while many significant issues remained unreported. This article highlights key points made byleaders of the world's poorer and less influential countries.





By Simon Tisdall

September 27, 2010


Barack Obama and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hogged the headlines at the United Nations annual general assembly, which opened in New York last week. This was predictable. Western media perspectives, often reflecting the priorities of western governments, offer only a partial, selective view of the issues that really matter to the majority of the world's poorer, less influential and less "important" countries.


One by one, national leaders took to the UN podium to discuss the threats and conflicts that roil their countries, the inequalities and institutional barriers that hinder them, and the visions that inspire them. There was anger, eloquence and passion. But much of what they said went unreported internationally and was therefore largely ignored. Here are some excerpts from the "other" UN debate that you may have missed:


  • Rwanda's president Paul Kagame spoke for many developing countries in complaining of double standards. "It has become clear that the UN has evolved into a two-tier organisation, reflecting a world that seems to be divided into two categories: one with inherent laudable values, rights and liberties, and another that needs to be taught and coached on these values," Kagame said. Rwanda, where the conduct of recent elections was criticised in the west, appeared to fall into the latter category, and was marginalised and disenfranchised as a result, he said.
  • Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade led African countries in demanding UN reform - a call backed by Arab states (as well as by Japan, the EU and Australia). Failure to give Africa a permanent security council seat would exacerbate mistrust and defiance of its authority, he said, apparently referring to recent controversies over Iraq, UN sanctions on Iran, and international criminal court indictments. "How can one conceive of a credible role for our organisation in world governance while Africa, comprising more than a quarter of its [peacekeeping] troops and occupying 70% of the council's agenda, has no permanent seat on it?" he asked.
  • Bolivia's president Evo Morales adopted an idealistic stance, contrasting with the world-weariness of some western leaders. Morales proposed a grand international alliance to save humankind by guaranteeing equality and social justice for all. Clean water and electricity were basic human rights, he said, and the environment must be protected at all costs. "How can Mother Earth be turned into a business?"
  • Kanat Saudabayev, foreign minister of Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic and the world's biggest uranium producer, said all UN members should ratify the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and called on nuclear weapons powers (such as the US and Britain) to provide security assurance to non-nuclear states. "For the people of Kazakhstan, who know too well the horrors of nuclear tests, the issue of their total ban is of special relevance," he said. During Soviet times, he added, 490 nuclear explosions were detonated at the Semipalatinsk test site, "affecting more than half a million people and damaging territory as big as today's Germany".
  • Somalia's president, Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, whose government controls only a small slice of territory in Mogadishu, said progress in ending the civil war, curbing Islamist terrorism, and providing basic services was being made - but that additional international help was desperately needed. Kenya's president, Mwai Kibaki, was more forthright. Western countries had failed to follow through on strengthening peacekeeping forces and institutions in Somalia, focusing instead on curbing piracy. "Somalia continues to suffer benign neglect from the international community, leading to many lost opportunities," he said, adding that western countries should also increase their engagement in Sudan as January's secession referendum looms.
  • There was moderately hopeful news from another conflict zone when Serbia's president, Boris Tadić, announced his government was ready to engage in good-faith dialogue on Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. But further east, in the Caucasus, the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave appears to be worsening. Armenia's foreign minister, Edward Nalbandian, accused Azerbaijan of "unabated war rhetoric, increased violations of the ceasefire regime and the unprecedented increase" of its military budget. Azerbaijan replied in much the same vein. The assembly debate also heard worrying statements about other potentially dangerous disputes affecting Cyprus and Georgia.
  • Not one to be left out, Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe returned to the theme of supposed western double standards in Africa, saying that international sanctions have caused "untold suffering" among Zimbabweans. "The people of Zimbabwe should, like every other sovereign state, be left to freely chart their own destiny," he said. But US officials made it clear that Washington would not consider relaxing sanctions until Zimbabwe's leader paid more respect to human rights.
  • Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, had some rare praise for the UN, lauding the "effective multilateralism" shown in its responses to natural disasters including January's Haiti earthquake and the Pakistan floods. Relief efforts had worked because they were based on mutual respect, he said. He urged further reform of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to meet new challenges.
  • Dominica's president, Nicholas JO Liverpool, meanwhile highlighted a wholly unnatural disaster, namely the growing trade in illegal drugs headed for North America and the linked rise in the availability of small arms and light weapons, a Caribbean development mirroring trends in Colombia and Mexico. Dominica was "in the crossfire" but lacked the capacity to deal with the threat, Liverpool said. "It appears to us that the larger nations of the world only take decisive steps to cope with this situation when it has become untenable for themselves."
  • Perhaps the most plaintive contribution came from Gjorge Ivanov, president of Macedonia (known to Greece and to the UN, officially at least, as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Ivanov said he was hopeful that Greek objections to his country's name would be overcome and that Athens would stop blocking its efforts to join the EU and Nato. If two neighbours could not agree on such an issue, what hope was there for resolving much bigger disputes? "It [an agreement] will be a big step for us, but a huge step towards fulfilling the common vision for our whole region," he said. Like the overall UN agenda, it was a question of human dignity.


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