Monthly Archives: September 2012

The annual meeting of the global village (Part II)

Syria, as expected, was a top agenda item for the leaders addressing the UN General Assembly. While there was broad agreement that violence should end from all sides, there were disagreements on apportioning blame. The deployment of an Arab peace force was proposed (Tunisia), while others insisted on diplomatic efforts among Arab, regional and global powers that would prevent external military intervention (Egypt). Good governance, justice, respect for human rights and the rule of law were identified as the main elements of democracy that could eventually, with sustained effort, lead a country from poverty to prosperity, and would ensure peaceful relations between countries (EU, Ghana, Japan, Kenya, UK, US, Zambia).

In direct or indirect reference to the violent protests caused by the slanderous video about the Prophet Mohammed, several leaders addressed the apparent contradiction among the principles of freedom of speech, tolerance and respect of the religious beliefs of others. Some of them stressed the importance of tolerance and avoidance of violence as paramount (Liberia). Others pointed to the need of preventing abuses of freedom of expression, when it blatantly disrespects the religious beliefs of others and sows hatred, while at the same time stressing the peaceful nature of Islam and the need for peaceful protests (Yemen). The widening gap between rich and poor in the world was pointed out as a main cause of the ideological conflicts and violence (Iran).

On development issues, several leaders stressed the importance of implementing the outcome of the Rio+20 Conference for a more sustainable and equitable future (UN Secretary-General, UN General Assembly President, Brazil, Nauru). At the same time, it was significant to accelerate efforts to achieve the MDGs, especially in Africa (Australia South Africa). It was suggested that poverty and climate change could be addressed in tandem, so one does not have to choose between them (Mexico). Moreover, the connection was pointed out between sustainable development and peace and security (UNGA President, Cyprus). Serious concerns were expressed about the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (China, Norway), as well as about the nuclear activities of Iran and possible responses to them (Israel, Russia, US).

There was a broad recognition of the importance of multilateralism and the role of the United Nations, often accompanied by calls for UN reform, in different directions: to give emerging powers the place they deserve, especially on the Security Council (France, Germany, South Africa); towards more democracy within international fora, away from the control of a few powers (Iran); or towards full implementation of commitments made and decisions taken within the UN (Poland).

Only indicative references have been made above to the many speeches and the numerous issues brought up by world leaders at this year’s UN General Assembly. But of course this global village gathering has no decision-making purpose. It mainly allows expositions of country and leader positions on the global stage, in a ceremonial but useful way for reference and agenda setting. Of more practical relevance are side meetings of other bodies like the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, special initiatives like the Secretary-General’s “Sustainable Energy for All”. And of course very important are bilateral meetings that happen on the sidelines of the General Assembly, thanks to the simultaneous presence of so many dignitaries from around the world. Such meetings take place even between leaders (or their aides) whose countries are not on friendly terms.  This is by itself a very important function that the UN fulfills, as the meeting place of the – still quite dysfunctional – human family.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 29 September 2012 

 

The annual meeting of the global village (Part I)

As is the custom, at around this time every year the chiefs of the human tribes and agglomerations make their way to New York, for the annual meeting of our global village. They come in their fancy clothes and their motorcades (pity the New York motorists) and they are received by their convener, the “Secular Pope” (replace “Pope” with “Grand Mufti” or “High Priest” etc, as you feel appropriate), also known as the Secretary-General of the United Nations, together with the General Assembly President.

This year the gathering is taking place in the midst of, among other dramatic events, continuing mayhem in Syria; often violent protests in the Muslim world against a US film insulting the Prophet Mohammed; wild scenarios over Iran’s nuclear fuel processing; tensions between Japan and China (and Taiwan) over a small group of disputed islands; several hot spots in Africa, like Mali, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia; further evidence of climate change and a looming new food crisis; and ongoing global financial problems most dramatically manifested in the debt crises in the countries of Southern Europe. The human family seems to be as dysfunctional as ever…

In this blog and the next one(s) under the same title I will try to extract some elements from the many speeches that are being made at the United Nations General Assembly these days. The emphasis of my search, although not necessarily of the speeches themselves, will be on elements of substance that point to some direction (i.e. vision and leadership) and recommend policies and actions (i.e. delivery and not just talk). Let’s see what fish we will catch this year…

For this post, I am focusing on statements made at the beginning of the General Assembly’s “General Debate”/VIP segment, on 25 September 2012, by the UN Secretary-General, the President of Brazil and the President of the US. They all touched on most current issues mentioned above, from their respective angles, but I won’t repeat all that here.

It is interesting to note the large amount of time President Obama dedicated to the violence caused in response to the anti-Mohammed film, which formed the beginning, end and spine of his speech. He condemned and threatened the perpetrators of violence, specifically mentioning the killing of the US Ambassador to Libya. At the same time, he criticized the film at the centre of the protests, while explaining the sanctity and greater benefits of freedom of speech. He called on all concerned to address honestly and constructively the tensions between the West and an Arab World that is moving towards democracy. He also explained the approach adopted by his Administration around the world, especially towards the Muslim and Arab world, including the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and, in 2014, from Afghanistan, the welcoming by the US of political change in the Arab world including Egypt, the continuing efforts to resolve peacefully the situations regarding Iran and Syria, and the importance of implementing the two-state solution in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was a principled, proud, determined but indirectly humble, subtly self-critical and definitely more-cooperative-than-usual US attitude. It was an attitude certainly appreciated through regular applause by the UN General Assembly, and will hopefully generate positive reciprocal action around the world. It remains to be seen whether it will also resonate with the US public in the November Presidential election.

President Rousseff also condemned the religion-based provocation and violence, and stressed the need to build on the Alliance of Civilizations project initiated by Turkey and Spain some years ago. Equal rights and the empowerment of women was again central to the speech of the Brazilian President, as was the global economic crisis and the need to follow-up on the outcome of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. She called on developed nations in particular to rise to their responsibilities, keeping in mind the possible adverse effects that policies they introduce may have on emerging economies, like the unbalancing of exchange rates when placing too much emphasis on monetary policy, and stressed the importance of cooperation. She also enumerated measures that Brazil is taking from its part including strict control over public spending, accompanied by a simultaneous increase in investments in infrastructure, education and social inclusion. It was a speech by a leader of a country in the ascendant, with increased confidence, vision and results to show for innovative policies, strengthening the argument for a more central role, including on the UN Security Council, for Brazil.

Secretary-General Ban asked the world’s moderate majority to end its silence and speak out against intolerance, which he saw as being at the heart of the violence caused by the US film that he criticized strongly. He urged for more leadership to be shown in tackling the global challenge of climate change, and put forward sustainability and the green economy as offering compelling opportunities for jobs, growth, innovation and long-term stability.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 25 September 2012 

Do God and Prophet need human protection?

It is not the first time in recent years that major riots have erupted in countries with majority Muslim populations enraged by apparently sacrilegious acts of the West. Whether it is a movie, a cartoon, a book or an act of desecration of the Koran, the result seems predictably to be fierce protests, attacks on Western Embassies and other installations, attacks on public buildings and threats, sometimes actually carried out, against specific individuals. Underlying all this seems to be a mob ruling that condemns to death all those even remotely connected to the perceived as sacrilegious acts.

The West is often caught by surprise in the face of such anger and destruction. More so it seems after the “Arab Spring” that it nurtured and thought that would bring at least the Arab Muslims closer to its sphere of influence. Instead, the forces unleashed by the Spring seem to be still dark and raw, with unfathomed discontent on the verge of exploding.

One can see the deeper societal issues that at least partly underlie such expressions of rage. Unemployed young people who feel deprived of a decent future and subjugated to political and market forces that they cannot comprehend, far less influence or control. An apparent lack of external respect, from abroad and from within their own societies, undermines their own self-respect. Under such conditions, only a spark is needed to generate lethal assertions of why one should be respected, at least for being able to wreak havoc and death, including one’s own self-destructive death.

These are issues that have to be dealt with, first of all by the governments of the countries whose citizens are revolting, but also by those outside powers that continue to play political and economic games at great risk. Things cannot improve overnight, but there has to be at least a glimmer of hope, a road to a better future, and that is the responsibility primarily of national and regional leaders to offer. External powers can for once try to be consistent, matching their actions to their rhetoric of democracy and equality, rather than to strategic and economic interests alone or the influence of powerful lobbies. Hypocrisy and double standards are not lost on the masses, even if they do not discern the details of elaborate geopolitical games.

On the proclaimed reasons for the protests, the theological arguments, does it really make sense for the faithful to take upon themselves the defence of the divide, of God or the Prophet in the case of Islam? One would expect these all-powerful beings to be able to defend themselves more decisively and forcefully than any human, individually or collectively could. Moreover, there is broad agreement in theory that the divine element operates at a different scale of space and time than humans, with a more holistic picture of what each person deserves for the long-term, in paradise or hell. Taking upon ourselves, as humans, such judgements we basically usurp the prerogatives of God and God’s Prophets, and proclaim ourselves the ultimate judges, which could be seen as a sacrilegious act by itself.

More modesty by the faithful, and more self-restraint would seem like a better way to go. In any case, many of the defamatory actions addressed against holy figures of one or the other religion are usually of bad taste and laughable by themselves. One who is assured of the value of one’s beliefs should not give in to such cheap provocation. Rather one should be inspired by the norms of behaviour promoted by most if not all religious traditions. Among them prominently figures “the golden rule”, which stipulates that one should treat others as one expects others to treat oneself.

A few final thoughts: In case one believes that sacrilegious acts are aimed primarily at Islam, one should reconsider. Christ has been the subject of books, theatrical plays, movies, etc. many of which the official churches would never accept. In the past the church had the temporal power to punish, even burn or otherwise eliminate, those considered blasphemous. It is rightly considered a sign of progress in the West that this is no longer the case. Separation of church and state, freedom of religious and other beliefs, and tolerance is the way to go for stable nations and for a stable world.

The US can be accused of many things but at least internally it sticks to such principles and respects religious freedom and identity. That should be recognized, along with the measured as of now at least response of the US government to the violence against its diplomatic missions. Ambassadors and other emissaries have been respected from time immemorial, and should continue to be so. Even if they are messengers of bad or unpleasant news, it has long ago been recognized that such messengers are important for keeping the communications going even between enemies. Because dialogue can eventually lead to solutions, otherwise irrational violence and destruction prevail on all sides.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 15 September 2012 

 

12 September 2012: A big day for Europe

It was the first “State of the Union” that I followed at the European level, and I was not even aware that there was such an annual event. From my current base in Brussels I caught Commission President Barroso’s speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on brief broadcasts on BBC World and Euronews. Not exactly the pomp and serenade surrounding the US President’s annual State of the Union address that I used to watch while in New York. That takes place in late January, starts at 9 pm EST if I remember correctly, and is broadcast live in its entirety to all American homes on all major media. Some way to go still for Europe, even in terms of symbolism, I thought.

I am not familiar with the content of the previous two such speeches that Mr. Barroso gave, in 2010 and 2011 respectively. But I was pleasantly surprised by what I heard in this one. Some real thinking and proposals for the future of Europe – how the EU can meet its internal challenges and the challenges of globalization, which are of course interconnected. Among the points that I noticed:

  • A bold reassertion of the centrality of the European Social Model, which is not dead, although it needs modernization;
  • A call for reform addressed to those countries in debt and low productivity, but also those who are strong and need to see the whole picture and show solidarity;
  • An emphasis on sustainable growth for the EU with innovation and job creation, especially for young people;
  • A move to closer banking and fiscal union, accompanied by the necessary institutional steps;
  • And a call for real political union through the establishment of a “Federation of nation states”, although not a unitary state.

I hope that this is not just rhetoric but a commitment to acting on all points raised. Thankfully there was quite a bit of specificity in terms of concrete measures and a timeline for their introduction.

I very much liked the elevation of the mid-2014 European Parliament elections to a milestone of European democratic participation. During the period from now to that date we should all help create the common European space, vision and soul, the sense of “Europeanness” that the EU still rather misses. Because more than another treaty and new regulations, what the EU needs is to become a joint venture of real citizens, out in the streets and in the coffee shops, in universities and work places, in the news and in the arts; a common endeavour rather than an elitist experiment.  There is still a lot of good will among citizens, as the triumph of pro-European parties in the Dutch elections held on the same day showed. And institutional adjustments can be made within existing frameworks without hampering progress, as the ruling of the German Federal Constitutional Court on the ESM rescue fund, also issued on the same day, indicated.

I would like to close on a personal note. My enthusiasm about Europe does not contradict or replace my commitment to the United Nations and the World. For me these identities, along with those of being Greek and coming from Sparta, are fully compatible and happily co-existing in my self. A strong Europe with a central social identity, based on broad popular participation, with a thriving and sustainable economy and a clear voice can contribute much more to the world than a problematic, crisis-ridden, cacophonous and introvert group of small and medium states quarreling with each other.

Georgios Kostakos

Ixelles, 13 September 2012