Seven Top Moments From the 74th UN General Assembly
With impeachment hearings swirling around U.S. President Trump, youth environmentalists scolding adults for failing to address climate change and a multitude of clashes between nations, the 74th UNGA offered plenty of highlights.
On September 30, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) wrapped up its 74th session with 193 world leaders and top diplomats having attended the much-anticipated event. The UNGA kicked off on September 17 with the high-level debate, where all world leaders are given around 15 minutes to deliver a speech, starting on September 24.
While the UNGA is the largest convergence of heads of state from around the world, several prominent leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indonesian President Joko Widodo did not attend the 74th General Assembly in New York.
Past UNGA highlights have included Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez calling George Bush “the devil,” an almost two-hour-long speech by Libyan President Muammar Ghaddafi during which he tore up the UN charter, and last years spectacle when the assembly floor laughed at U.S. President Trump as he boasted of his administration’s achievements.
Here are seven memorable moments from the 74th UNGA debate.
1. UNSC Resolution Extends Mission in Afghanistan
On the first day of the UNGA, the United Nations Security Council again approved an extension of the world body’s mission in Afghanistan, commonly known as UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan), thanks to an intensive lobbying effort from Indonesia and Germany.
Under the resolution, UNAMA services in Afghanistan will be extended another 12 months, until September 17, 2020, and will include objectives like supporting Afghan elections and the Afghan-led peace process.
“UNAMA will continue, by other terms of the text, to strengthen the capacity of the Government, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and civil society to protect and promote human rights, with the support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). It will also support gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, education, human rights and women’s full participation in decision-making, including in peace talks,” stated a U.N. press release announcing the extension of UNAMA.
While support for UNAMA was generally universal, there were multiple proposed drafts circulating that would extend UNAMA’s mission and previous negotiations had reached an impasse in March.
UNAMA was first founded in March 2002 by the UNSC following the launch of a U.S. war in Afghanistan targeting the Islamic nationalist Taliban movement in 2001. Then President George W. Bush launched the war in response to the Taliban’s alleged protection of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin-Laden, though bin-Laden was once an American ally during the Afghan-Soviet War in the 1980s.
2. Greta Thunberg’s ‘How dare you?’ Speech Goes Viral
Sixteen-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg stole the world’s spotlight after giving an impassioned speech scolding world leaders for failing to tackle the impact of climate change in the U.N. climate meeting.
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet, you all come to me for hope? How dare you!
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing.
“We are at the beginning of mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” said the Swedish teenager, who was invited by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres along with other youths to the U.N. Climate Summit.
Thunberg has inspired students from all over the world to take action against climate change since she started a protest in front of Sweden’s parliament building in 2018.
On Friday and throughout the weekend before the recent U.N. climate conference, students from more than 150 countries took part in the Global Climate Strike. The protest saw students take to the streets en masse across the globe with an estimated four million protesters participating to urge world leaders to stick with the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and turn to renewable energy to cut carbon emissions.
Thunberg and her fellow students’ protests drew mixed reactions. Some praised their actions to raise awareness about the urgency of climate change, but others accused them of skipping school to join the rallies about issues they didn’t fully understand. Thunberg’s emotional U.N. speech drew especially harsh criticism from some who dismissed her as a petulant child or a teenage puppet for environmentalists.
A day after her speech, Thunberg announced a lawsuit along with 15 other young people suing five of the world’s top carbon polluters – Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey – for violating their rights as children. The lawsuit only targeted countries who had ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the U.S. is not a signatory to. In order for Thunberg’s lawsuit to be successful, the U.N. would have to classify climate change as a children’s rights issue – a move that could force countries into taking more strident climate change action.
Despite announcing his appreciation for the youth movement, French President Emmanuel Macron called Thunberg “radical” and warned she will “antagonize societies.” Macron’s remarks came following the teenager’s lawsuit announcement.
“All the movements of our youth — or our not-so-young — are helpful,” Macron said. “But they must now focus on those who are furthest away, those who are seeking to block the way.”
Macron added that he didn’t think “the French government nor the German government, currently, were blocking the way.”
3. Trump: ‘Future Belongs to Patriots’
U.S. President Donald Trump’s third speech at the UNGA came amid Democrats’ call for an impeachment inquiry following revelations that Trump may have abused his presidential powers to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, also his potential 2020 political rival, and his son Hunter. Hunter formerly sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and gas firm whose founder was investigated for corruption.
In his address to the U.N. and as the impeachment push built up around him, Trump pressed world leaders to prioritize their countries’ interests first, implicitly highlighting his administration’s withdrawal from several international agreements such as the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
“The future does not belong to globalists; it belongs to patriots,” the former real estate mogul said in his UNGA address.
Trump also referred to Iran as one of the greatest security threats facing the world and vowed not to remove sanctions unless it stops its “menacing behavior.”
“As long as Iran’s menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted, they will be tightened,” Trump declared.
Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have worsened since the White House left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, accusing Iran of developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. has also recently accused Iran of masterminding assaults on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and on Saudi Arabian oil facilities.
Trump’s speech included criticism of China for violating the rights of Ughiur Muslims and for China’s approach to trade with the U.S. Trump’s speech criticizing China came as both countries are planning to resume trade negotiations with each other in early October.
Trump also said the U.S. was closely watching China’s response to protests in Hong Kong and touched on U.S. immigration issues saying, “Do not pay the coyotes. Do not put yourself in danger. Do not put your children in danger, because if you make it here, you will not be allowed in.”
4. Turkey and Malaysia Blast Israel
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the UNGA forum to lambast Israel and the Trump administration’s Middle East peace plan for ignoring the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and violating Palestinian rights all while urging support for a two-state solution based on 1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders.
“Where are the borders of the State of Israel? Is it the 1948 borders, the 1967 borders, or is there any other border?” Erdoğan asked as he expressed disapproval of Israel’s seizure of Palestinian territory.
According to Daily Sabah, Erdogan’s support for Palestine received widespread applause on the UNGA floor and reverberated on social media worldwide. Hamas’ political bureau head sent a letter thanking Erdogan for standing by Palestinians, adding the address represented the voice of all persecuted Muslims.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad echoed Erdogan’s words by claiming the creation of the Israeli state has triggered modern terrorism, accusing the Jewish state of eliciting brutality against Muslims.
“The first act engineered by the Western countries is the creation of the state of Israel by seizing Palestinian land and expelling its 90 percent Arab population. Since then, wars have been fought in many countries, many related to the creation of Israel. (Western countries) prefer military action and sanctions. And they will continue to fail to stop terrorism,” the 94-year-old leader addressed the forum.
“Friends may break any law and get away scot-free. Thus, Israel can break all the international laws and norms of the world and it will continue to be supported and defended. The unfriendly countries can do nothing right. There is no justice in the world.”
5. Calls for UNSC Reform
The Foreign Ministers of Brazil, Japan, India and Germany (known as the G4) met at the UNGA to strengthen their call for reforming the UNSC into a more relevant and capable global body. The four nations are linked by their mutual support of each other to be added as permanent members of the UNSC.
The group claimed that despite an improved representation of African countries, the last General Assembly session exposed that the inter-governmental negotiations (IGN) process “lacks the necessary openness and transparency and is constrained by flawed working methods.”
“The time has come to leave behind debates based solely on general statements, without substantive negotiation” in pursuing reform the G4 foreign ministers said in a statement.
Call for UNSC reform is not new, given its place as the U.N.’s most powerful body with its ability to pass resolutions, impose sanctions and supervises peacekeeping activities.
The UNSC has five permanent members (the U.S, China, France, Russia and the U.K.). Ten non-permanent members are elected on a rotating and regional basis to serve for two years, but only permanent members of the UNSC hold veto rights. Many see the veto power as no longer relevant in the modern world, accusing veto-holding nations of often hold up peacemaking efforts and prioritizing self-interest over the interests of the U.N. as a whole.
6. Syria Urges Turkish and American Troops to Withdraw
During his address to the UNGA, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem urged Turkish and American troops to withdraw immediately from the war-torn country.
“The United States and Turkey maintain an illegal military presence in northern Syria,” the minister told the UNGA during his speech. “Any foreign forces operating in our territories without our authorization are occupying forces and should withdraw immediately.”
Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Syria has been besieged by numerous outside military factions and countries. Although Syria has regained control over most of the country, parts of the northwest and northeast are still under outside control.
“Tens of thousands of foreign terrorist fighters have been brought to Syria from more than 100 countries with the support and cover of states that are known to all,” al-Muallem added.
The U.S. and Turkey previously tentatively agreed to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria with a goal of returning home one million of the over three million Syrians that have fled to Turkey since the onset of the war. For Turkey, its also an opportunity to push back Kurdish units, which it views as an opposition group, from the Syrian-Turkey border. However, the U.S. backs Kurdish groups in the region as allies in the war against Islamic State fighters.
Al-Muallem also claimed that both the U.S. and Turkey are using the pretense of fighting “terrorism” as a “tool to impose their insidious agendas on the people and governments that reject their external dictates”.
7. Pakistan Warns of Potential Nuclear War in Kashmir
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned of the potential for nuclear war in the disputed Kashmir region during his UNGA speech if the U.N. and international community did not take immediate action.
Kashmir dubbed as a “no man’s land” has been an ongoing source of conflict between India and Pakistan since 1947, when the predominantly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India separated. Both countries lay claim to the region but India sparked increased tensions recently by withdrawing Kashmir’s special autonomy status, as had been stipulated in the Indian constitution, and passing legislation to instead more fully absorb the region as two union territories.
Khan condemned the “inhuman” curfew imposed on the region by the Indian government sparked by protests against the removal of the special autonomy status, warning the curfew would lead to a violent extremist response.
“Women, children, sick people are locked in animals, and it’s arrogance that has blinded him from the fact that…what is going to happen when the curfew is lifted?” the former cricket star said. “Nuclear war is not a threat, it’s a fair worry,” he added.
“There will be a reaction to this, Pakistan will be blamed, two nuclear-armed countries will come face to face like we came in February,” he said.
“If a conventional war starts, anything could happen. But supposing a country seven times smaller than its neighbor is faced with a choice: either you surrender or you fight for your freedom till death. We will fight and when a nuclear-armed country fights to the end it will have consequences far beyond the borders, it will have consequences for the world.”
Both India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and openly declare that they have nuclear weapons. According to a 2007 joint study conducted by Rutgers University, the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of California, a nuclear war between India and Pakistan involving 100 warheads could kill 21 million people.
In contrast to Khan’s impassioned speech, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi avoided any mention of India’s decision to remove the special autonomy status of Kashmir.
As the largest convergence of heads of state from around the world and a forum where each participant is given 15 minutes to speak on today’s most pressing issues, the UNGA is no stranger to dramatic moments. Nearly 200 participants were already scheduled to deliver speeches during the General Assembly.
Other highlights included an awkward brief face to face between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. When pressed by reporters about a July 25th conversation Zelenksy had with Trump now at the center of a Trump impeachment inquiry, Zelensky refused to offer much claiming that it was a “good phone call” and that Trump put “no pressure” on him.
Iran’s speech, not surprisingly, also offered dramatic moments as the U.S. and Iran have been at bitter odds since the U.S. withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal under the Trump administration.
Accusing the U.S. of economic terrorism, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Iran would “never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran suffer with the weapons of poverty and sanctions.”
Rouhani added that Iran had resisted “the most merciless economic terrorism” and told the U.S. it had to “pay more” if it was interested in a deal beyond the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal formed under the Obama administration.