Four Arab women, three of whom from the Gulf region, were included in the worlds’ 100 most powerful women list released Wednesday night by Forbes magazine. The 2010 list, topped by U.S. first lady Michele Obama, ranked Queen Rania al-Abdullah of Jordan 76 for her campaigns in the fields of education, women issues, and human rights as well as her role in bridging the gap between the U.S. and the Arab world, according to Forbes website.
In addition, it was the absence of some heads of states, especially many Africans, which drew as much attention for diplomats as who was actually in New York. Leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chàvez and Cuban President Raœl Castro did not show up. And Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did show up, only in the final days of the High Level Segment (HLS) and hours after announcing a resumption of settlement building that effectively made ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation irrelevant.
In fact, many of the most senior visiting statespersons gave two speeches: at the special MDG Summit that took place from Monday to Wednesday and another at the annual HLS of the General Assembly. In the MDG Summit, heads of states or their designated representatives almost unanimously pledged greater action to achieve set MDGs. Few of these pledges were accompanied by plans of action, much less actual money on the table. A small exception was the $40 billion pledged for achieving MDGs four and five that respectively call for lower maternal and infant mortality.
Calls for states to take action to achieve world or regional peace, action on climate change, UN reform, respect for international law, disarmament, human rights, international financial and economic reform, and greater development for the poorest segments in the world sounded likely lofty echoes in the East River wind sweeping against the side of a mostly empty General Assembly Hall.
The most talked about speeches were by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. At the MDG Summit Ahmadinejad pleaded for a world order that was more "just and humane". He called for this order to be founded on "just and fair governance based on [a] divine mindset" which he said was a "prerequisite and the guarantor for realisation of justice, love and security in the society". He proposed that the second decade of the 21st century be declared as "the decade for joint global governance". Most of the U.S. media ignored these statements and instead focussed on his brief and vague statements about re-opening talks on the "nuclear issue".
While his MDG Summit remarks were barely covered, the U.S. and British press were more interested in his longer speech during the HLS. Most of the press, and even the U.S. and Israeli heads of states, lashed out with what appeared to be viral attacks on the Iranian president's character that indicated they had probably not even heard his speech. Most attention went to the Iranian president's consideration of the events of 11 September 2001 and their consequences. He had stated that he was "very saddened" by the death of some 3,000 persons who were killed on 9/ 11 while drawing a contrast to hundreds of thousands of people killed and millions wounded and displaced in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Before starting such wars, President Ahmadinejad asked "Would it not have been sensible that first a thorough investigation should have been conducted by independent groups to conclusively identify the elements involved in the attack and then map out a rational plan to take measures against them?" The Iranian president then proposed, "that the United Nations set up an independent fact- finding group" to investigate the events of 11 September. At this point the U.S. delegation, appearing insulted that its view of the events of 9/11 was being questioned, got up and walked out of the General Assembly chamber accompanied by a couple of other states' delegates. Most states' delegates just looked at the Americans, puzzled that they had objected to such a benign exercise of free speech by a visiting guest in their country.
Less attention was given to the Iranian president's proposal "that the year 2011 be proclaimed the year of nuclear disarmament and 'Nuclear Energy for all, Nuclear Weapons for None'." Nor was attention given to his announcement that Iran would host an international conference on combating terrorism while respecting human rights. By then the U.S. delegates were out of earshot and out of touch with the happenings in the UN General Assembly Hall.
Bolivian President Evo Morales called upon world leaders to renew their thinking about our relationship to the planet and for their states to enhance international cooperation to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Again the Western media was nowhere in sight. The U.S. press hardly mentioned the Bolivian president's proposal to recognise the rights of Mother Earth. Although the concept is common currency among indigenous peoples, it was a strikingly new idea within the UN that was first mentioned in April 2009. That month the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution referring to the rights of Mother Earth.
By contrast, when U.S. President Barack Obama gave two uneventful speeches the media was fighting to get a ringside seat. In his MDG speech, Obama pledged to help the world achieve the MDG goals, but without any
specifics about how this would or could be done. In his Thursday speech at the HLS, President Obama emphasised a domestic agenda, referring to
9/11 and the financial crisis. To some observers' surprise, he referred to the global financial and economic crises caused by the mismanagement of American financial markets as primarily affecting Americans. He seemed oblivious to the fact that economists in think tanks such as the respected International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth have long determined that compared to the impact on developed countries, the "impact on developing countries is even greater".
Obama's acknowledgment of the international community was largely confined to his lengthy remarks on fighting terrorism. He did congratulate the Palestinians for their willingness to negotiate peace with Israel under U.S. auspices and accepting American terms. Ironically as he was doing so the U.S. talks remained on the verge of collapse due to Israel's failure to extend a freeze on settlement construction that it is already reportedly violating.
When Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Antigua and Barbuda Winston Baldwin Spencer eloquently called for respect for international law and for the duties of cooperation it imposes, especially on rich and powerful countries, the General Assembly Hall was almost empty. And hardly anyone noticed the apparent insult when one of the vice-presidents of the General Assembly who was presiding over a session on the morning of 22 September 2010, mistook a prime minister for another country's minister for foreign affairs. Similarly when the same vice- presidents presiding over the General Assembly went on to request that another head of state speak faster so as to finish his statement quickly, as "the president of the United States is speaking in the next session", few could have noticed as the General Assembly Hall was nearly empty.
Whatever security value restrictive access policies might have had, they also accentuated frequently heard complaints about the irrelevance of the United Nations because they evidenced the exclusion of the voices and watchful eyes of civil society. For the approximately 3,000 accredited NGOs, totalling tens of thousands of individuals, only 50 admission tickets were issued each day. Moreover, in short visits to the NGO Office on the 14th floor of 1 UN Plaza, individuals, mainly from U.S. or U.S.-based NGOs, could often be seen coaxing a colleague in the NGO Office to give them instead of their peers a ticket.
Press enquires about issues of access that were directed to Jean Victor Nkolo, the spokesman for the president of the General Assembly, were ignored. Some civil society representatives complained to the most senior UN official, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. A week later their complaints remained ignored, receiving no reply.
One NGO representative suggested that NGO invitations to the General Assembly and concerns expressed about them "were undoubtedly lost under all the dinner invitations and meetings requests". Indeed, civil society and the press seemed to be an undesirable burden for the UN and even when they were allowed near visiting dignitaries they were kept under close surveillance by UN security and other UN officials. And after one NGO official spoke with the UN's chief NGO official, Andrei Abramov, access for NGOs deteriorated even further with UN Security starting a practice of arbitrarily denying NGOs access to the General Assembly Hall even when they had required passes.
Apparently, not all the inconvenience for diplomats and NGOs was the UN's doing. Security arrangements were coordinated with the local police. For the UN opening session, the mayor of New York ordered the usual lockdown of the blocks around the United Nations. But as to mimic this apparent overreaction, simultaneously the Swiss president of the General Assembly, Joseph Deiss, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, ordered heightened security in and around the UN that imposed a virtual shroud of secrecy around the proceedings.
Native New Yorkers appeared to adapt better to the inconvenience caused by security for elite visitors. Many New York businesses merely hiked prices several-fold -- some hotel prices, for example, rose almost tenfold. The New York media also spent more time telling New Yorkers how to avoid Midtown Manhattan than it did reporting the substance of the addresses of presidents, prime ministers, or kings. New Yorkers obviously felt more comfortable dealing with their local concerns than those of the rest of the global community.
East Timorese President and Nobel-Prize Laureate Ramos-Horta seemed to understand New Yorkers when he began his speech to the world body by congratulating New York City's billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg for "standing for the rights of American Muslims in building a cultural centre and a sacred place of worship in lower Manhattan as a venue for reflection, learning and fraternity among cultures and religions."
For some diplomats all the security in New York City only seemed to make it an even more dangerous place. Thus despite the $10 million spent on paying overtime for the New York City Police and other U.S. government security providers, a Nicaraguan diplomat living in the Bronx section of New York was murdered in his home. And at the Manhattan East Hilton Hotel, security guards attacked and seriously injured a Sudanese diplomat and repeatedly harassed UN and NGO officials trying to enter the hotel. Hilton Hotel Manager Ben Cohen refused to comment on apparently overzealous security efforts and the Hilton Hotel's main office did not return telephone calls or respond to fax messages.
For the 65th UN General Assembly, New Yorkers lived up to many of the worst stereotypes that visitors harbour about them. But perhaps they also proved a point. Like the U.S. press, they clearly thought the 65th UN General Assembly was irrelevant. And as if to respond to this view obligingly, the UN itself seemed loath to do much to make its premiere annual event more relevant. Perhaps the fact that the UN's most senior official, the new Swiss president of the UN General Assembly, refused to comment on any of it says more about the situation than any words he could have uttered.
* The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer. This article was published in Egypt's AL AHRAM WEEKLY on its Oct.7-13 issue.