UN General Assembly strong on talk, weak on action
WASHINGTON - The opening session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) featured the usual cavalcade of world leaders trekking to the podium in the newly renovated General Assembly Hall to pronounce their concerns about the state of the world and their suggestions for making it better.
Not surprisingly, much of the conversation focused on the war in Syria and the global refugee crisis. Also not surprisingly, very little tangible progress was made on either issue.
Outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticised — but did not call out by name — world leaders whom he accused of “feeding the war machine” in Syria. “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians,” Ban said.
Ban did, however, point to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government as the major responsible party for the bloodshed in Syria, prompting the Syrian Foreign Ministry to declare Ban’s 10-year term in office a failure. It is unusual for a UN secretary-general to cast blame on a member nation in a forum as public as the opening of the UNGA.
US President Barack Obama declared there was no military solution to the war in Syria but admitted that the violence “will not be quickly reversed” and said the world was in the midst of a struggle between authoritarianism and democracy. Obama took an especially harsh public stand against Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, accusing Moscow of “attempting to regain lost glory through force”.
Obama’s words do not bode well for prospects of US-Russian cooperation on Syria or anywhere else. Nevertheless, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov conferred on the sidelines of the UNGA.
As Ban and Obama were speaking, the US-Russian agreement designed to bring a halt to violence in Syria was unravelling in bloody fashion after just a short time in force. Over the subsequent few days, the United States and Russia exchanged blame for the air attack on an aid convoy that killed 20 people. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, said only the United States and Russia could negotiate and enforce a truce.
There was some progress made in New York, however, on the issue of refugees and migrants. At a one-day special summit led by Obama and other leaders on the sidelines of the UNGA, representatives from 50 countries pledged to take in an additional 180,000 refugees before the end of 2016, raising the total number for the year to 360,000.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that more than 1 million refugees require resettlement this year.
Participant countries pledged to increase financial aid to the United Nations and other humanitarian organisations by $4.5 billion more than 2015 levels.
“We are facing a crisis of epic proportion,” Obama said at the summit. “We cannot avert our eyes or turn our backs. To slam the door in the face of these families would betray our deepest values.” The US president acknowledged, however, that “the politics can be hard”. He praised Canada and Germany in particular for their responses to the refugee and migrant crisis.
In his speech before the UNGA, Jordan’s King Abdullah II offered a defence of Islam and said false perceptions of the religion by many in the West bred intolerance. He also chastised extremists who say they act in the name of Islam: “They want to wipe out our achievements and those of our ancestors, to erase human civilisation and drag us back to the dark ages.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi devoted part of his address to trying to persuade Israel to “write a bright page” in Middle East history and make peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution. Sisi said the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at “the core of regional instability”.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the UNGA that Turkish troops might push further south into Syria to create a 5,000-sq.-km safe zone. He called for international action against the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan accuses of plotting the July coup in Turkey. Erdogan said Gulen’s movement was “a terrorist organisation” bent on “subduing the whole world, far beyond Turkey”.