The annual United Nations General Assembly debate forum wrapped up last week and delivered more than a few memorable moments.
Every year the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) hosts a high-level forum for debate, which just wrapped up on October 1. Though a theme is chosen every year, the debate is a stage for world leaders and every one of the 191 member countries of the U.N. to voice their concerns about specific issues, promote their own country and criticize others. The forum can turn into a dramatic affair.
Each leader is given 15 minutes to deliver his or her speech, although in the past world leaders like the former Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, Indonesia’s Soekarno and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi delivered speeches in the UNGA lasting one to two hours.
This year was the 73rd session of the UNGA and the debates did not fail to deliver on drama. High drama.
Six Key Takeaways from UN General Assembly Debate
Trump Speaks, UNGA Laughs At or With?
One of the most viral moments of the debate came when U.S. President Donald Trump was greeted with laughter as he boasted of his administration’s grand achievements over the course of his two-year presidency.
“In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” Trump said eliciting laughter from the assembly floor.
While Trump is correct that economy-wise stock markets are soaring and unemployment rates for Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and African-Americans have dropped, wage growth is still considered lower than expected after being adjusted for inflation. Average hourly payment only rose 0.2 percent in August.
Trump also claimed that many countries were behind Washington’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which is an exaggeration. Washington’s allies including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel supported the decision, but the European Union (EU), one of the treaty’s signatories, expressed strong disappointment over the U.S. withdrawal from the pact. Other countries opposed to the U.S. withdrawal included Australia, Sweden, Japan, the Netherlands as well as other nations in the Middle East, based on statements collected by the Arms Control Association.
Trump also failed to mention the U.S. role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Despite disbursing millions of dollars for Syria and Yemen, the U.S.’ support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen has played a crucial part in supplying munitions and in some cases tactical support leading to the deaths and starvation of civilians in Yemen.
Fierce Criticism of US
The high-level debate was seen by many as one of the best opportunities for countries to publicly condemn U.S. policy. China, Iran and Russia rose to the occasion to criticize the U.S. for pulling out of world commitments and multilateral agreements.
China, who is involved in a trade spat with the U.S., blasted Washington for blackmailing and pressuring other countries and for its role in Syria’s war.
“China will not be blackmailed…protectionism will only hurt oneself, and unilateral moves will bring damage to all,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his speech at the UNGA on September 28.
Wang’s statement was in response to Trump’s decision to slap an import tariff on Chinese goods worth $200 billion – a tariff which will be increased again later this year.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also condemned the U.S. which it said participates in “political blackmail, economic pressure and brute force.”
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called the U.S. isolated in his speech, saying that the assembly debate proved that Washington was isolated from the world, as the world supports the 2015 Iran deal.
“We are not isolated. As a matter of fact, America is isolated,” Rouhani stated in Persian with English translation at a hotel conference across from the U.N. He went on to state that the entire U.N. Security Council supported the Iran deal.
The fiercest critic of the U.S. came from Bolivian President Evo Morales, who has often been a critic of U.S. policy.
“The United States could not care less about human rights or justice,’’ Morales said. “If this were the case, it would have signed the international conventions and treaties that have protected human rights. It would not have threatened the investigation mechanism of the International Criminal Court, nor would it promote the use of torture, nor would it have walked away from the Human Rights Council. And nor would it have separated migrant children from their families, nor put them in cages.’’
New Zealand’s 38-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made waves when she spoke of New Zealand’s principal philosophy of kindness, while her three-month old daughter watched from the gallery. Her reference to the importance of global cooperation was seen as a swipe at populism and U.S. President Trump.
She praised the U.N. for collectively establishing a basic set of human rights and global norms.
“Emerging from a catastrophic war, we have collectively established through convention, charters and rules a set of international norms and human rights,” she said.
“All of these are an acknowledgment that we are not isolated, governments do have obligations to their people and each other, and that our actions have a global effect.
“We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism” Ardern stated.
She ended her speech by referencing the #MeToo Movement, saying “Me Too must become We Too.” She was greeted with enthusiastic applause with her sign off: “We are all in this together.”
UNGA Absentees Raise Eyebrows
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and Indonesia’s Joko Widodo were all absent in the 73rd session of the UNGA.
The reasons for the abstentions varied – Putin was absent because he reportedly supervised military training in Belarussia and Joko Widodo did not attend the session due to the earthquake and tsunami disaster in Central Sulawesi that killed more than 1,500 as of October 5, 2018. Indonesia is also preparing for the opening of the Asian Para Games 2018. Indonesia was represented by Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
Only 27 leaders from African nations attended the UNGA in New York, while 51 were seen in the Forum on China–Africa Cooperation in Beijing two weeks before the UNGA session, according to a Quartz report.
Of the 27 African nations present at the UNGA, 24 of the countries sent lower-ranking representatives to the UNGA than the Beijing forum.
Return of 92-Year-Old Mahathir Mohamed to the UNGA
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was back again as Malaysia’s representative after a scandal struck the country. His return was greeted with applause after being absent for 15 years.
In his speech, he expressed concern about the world’s deterioration due to the rise of populism and lamented the trade war between China and the U.S. He also defended Palestinian rights and blasted the absent Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi for turning a blind eye to the massacre of Rohingya Muslims in Malaysia, who are considered stateless and the world’s most persecuted minority.
The most striking point in his speech was his urgent demand for U.N. reform, especially in the U.N. Security Council. Mahathir added that the 70-year-old veto right given exclusively to five permanent members of the UNSC is no longer relevant today.
“Five countries on the basis of their victories 70 over years ago cannot claim to have a right to hold the world to ransom forever, “ the legendary leader said.
Mahathir suggested reforming the veto process so that a veto is only effective if it gets support from two permanent members and three non-permanent members of the UNSC – a fairer application of the veto than the current system, in which any permanent member of the UNSC can exercise a veto.
Austrian Foreign Minister Delivers Speech in 4 Languages
In an extremely impressive display of language mastery, 53-year-old Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl delivered her speech in Arabic, English, Spanish, and French.
She hailed the Arabic language, calling it beautiful and part of the old civilization. Kneissl spent her childhood in Amman and studied Arabic in Lebanon during the civil war period.
In her speech, she highlighted several important issues such as climate change, gender equality, the future of the Iran nuclear deal, and a political solution to the conflict in Syria. Last but not least, she thanked interpreters for patiently interpreting her speeches as she switched between speaking in the four languages.
Despite delivering her speech in Arabic, people still challenged Austria’s hard stance on immigration and her controversial statement on immigrants and the veil. Last June, Austria closed seven mosques and deported foreign-funded Islamic imams as a step to curb radicalization. Austria has also banned the Islamic full-face veil.
Korean Pop Steals the Show
The Bangtan Boys or BTS, a Korean pop group, drew worldwide attention by delivering a speech to the UNGA to help launch “Generation Unlimited”, a UNICEF youth initiative in collaboration with United Nations Youth 2030.
BTS member RM (Rap Monster) delivered a six-minute speech while his bandmates stood behind him. In his speech, RM called on youth from all over the world to be brave, speak up with confidence and be themselves. Last year, the group and UNICEF launched a campaign called “Love Myself”.
RM, whose original name is Kim Nam Joon, described how he overcame his insecurities and started loving himself and urged others to do the same.
“No matter who you are, where you’re from, your skin color or gender identity, speak yourself, find your name and find your voice by speaking yourself,” RM said.