Heads of State jet in, motorcades and police blockades jam the streets of Manhattan, and amid the gridlock the five-star hotels, restaurants and jewelry stores do a booming business — it’s late September, time for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual opening. This event has by now so far outstripped a three-ring circus that there is no keeping track of the full scene. Dissertations could be done (to deadly effect) on the side panels alone. But here’s a quick and dirty guide to some of the highlights, and lowlifes.
The current hoopla marks the opening of the General Assembly’s 68th annual session since the founding of the UN, in 1945. Officially, this session actually began last week, on Sept. 17. But that was just the windup. The real action comes this week, as the big shots arrive for what is called the General Debate.
Though what they do in public is less a debate than a parade of theatrical statements. The UN today has 193 member states. All of them get a turn on the GA main stage. So does the Holy See, and so does the Palestinian Authority. To get through the entire lineup by next Tuesday, Oct. 1 (with a break on Sunday), the UN urges the speakers to observe a “voluntary 15-minute time limit” (and suggests that “Delegations may wish to inform their capital of this procedure”). But these are all speakers who are used to being important, if not on the world stage, then at least in their home countries; most of them are heads of state, or ministers (with the occasional vice minister or deputy thrown in). In some cases they command a world spotlight; in others they are mainly grandstanding for the folks back home. Either way, the speakers typically run over the time limit — one memorable example being Muammar Qaddafi’s speech in 2009, which went on for more than an hour-and-a half.
So the schedule, which you can find here (the speaker lists will be added daily), is an approximate guide, with speeches starting at 9 AM, and officially divided into a morning and an afternoon session, though in practice they often run over into the lunch break and sometimes well into the evening. The best way to keep track is to follow the speaker lineup — which has its peculiarities. Were the UN an outfit with a moral compass, there might be some chance of the most repressive governments speaking last, or perhaps not speaking at all. But at the UN, protocol trumps such matters as morality, and a democracy such as New Zealand can end up waiting its turn after Iran and Sudan. The rule of thumb is that heads of state and heads of government take precedence over those of lesser title. But that doesn’t always apply. UN officials say that states sometime swap slots, or make special requests, and the basic show is a product of the inner workings of the General Assembly.
Brazil goes first, on day one. Then the U.S., the host country (Note to U.S. taxpayers, your money bankrolls 22% of the UN costs for this extravaganza, plus — especially if you are from New York — virtually all of the added security costs).
Most GA openings have their stars, or their starring events. In 2009, that was Qaddafi, who was riding so high at the UN that the tyrant himself, after years of sending his minions, decided to appear in person. The UN doesn’t do much to advertise it these days, but at the time — just four years ago — Qaddafi’s Libya had been elected to a seat on the 15-member Security Council, Qaddafi’s former foreign minister had been elevated to president of the General Assembly, and Libya was on its way to winning a seat on the “reformed” UN Human Rights Council. Last year, the signature GA event was the Assembly trying to do an end-run around the Oslo Accords, by voting to “upgrade” the PA’s status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state.”
This year the big buzz is over Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, who represents the same old brutal, terror-sponsing Tehran theocracy of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, but who dresses and speaks with more polish than his leisure-suit-clad predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Will President Obama try to cut a deal with Rouhani? That’s the cliffhanger. The likelihood of Iran cheating on any deal, and simply buying more time and ease to spread terror and make nuclear weapons, is so high that some folks (outside the UN) might almost be tempted to miss the histrionics and wardrobe choices of Ahmadinejad.
A sampling of the rogue state speaker lineup this year: Iran is scheduled to speak on day one, in the number seven slot of the Tuesday afternoon lineup. Venezuela, an oil-rich country so grossly misruled that the government is now trying to fix a state-caused shortage of toilet paper, will speak on Tuesday afternoon. The Palestinian Authority gets its 15 minutes (or more) on Thursday morning. Syria and Cuba have been tastefully scheduled for next Monday morning, Sept. 30th. And North Korea has a slot in the final round, Tuesday morning, Oct. 1, at which time a vice minister from Pyongyang can be expected to deliver the usual bizarre speech demanding that other countries abide by Pyongyang’s version of sustainable peace and human rights.
There’s also the strange scene that Sudan’s president, Omar al Bashir — under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his role in Sudan’s genocide — has said he wants to attend this year’s GA opening. If he does turn up to address the GA, that show will take place in the number three speaker slot of the Thursday afternoon session.
In this landscape, a highly prominent outlier is Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is coming to New York to speak to the General Assembly. He’s scheduled for the very last spot, number eight, on Tuesday, Oct. 1. North Korea notwithstanding, he has some decent company that morning, including the Holy See. And I am told that this scheduling was done at Israel’s request, partly to allow for Jewish holidays, but also to dovetail with a meeting scheduled between Netanyahu and Obama in Washington the day before, on Sept. 30th. Still, whether Israel requested it or not, there is something deeply disquieting about seeing the only full democracy in the Middle East consigned — for whatever reasons — to the last spot in the lineup.
At the very least, it’s emblematic of the twisted world that the UN — the real UN, not the Model UN of utopian propaganda — keeps trying to create. A story you probably won’t see on the TV news is that the UN General Assembly is including in its official agenda this year, as it has for many years, an item on “Armed Israeli aggression against the Iraqi nuclear installations and its grave consequences for the established international system concerning the peaceful uses of nuclear energy…” (you can read the entire passage here, just scroll down to item 46). This is a reference to Israel’s destruction in 1981 of Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor — for which the UN, with its official pieties about promoting world peace, ought to be issuing annual resolutions praising and thanking Israel. That bombing run, done at substantial risk, quite likely spared the world the horrors of a nuclear-armed Saddam. Food for thought, as Iran’s Rouhani speaks at the UN in New York this week, not only on the GA main stage, but at a special conference scheduled for Thursday — a High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament. Quite a show.