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 

About Georgios Kostakos

Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS) and an independent consultant on global challenges and sustainability, governance and UN affairs based in Brussels, Belgium. He holds an MA and a PhD in International Relations from the University of Kent at Canterbury (UK), and a Mechanical Engineering degree from the National Technical University of Athens, Greece. He served on the secretariat of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability (GSP) as Senior Adviser and Acting Deputy Executive Secretary, and on many other positions at UN Headquarters in New York, UN field missions, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP) and the University of Athens. He is passionate about Europe and the World, and strives for human well-being in peace, prosperity and justice.
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