By, Thalif Deen
(IPS) – When the high-level segment of the UN General Assembly sessions begin September 20, the official list of speakers include 92 heads of state (HS) and 56 heads of government (HG).
But the “usual suspects,” mostly leaders of authoritarian regimes, are missing, including Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and the much-maligned military leaders of Myanmar.
Some of these autocrats stand accused of war crimes, genocide, human rights abuses, persecution of journalists and clamping down on gender empowerment and civil society organizations (CSOs)—all at cross purposes with the UN.
A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the absentees as “a veritable political rogues gallery”.
And as world leaders gather, the UN will also go into a lockdown mode next week with movements within the Secretariat severely restricted—and the building a virtual “no-fly zone.”
Thomas G. Weiss, a distinguished scholar of international relations and global governance, with special expertise in the politics of the United Nations, told IPS: “I don’t believe you can read much into their absence as they have held forth in previous sessions.”
“The General Assembly is an equal opportunity forum—thugs and champions have the podium and need not respect time limits”, said Weiss, who has been Presidential Professor at The Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Director Emeritus of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies.
Other authoritarian leaders, who skipped the UN in a bygone era include Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Hafez al-Assad of Syria and the two Kims from North Korea: Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-Sung.
So did some leaders from the West, including Germany, which for unaccountable reasons skippedt he UN sessions and sent in their second-in-command.
But Fidel Castro of Cuba, Muammar el Qaddafi of Libya and Yasir Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) did address the General Assembly (GA) in the 1960s and 70s.
Samir Sanbar, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and one-time head of the Department of Public Information told IPS the level of participation and the extent of coverage would reflect a degree of U.N. relevance at these uncertain times of perplexed international disorder.
He said “distinguished speakers would aim to present their national credentials to an international audience and display their international standing to their national audience.
“Despite political rhetoric, even heads of state with public criticism of the United Nations find a personal need to appear there,” he noted.
Sanbar pointed out that former US President Donald Trump, who had persistently attacked the UN, appeared at the main table of the GA opening luncheon.as head of the host country (and later welcomed a number of visiting heads of state at his nearby Trump Tower residence).
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil would seek to maintain his country’s habitual place as the first speaker. In the past, Libya’s Qaddafi marked his GA attendance by theatrically tearing the UN Charter. But still he sought to keep his delegate Abdel Salam Ali Treki as President of that same GA session.
“Let us hope that the attendance of so many heads of state and governments this session would draw more coverage and public interest than the past two years (when the UN suffered a pandemic lockdown).
“As you would recall, statements by over 90 heads of state at a previous session did not receive a single mention while a number of participant left for a “Global Concert” in Central Park, said Sanbar who had served under five different secretaries-generals during his UN career.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders, told IPS it is sad that the UN is a stage for totalitarian autocrats to disseminate their propaganda.
“Whether or not they come to New York to do this each September can depend on many variables. Each case needs to be looked at separately. In general terms, if they stay away, I believe one should not read too much into it,” he noted.
UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters September 9 “the mood within the UN Secretariat is business like and very busy, as we do before any General Assembly. Of course, this is the first General Assembly we’ve had in person since 2019. So, it does create a sense of excitement and a return to in person.”
“I think the message is to look around and look at all the challenges that we face today. Not one of them can be solved unilaterally by one country. Whether you look at climate change, whether you look at conflict, hunger, which are all interlinked, I don’t know what more… what greater definition we can give than multilateral problems that need multilateral solutions,” he argued.
“And we hope that Member States will recommit to finding solutions for future generations and for these generations in an atmosphere of cooperation, even if they continue to disagree on many issues,” declared Dujarric.
Speaking at the closing of the 76th session of the General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the current session, like the previous one, was marked by a series of deepening challenges.
“Rising prices, the erosion of purchasing power, growing food insecurity and the gathering shadows of a global recession”, plus a “global pandemic that refused to be defeated — and the emergence of another health emergency in monkeypox”.
And deadly heatwaves, storms, floods and other natural disasters, he added.
But speaking of the coming 77th session, Guterres said it will continue to test the multilateral system like never before.
“And it will continue to test cohesion and trust among Member States. The road ahead will be challenging and unpredictable.”
“But by using the tools of our trade — diplomacy, negotiation and compromise — we can continue supporting people and communities around the world. We can pave the way to a better, more peaceful future for all people”.
“And we can renew faith in the United Nations and the multilateral system, which remain humanity’s best hope,” he declared. (IPS UN Bureau Report)