— Updated on 26 September 2021 —
UNITED NATIONS – The 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is drawing to a close, but not before world leaders made their mark through their speeches and actions while visiting New York. There is not enough time to cover the many fine speeches made by leaders from all parts of the globe, nor is this list meant to denote the finest speeches or most important nations. These are, in my opinion, some of the week’s most memorable moments which I have scored individually with commentary:
António Guterres – Secretary General, United Nations
In his keynote speech to the 76th Session of the UNGA, Guterres spoke in the language of poets about the start realities facing collective humanity. “With humanity on the edge of an abyss, and moving in the wrong direction, the world must wake up,” said the Secretary General. Speaking of what he called “Great Divides” in the world community, Guiterres outlined some of the immediate challenges for the UN, regional and national leaders to address, “For far too many around the world, peace and stability remain a distant dream,” he said, (referencing critical situations in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Georgia, Myanmar, Syria, the Sahel region in Africa and Ukraine, amongst others). He continued, “We are also seeing an explosion in seizures of power by force,” (clearly pointing to Myanmar and a disturbing trend returning in Africa), warning, “military coups are back.”
Directing his criticisms inward at the UN, Guterres highlighted the absence of international cooperation and unity on universal values that are, “undermining international cooperation and limiting the capacity of the Security Council to take the necessary decisions.” And, pointedly calling out China and the United States, Guterres lamented the, “dramatic economic and development challenges,” posed by these oversized economies being in constant competition, if not battle.
Returning to the lofty rhetoric of poets, Guterres made his plea for cooperation and action, “This is our time. A moment for transformation. An era to re-ignite multilateralism. An age of possibilities… Let us restore trust. Let us inspire hope. And, let us start right now.”
Overall Score for Guterres? B
Guterres states the obvious, but does a wonderful job in doing so. Leadership and measurable action remains the key point upon which his rhetoric will be judged.
Kersti Kaljulaid – President of Estonia
In her Higher Level, General Debate speech at the 76th Session, President Kaljulaid turned the misery of the Covid-19 pandemic on its head, pointing to the positive aspects that have emerged from the global tragedy, “Through the tears, solutions for a better society have sprung up,” she said. Acknowledging the pioneering efforts of Kenya, Estonia’s President lauded Kenya’s decision to make court judgments widely and easily available by publishing them online, encouraging the rest of the world to catch-up with Kenya’s example of openness. Online access and transparency that gives greater convenience, she argued, was of benefit to all. Kaljulaid highlighted this is especially true for the poor for whom traveling to centres of government or dealing with days-long waits for administrative services once there can be a serious impediment to social justice and equality.
Returning again to her underlying theme of lifting-up the most vulnerable, Kaljulaid decried the plight of women in Afghanistan, forcefully imploring the world not to let the advancements gained by women be diminished. Calling the situation “grim,” Estonia’s President highlighted the reality that 18 million people in Afghanistan, the majority of whom are women and children, are in dire need of life-sustaining assistance, food security and access to basic medical care. Calling attention to what she described as the “dark shadow of this pandemic,” Kaljulaid decried the often unspoken plight of women being forced from participation in the workforce and being unable to avail of pre or antenatal care which imperils their health and that of their children.
In what may well become a prescient warning to the world, Kaljulaid called-up the UN to not leave poorer nations behind as advanced economies engage in a mad-dash towards digitalisation and technology based economies. Leaving nations with insufficient resources behind is, to Kaljulaid, a moral issue as much as an economic one. She called upon the UN not to separate small or poorer countries from those with greater resources, further fueling the world’s already precarious divisions.
In an act of moral and ethical courage that marked her as a giant of the 76th UNGA, Kaljulaid boldly confronted the despotism of her neighbours who have become bad actors regionally and on the world stage. Pledging Estonia’s solidarity in the face of the “aggressive and destabilising behaviour of Alexander Lukashenkaʼs regime,” Kaljulaid elevated herself, and her tiny nation, to the status of giants on the right side of history. Again, staking Estonia’s prestige and honour on the side of democracy, freedom, justice and the sorority of nations that uphold a rules based world order, Kaljulaid emphatically reiterated Estonia’s “strong and unwavering support for [Ukraine’s] sovereignty, territorial integrity and for non-recognition policy of the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia.”
Overall Score for Kaljulaid? A+ (with Honours)
Kaljulaid is both a visionary and a pragmatist, yet doesn’t hesitate to call the UNGA to meet the challenges of the day or confront those who menace other nations and pose a threat to the continued peace in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Her speech is worth listening to, repeatedly. Women, the poor and small nations have no better advocate than Estonia’s President, Ms. Kaljulaid.
Miguel Marion Díaz-Canel Bermúdez – President of Cuba
Taking advantage of the hybrid nature of the 76th UNGA, Cuba’s President, Mr. Bermúdez, appeared via video. Small, poor and often isolated by a crushing US embargo, it took Cuba to drive home the cracks-in-the-mortar the Covid-19 pandemic made clear in the UN. Making his case that the UN was “even more important at a time when international cooperation has been lacking, and ‘neo-liberal formuals’ have reduced States’ ability to meet the needs of their populations,” Bermúdez, not indulging in opaque language, proclaimed what has been known for too long – the UN needs to be reformed to serve all nations – equally.
“The most vulnerable have been left unprotected, while rich nations, the elites and the pharmaceutical transnational corporations have continued to profit,” said Bermúdez. Using forecasts by the UN’s own labour agency, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Bermúdez pointed to the ILO’s projection that 205 million people will be unemployed in the world by 2022. Such forecasts, Bermúdez argued, render the UN’s goal of eradicating poverty by 2030 meaningless unless things change – and that will take reform. Continuing to address the plague of ‘vaccine poverty,’ Bermúdez highlighted the disparity of middle-to-high income countries disproportionately having access to full dose regimens of Covid-19 vaccines while hundreds of millions of people in low-income countries have yet to get their first dose.
Returning to his theme of reform, Bermúdez claims the remedy lies in the transformation of the UN from what he deemed an, “unequal and antidemocratic international order.” “Developed countries”, Bermúdez continued, “are mainly responsible for the current situation, and have a moral obligation to take responsibility.”
Overall Score for Bermúdez: B –
Bermúdez knows he has an uphill fight at the UN before reform finally catches wind, but he is right in his demands for change. The UN continues to ignore fundamental shifts in the world order, development and our enhanced understandings of justice and equality since its founding. Its time for the UN to stop ‘shifting deck chairs on the Titanic’ and address its fundamental weaknesses and inequalities that are impediments to lifting poorer and smaller regions and States out of poverty and conflict. It is unlikely that the Permanent Members of the UNSC will agree with Bermúdez or hear his pleas, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. In the end, the UN must reconcile that order and justice are not incompatible. Bermúdez hower, would be more credible if his own regime and party did not suffer from the same inequalities and chasms of power between its ruling class and the average Cuban person. He is new in his role. There is time to demonstrate real reform and leadership in Cuba that will give his voice greater weight.
Seyyed Ebrahim Raisi – President of Iran
Calling the re-imposed US sanctions against Iran as, “the U.S.’s new way of war with the nations of the world,” Raisi’s High Level, General Debate speech was remarkably predictable. Demanding that the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) return to adherence to the deal, Raisi said nothing about curtailing Iran’s enrichment of uranium in excess of levels agreed upon in the JCPOA.
Not unexpectedly, Raisi re-asserted Iran’s long-held position, enshrined by religious decree decades ago, that any stockpiling or use of atomic weapons is strictly forbidden in Iran, declaring, “Nukes have no place in our defence doctrine and deterrence policy.” Such claims have failed to satisfy the rest of the world community as Iran continues to enrich uranium to the point that it can be weaponsied, all while pursuing rockets and missiles capable of threatening its neighbours with the spectre of nuclear capacity on the horizon.
Proclaiming, “A new era has begun,” Raisi said Iran is ready to engage in “large-scale political and economic cooperation and convergence with the rest of the world.” Iran needs such engagement as its economy continues to be devastated by crushing sanctions. Undoubtedly, re-instating the JCPOA is the predicate act necessary to make such engagement possible. To date, the Biden administration has failed to seize the opportunity to re-commit the US to the deal, with both the US and Iran using increasingly harsh rhetoric about the failures of the other, creating more ill-will to an already fraught relationship.
Overall Score for Raisi: D
Raisi failed to speak to the fundamental human rights issues that UNGA delegates wanted addressed. Accused of being complicit with the execution of some 3,000 Iranians in the late 1980s when he served as a judge, Raisi continues to ignore the damage the perception of his own human rights record and that of Iran have had on building trust in the world community. He said nothing new. He needed to. This is not to say that Raisi isn’t wrong to blame the US for failing to remain in the JCPOA and acting punitively when Trump withdrew then re-imposed sanctions that restrained even non-US entities from engaging with Iran. Trump was wrong and few in the UNGA would disagree (with the exception of Israel). Raisi must find a via media with the US before Iran can reclaim its role on the world stage.
Volodomyr Zelenskyy – President of Ukraine
Just prior to his High Level, General Debate address to the UNGA, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy was informed that his long-time friend, aide, political colleague and advisor, Serhiy Shefir had survived an assassination attempt targeting his car and severely injuring his driver. The working assumption is that oligarchs, displeased with Zelenskyy’s reform efforts, tried to send a message to the President to back-down. In the aftermath of the assassination attempt, Zelenskyy defiantly reiterated his determination to continue to tackle corruption and keep Ukraine on the path of reform and European integration.
As for his remarks, an unshaken Zelenskyy was both frank and critical about the UN’s failure to produce meaningful results and seemingly abandoning its founding principles. “Maybe the UN should move, and be mobile and agile. Maybe we should meet in places where we can hear and see global problems. There are thousands of hot spots in the world. Ukraine will eagerly participate in UN meetings held near them,” said Zelenskyy. “In 2019, at this rostrum, I said the war in Ukraine had claimed more than 13 thousand lives, with 30 thousand wounded. Imagine one and a half million people driven from their homes. Each year, I mention the toll at the U.N. (General Assembly), and unfortunately, each year, the toll grows. I spoke about it in 2020. As I speak about it now, in 2021, nearly 15 thousand people have been killed. That’s the price of freedom and independence. Maybe in Central Park or Madison Square, the shots are not as loud as on the industrial outskirts of Avdiivka (‘Promka’) or outside Svitlodarsk,” continued Zelenskyy, sardonically.
In a damning indictment of the UN’s lack of courage and abandonment of its power and influence, Zelenskyy, as if speaking for those numerous nations that feel failed, disempowered if not outright betrayed by UN inaction and ineffectual responses, Ukraine’s President brought the issue home for those before him, speaking ‘truth to power,’ “Every time we seem to choose a ‘global disaster of the year’. In a year, very few people will remember it, as there will be a new one. Every year, at the Assembly session, the world stuffs threats into a backpack, and carries it for years, while it is already full. If we look inside, there is famine, poverty, illiteracy, lack of potable water and fresh air, and military occupation. We lack time to solve that. But what we really lack is courage. We don’t act as leaders, but as politicians. We are afraid of people’s questions and our accountability. And we leave the door open to step back – we promised you nothing,” Zelenskyy said.
In a passage that praised the UN as much as his prior comments chided it, Zelenskyy attempted to remind the UN of his history of great achievements in an effort to elevate it to its once former glory, “The UN is a retired superhero who has forgotten of its power,” he said. “He considers himself a burden, a weak, frail, useless old man, whose life was in vain. Or maybe the UN will remember something?” said Zelenskyy. And, as if as singing from the lyrics of the lengthy ‘Litany of Saints’ sung at Easter to remind the faithful of the sacrifices and achievements of old, Zelenskyy pointed to the plethora of notable accomplishments made by the UN through the years, “More than one billion people have got access to potable water for the first time since 1981. Who explained to the wild world that every person has rights and they need to be protected? Who issued the first document that details them? Who provides 90 million people in 83 countries with food? Who eliminated racial segregation from the planet? Who owns the ‘blue helmets’ that have maintained peace in dozens of countries? Who founded UNESCO that protects the Vatican City, the Versailles, the Acropolis, and some 1,154 unique cultural heritage sites? Who founded UNICEF that protects children in more than 190 countries? A call to unite for children cannot be banal or outdated.”
And, if I spend more time on Zelenskyy’s address to the UNGA, it is not out of favouritism for Ukraine, but because more than any other leader, Zelenskyy managed to make real the failure of the UN to make a difference in the lives of humanity all while calling it to find the courage to overcome the malaise that has made it ineffectual and benign of late. The UN must be more than a talking shop or a mechanism for aid – it must return to its visionary foundations of being an operative centre for dynamic action and change for the betterment of humanity, for the sorority of nations and for peace and prosperity for all human kind.
Consider the last two paragraphs of Zelenskyy’s remarks:
UN must support the Crimea Platform – “If every nation is given such an effective platform supported by the UN that solves problems and operates 24/7, the UN will revive. That’s how ordinary people will rekindle their faith in the UN. The fact that the UN has ignored a platform set to address the violations of international law and oppose occupation sets a precedent of new principles. I invite all the nations to join the common declaration of the Crimea Platform, condemn the occupation and take a stand against forcible redrawing of borders in the world. I am not being ironic when I say that [the Crimea Platform] will always be open to Russia.”
UN Charter and veto power outdated – “To begin with, the UN Charter must be revived. These are not optional recommendations. You will not find the phrase ‘Everyone for themselves’ in it. ‘We are determined’, ‘we confirm our interest to overcome’, ‘we agreed to intensify cooperation’ – how much time, paper and energy have we wasted on that? The UN is not a building, the UN is leaders. They founded the UN 76 years ago. Could they imagine that the veto power will turn into a tool used by a member to blackmail everyone else?”
And here Ukraine’s President drives home why the world is on the verge of irreparably losing faith in the UN – Ukraine was left with little alternative but to construct a bold, imaginative and operative, multilateral mechanism to address the lawlessness, aggression and occupation undertaken by Russia, who shields itself as a Permanent Member of the UNSC, abusing the Aria format meetings its archaic for disinformation and exercising the archaic veto power to thwart any action to call it to account. In the absence of the UN truly standing-up to Russia it takes inaction as permission and simply continues its unending campaign of murders, poisonings, media repression, human rights violations, invasions, occupations and covert and overt military interventions, disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks around the world.
Instead of the UN, and the UNSC acting to hold Russia accountable, restrain its aggression and contain the staggering devastation and loss of human life it has inflicted on its neighbours, in the West and now in the Middle East and Africa, the UN refrains from meeting its obligations and sits idle. The UNSC Veto mechanism has thus been reduced to a Monopoly game’s get out of jail free’ card only underscoring the complaints from High Level, General Debate participants from Cuba to Estonia and Iran to Ukraine that the UN, that if the UN remains unreformed, and the UNSC not made functional, the UN will become a meaningless institution that serves powerful and wealthy States to the neglect of humanity and peace.
Overall Score for Zelenskyy? A- (with Distinction)
Although lacking in the poetic cadence and language of Secretary General Guterres, and admittedly self indulgent in focus, Ukraine’s remarks could well have been made by countless States about themselves and rang equally true. Zelenskyy’s clarion call for the UN to listen to the ‘better angels of its being’ and live up to its foundational aspirations should make all at the UN sleep restlessly then inspire them to take-up the renewal and reform the body so often preaches to others.
Joseph Biden – President of the United States of America
After outlining the many struggles the world faces, US President Biden waxed poetic with the phrase, “Simply put: We stand, in my view, at an inflection point in history. And I’m here today to share with you how the United States intends to work with partners and allies to answer these questions and the commitment of my new administration to help lead the world toward a more peaceful, prosperous future for all people.” To “help lead,” said Biden – while many think it is time for the US to learn to be a follower again before having the hubris to “lead.” I don’t share that view entirely – but the sentiment is not lost on me.
Biden’s problem is credibility, plain and simple. Nobody doubts Biden’s sincerity, but they are not unaware of current US policy and actions. The manner in which the US withdrew from Afghanistan caused a cascading and chaotic humanitarian crisis for the evacuation of all foreign nationals. True, there were few good alternatives (if any) and the US now realises it can’t withdraw with the orderliness of a victor when they have lost the war – but it strained already badly frayed relations around the globe.
There is also the issue of regional cooperation. When the US and UK scuppered the French submarine deal with Australia, it went beyond mere self-interest and self-determination – or even the economic loss to the French economy – it smacked of arrogance and superiority. By the US, UK and Australia failing to communicate effectively with France (if not the EU), when providing nuclear submarine technology to Australia would not merely end a trade deal, it would re-align security capabilities and ignite escalation concerns in the conflicted South China Seas with one of France and the EU’s biggest trading partners – China.
Moreover, Biden’s failure to embrace carpe diem practicalities and rejoin the JCPOA in his honeymoon period of his first 100 days in office has exacerbated problems. It not only continues the harm and threat to the EU partners to the deal, but now Biden’s domestic problems threaten to overtake his international policy objectives, leaving nothing but concern, hostility and uncertainty all while having to face a new, hardline regime, in Tehran. Add to this Biden’s desire to bolster US labour unions which translates into protectionist policies (arguably making his policies similar to Trump’s – although for differing reasons), and Biden’s assertion that the US has returned to multilateralism, left most skeptical, if not disdainful of his intentions.
Biden does deserve credit for elevating the debate on Climate Change. No issue has the potential to impact humanity and States than the rapidly changing climate crisis cycle that is devastating the world. From food security to national security, access to clean water to coastlines increasingly encroached by rising sea levels, to diminishing marine life to the effects of wildlife and human populations on land, addressing Climate Change can no longer be deferred. On climate, Biden dedicated two paragraphs of his speech:
“In April, I announced the United States will double our public international financing to help developing nations tackle the climate crisis. And today, I’m proud to announce that we’ll work with the Congress to double that number again, including for adaptation efforts.
Continuing on This will make the United States a leader in public climate finance. And with our added support, together with increased private capital and other — from other donors, we’ll be able to meet the goal of mobilizing $100 billion to support climate action in developing nations.”
Overall Score for Biden: C
Biden’s speech was well written and ably delivered. It wasn’t the presentation that is at issue, it is the US performance of late. Biden’s speech was, overall, uninspiring and did little to change opinions about the US and its commitment to true multilateralism. Biden promised competency to the American people when he ran for President. He has delivered on that more so than did his immediate predecessor. However, demonstrated competence, trust and instilling confidence in the American ship of State continues to elude him on the world stage. He has yet to dispel the idea that ‘American exceptionalism’ is anything but a memory, if not a myth.
Xi Jinping – President of China
If Biden seemed parochial and patriarchal in his address to the UNGA, China’s President Xi Jinping was anything but. Striking a more universalist chord, Xi conveyed an air of openness to dialogue and problem solving that cast him as an accessible partner. Xi’s appeal to drive development through technology while living in harmony with the Earth, was received as a breath of fresh air. However, China’s commitment to “…to peak carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060” remains lackluster in its lack of tempo. Placing the Chinese economy before world health and the environment leaves significant wiggle-room in the three decades between 2030-2060.
Xi properly places the Covid-19 pandemic in context, calling overcoming the pandemic, “a decisive fight, crucial to the future of humanity.” He also announced China’s attempts to meet the needs of poorer and smaller States suffering ‘vaccine poverty.’ According to Xi, “China will strive to provide a total of two billion doses of vaccines to the world by the end of this year. In addition to donating 100 million US dollars to COVAX, China will donate 100 million doses of vaccines to other developing countries in the course of this year. China will continue to support and engage in global science-based origins tracing, and stands firmly opposed to political maneuvering in whatever form.”
The points of both Xi and Biden rise on fall on their individual merits. However, the dichotomy of Xi and Biden’s remarks are quite noticeable. Biden’s remarks were about America and American interests. Xi’s remarks were more oriented towards their commitments and partnerships around the globe for mutual benefit. Biden’s appeal was to the lofty notions of democracy and freedom while Xi address the practical, “Development holds the key to people’s well-being…. We need to seize the historic opportunities created by the latest round of technological revolution and industrial transformation, redouble efforts to harness technological achievements to boost productivity, and foster an open, fair, equitable and non-discriminatory environment for the development of science and technology. We should foster new growth drivers in the post-COVID era and jointly achieve leapfrog development.” Xi might have been mistaken for speaking at a Western business conference if one were to forget he started his speech by mentioning the 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.
Being a former speech writer, I admit begrudging admiration for Xi’s words at the 76th UNGA. Parts of the speech might easily be compared to the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty speech given by President John F. Kennedy at American University in 1963 as both share poignant eloquence and humanitarian vision:
“Differences and problems among countries, hardly avoidable, need to be handled through dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect. One country’s success does not have to mean another country’s failure, and the world is big enough to accommodate common development and progress of all countries. We need to pursue dialogue and inclusiveness over confrontation and exclusion. We need to build a new type of international relations based on mutual respect, equity, justice and win-win cooperation, and do the best we can to expand the convergence of our interests and achieve the biggest synergy possible.”
The closing of Xi’s remarks were devoted to China’s commitment to a world order with the UN at its centre and “true multilateralism” being a force for good.
Overall Score: A-
Xi’s video delivered speech was well constructed, lofty, yet practical and committed China to multilateral action and working with the UN for the common good of humanity and peace. It was an excellent speech. Xi, however, placed human rights in the context of broader development and only called upon the UN to promote human rights in a “balanced manner,” seemingly undermining (though not denying) a driving principle of the UN. There are varying views on the sincerity of Xi’s remarks. Nonetheless, China is now challenged to live up to the aspirational goals Xi espoused in his excellent speech.
Imran Khan – Prime Minister of Pakistan
The use of the Higher Level, General Debate speeches by India and Pakistan to attack each other was beneath the dignity of the UNGA and we might have hoped each State. Sadly, the rhetoric was equally harsh by both sides and didn’t begin to reach towards the goal of unity for which the UN was established. However, both India and Pakistan’s speeches sadly reminded all in attendance just why the UN was established.
Using the hybrid virtual/present forum under which the 76th General Assembly was administered, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s pre-recorded message should have given him and his advisors time to reflect upon its content. Clearly, they did not and one can only assume they meant to cause insult and injury. Khan unhesitatingly accused Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi of a “reign of terror” waged against Muslims as part of a wider plan to “purge India of Muslims.” The UNGA is not un-accustomed to vitriol spate at each other’s States by India and Pakistans representatives, but Khan’s rhetoric went far beyond the usual un-diplomatic language and veered pointedly into the chasm of provocative and vile.
Khan was unrestrained in his condemnation of India, calling Modi’s Hindu nationalist government “fascist.” “The worst and most pervasive form of Islamophobia now rules India,” Khan asserted in his speech. “The hate-filled Hindutva ideology, propagated by the fascist RSS-BJP regime, has unleashed a reign of fear and violence against India’s 200 million-strong Muslim community,” he said.
India customarily chooses to ignore Pakistan’s rebukes and criticism at the UN. However, in a rare move, India’s First Secretary to the UN Mission, Ms. Sneha Dubey, a young woman by diplomatic or any standards, invoked the rarely exercised ‘First Right of Rebuttal’ and outright accused Pakistan of having sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden then glorifying him after he was killed by a US Special Forces raid in a 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Many doubt Pakistan wasn’t knowingly harbouring and supporting bin Laden given Abbottabad being a military centre with significant intelligence units operating therein.
“This is the country which is an arsonist disguising itself as a firefight,” said Dubey. “Pakistan nurtures terrorists in their back yard in the hope that they will only harm their neighbours.” Dubey then used her limited time to remind the UNGA about violence against minorities in Pakistan who has a reputed history of “religious and cultural genocide” dating to the early 1970s as Bangladesh emerged as an independent State. “Unlike Pakistan,” Dubey continued, “India is a pluralistic democracy with a substantial population of minorities who have gone on to hold highest offices in the country.”
Dubey’s response to the video address by Khan invoked a further response on the part of Pakistan. Ms. Saima Saleem, a Pakistani diplomat, took issue with Dubey’s contention that Kashmir (which is partially controlled by Islamabad), is an internal issue. The heated exchange brought the UNGA Great Hall to attention.
India’s Prime Minister Modi’s expected to take his turn at the rostrum giving his Higher Level, General Debate remarks during the Saturday session. It is expected that the spat will again overflow onto the world stage during the UNGA.
Overall Score: F
There are, without doubt, unending disputes between India and Pakistan. They need and they deserve to be addressed. However, vim and vitriol on the floor of the UNGA, using the most un-diplomatic of language, meant to insult and inflame tensions, largely religious in nature as they are national or State in character, achieves nothing. India, who often clamours for reform of the UNSC and greater inclusion in a reformed UN that will treat it as the economic and social powerhouse that it has become, gains nothing by engaging in such senselessly unproductive rhetoric. Pakistan only weakens its position as a stable and reasonable partner by such a wasted opportunity. However, Ms. Dubey deserves credit for knowing the rules and invoking speaking time for rebuttal as does Ms. Saleem who equally used her time constructively to engage in constructive, even if not mutually trusting dialogue within the debate.
Africa – All Delegations
It is a disservice to all nations in Africa to lump them all together. I wish it were possible to devote time for analysis for each and every nation, but given the constraints of a ‘highlights’ review of memorable moments from the 76th Session of the UNGA, it is not. Suffice it to say that Africa was unified on one theme – its valid complaints about inequity. From energy to food and from vaccines to development aid, Africa continues to suffer from what is quite arguably artificial poverty. When nations with advanced economies enjoy 70-85% vaccination rates against Covid-19 and then are again offering ‘booster’ vaccines to that same population, while there are a plethora of States where the vaccination rate has yet to exceed 3% the global unity promised by the UN rings hollow. This is not to say that the nations who have contributed to COVAX are not helping – they are. However, given the nature of a pandemic, the sooner the world is evenly vaccinated and travel and commerce can return to somewhat normal the better off all nations will be, especially those with advanced economies. In short, Africa has rightly ‘banged the gong’ of inequity yet again. The demand for reform continues to be the watchword – even if the press releases are about Climate Change, Conflict and Covid. It is now up to the UN to respond positively and solve the underlying institutional weaknesses that perpetuate these problems.
Overall Score: A+
What more needs to be said. It is an indictment of the UN that African leaders seemingly give the same speeches every year during the High Level, General Debate and yet nothing changes. It is incumbent upon the UN to address the structural and institutional barriers that have arisen since its founding and renew itself to make it fit-for-purpose in this century, lest it go the way of the League of Nations and be rendered ineffective and inept. The question remains – with the UN heavily tilted to the powers of the former century, does it have the appetite to reform itself?
Micheál Martin – An Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland
The Micheál Martin that appeared and spoke at the 76th Session of the UNGA was the Micheál Martin too few Irish people give credit to for his leadership. Partisan politics aside, Ireland has performed as one of the steady ships-of-State in the turbulent waters of the Covid-19 pandemic. While resources have been stretched thin, and the healthcare system and workers pushed to the brink (hindered further by the Russian ransomware hack of the HSE computers), Martin deserves great credit. While he may not invoke the awe as did de Valera or exude the charm and panache of Haughey, or easily and congenially mingle as did Aherne, Martin must be credited with being a steadying influence in crisis – a trait he employed to rebuild Fianna Fail from the disasterous reputation it earned after the Celtic Tiger collapse and more recently in keeping a coalition government headed in the right direction and seeing Ireland take a well earned seat on the UNSC this term. Speaking from the position as one of the most advanced economies on the planet, Martin deftly bridged the gap between richer and poorer States by calling the UN to embrace the needs of all.
Consider his plain spoken appeal to remember the most vulnerable, “The United Nations General Assembly meets this year in a virtual format, in the shadow of COVID-19. The pandemic has taken an immense toll on our countries, our citizens, our economies, indeed on our entire way of life. It has imposed a particular burden on those least able to bear it: countries with weak healthcare systems, and civilian populations suffering from insecurity, displacement, conflict and poverty.” Martin spoke with compassion and authenticity because he remembers the poverty of Ireland from his childhood and hasn’t let the economy it enjoys today erase his values (nor has Ireland).
Although Ireland occupies a non-permanent seat on the UNSC, a position of great power and responsibility, it has not deterred Martin or Ireland from being a vocal critic for necessary and positive transformation to make the UN work. Martin made this clear, “Violent conflict and insecurity continue to grow. We face enduring global challenges: hunger and food insecurity; the existential threat of climate change; violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and impunity for perpetrators. The Security Council can, and must, play a central role in addressing them. We are under no illusions. Deep divisions exist on the Council. But we do not accept that these divisions mean that the Council can step back from its responsibilities. It must fulfil the role entrusted to it by the UN Charter and by the member states.”
Martin made clear that Ireland believes in the UN and therefore embraces the need for cooperation and reform. It is to Martin’s credit that he calls upon the UNSC to rise above the pettiness of division and meet its responsibilities by reminding the powerful Permanent Members of the UN their role was entrusted to them by the UN Charter and Members States and therefore they must become functional and accountable. Kudos to an Taoiseach.
Martin’s address should be read and watched in its entirety – it is that worthy (Ireland should be proud). However, I will commend the following passages for special attention because Ireland has expressed, through Martin, that it understands Africa’s concerns, gets Ukraine’s demand for change, hears China’s call for cooperation, appreciates Cuba’s plea for small nations and values the continued progress of women Estonia highlighted as being in peril:
“Regional organisations such as the European Union and the African Union are making an increasingly important contribution to how the UN responds to international crises.
Ireland is proud to play an active role in UN-mandated, EU-led military crisis management missions, and in EU civilian missions. Irish troops, police officers, judges, coastguards, experts in rule of law and security sector reform serve in UN, EU and OSCE missions around the world, from Mali to Lebanon to Ukraine.
We actively support African-led operations, both peacekeeping and preventative diplomacy missions, including through the African Union, and IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Strengthening prevention is also vital. The UN needs to deploy all its resources – country teams, special representatives, political missions, mediators and more – to intervene early; to highlight and stop human rights abuses; to prevent conflict; and to support the efforts of local stakeholders in peace-making and peacebuilding.
Crucially, we must address the factors underlying conflict, including insecurity, hunger, poor governance, climate change, violations of human rights, and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.
We have heard the argument that issues like climate, hunger and human rights do not belong in the Security Council. That there are other fora to discuss these issues. That they do not belong in discussions of international peace and security.
Let me be very clear. We reject that argument.
It is not a case of either/or.
We know that climate change not only impedes sustainable development but also contributes to conflict.
We know that human rights abuses and the denial of justice can fuel radicalisation and extremism.
We know that poverty, hunger and resource deprivation fuel insecurity and violence.
We know that rising oceans pose an existential threat to some Small Island Developing States.
We know that without a firm commitment to supporting the poorest and most vulnerable countries on their development pathways, we will never adequately address insecurity and conflict. This drives Ireland’s commitment to reach our official development assistance target of 0.7% of GNI by 2030.
We have ample evidence of these trends.
What we do not yet have is a Security Council ready and able to take on its responsibilities to address these issues. Ireland will do everything possible over the next two years to make all the progress we can.
Accountability will also be a watchword of our term on the Council…”
Overall Score: A+
Martin deserves great credit for continuing to place Ireland at the forefront of continuing the foundational aspirations of the UN. Ireland continues to put its ‘money where its mouth is’ by committing young Irish women and men on the frontlines of UN Peacekeeping missions. For a State occupying a seat on the UNSC (this month Chairing its meetings) to be so introspective, self-critical and yet positive about the UNSC and therefore the UN’s ability to meet the growing demands of a complex world deeply divided by politics, religion, poverty and development is the mark of true leadership. Ambassador Byrne Nason has ably represented Ireland at the UN, on the UNSC and will continue to do so, advocating for Ireland’s core values which are at the heart of the UN’s mission and therefore provides fodder and guidance for the goals of operating and reforming this great and noble institution. As a former speech writer all I can say is I wish I had written it and those who collaborated with an Taoiseach in doing so, from DFA to his aides, are to be congratulated. Martin’s delivery was excellent.
Nota Bene: Not all States have spoken. This is a developing story.