Impressions from Last Week’s UN General Assembly

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

October 2, 2018

The annual meeting of the UN General Assembly concluded last week amid concerns about the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Those concerns were reflected both in the speeches of the UN delegates as well as the various observers following the meeting. Judging by much of the commentary prior to and following the gathering of the world representatives, the mood can be characterized as one of pessimism and uncertainty, especially in light of a perceived withdrawal of the United States from the world stage.

Reflecting on last week’s UN General Assembly meeting, Arab News commentator Ramzy Baroud characterized the UN as an organization out of sync with the modern world: “The 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in New York reflected both the impotence of the UN’s ability as a global platform to address pressing problems, and also the chaotic political scene resulting from the organization’s lack of unity…. The world is vastly changing, yet the UN continues its operations based on an archaic and faulty formula that crowned the winners of World War II as the world’s leaders. There can be no hope for the UN if it continues to operate on the basis of such erroneous assumptions, and it should not take another global war for the UN to be reformed to reflect this new and irreversible reality.”

While agreeing with the general thrust of Baroud’s argument, others focused on the lack of action on specific issues. For example, writing for Asharq Al-Awsat, Salman Al-Dossary examines the UN’s “failure” to address Iran’s role in the region: “Undoubtedly, the credibility of the United Nations organizations is slowly diminishing. These organizations suffer unprecedented [and] growing divisions, which in turn reduce their already weak effectiveness. Their reports have become unfair and clearly aligned to one of the parties to the crisis – the same party that has launched the coup against the legitimacy and brought Yemen to this situation. The reports have completely ignored a major party to the crisis, the Iranian regime, whose interventions have confirmed information and investigations issued by the UN itself.”

The Jerusalem Post editorial turned its attention to the UN’s laughter at U.S. President Donald Trump’s boastful comments, but only to suggest that the UN’s failure to deal with Iran properly has turned the organization into a punchline: “The real joke, however, was not Trump’s patting himself on the back. The UN itself is far more absurd than that. The UN consistently gets very serious matters laughably wrong, so their judgment about what is funny should not be trusted…. In contrast with the UN’s many absurdities, Trump made many commendable – and dead serious – remarks in his speech. He called out Iran’s ‘corrupt dictatorship’ for sponsoring terrorism around the world, as well as Syria’s genocidal regime. His re-imposition of sanctions on Iran may have angered some other states represented in the room, but he is right to ‘deny the regime the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda’ and ‘isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues’, as the president said.”

Writing for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Ron Ben-Yishai also takes issue with what he considers the UN’s failure to address the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, while praising his country’s Prime Minister for doggedly pursuing the matter: “The speech delivered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly on Thursday was perhaps the best he has ever given outside of Israel’s borders…. The most striking example was his claim about the warehouse storing nuclear equipment and material in Tehran. Netanyahu took the intelligence material and used it to challenge the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and portrayed it as a toothless and untrustworthy organization that is unable to fulfill its mandate…. Netanyahu managed to shame Europe for their stance of appeasement toward Iran… Netanyahu did this by drawing a clear parallel between the EU’s appeasing of Iran today and the policy of appeasement by UK Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain towards Hitler in 1938.”

Considering the ongoing instability in Syria, it is not surprising that many have paid close attention to the speech given by Syria’s foreign minister Walid Al Muallem. However, judging by The National’s Faisal Al Yafai, the foreign minister’s speech failed to sell regional observers on a change of tone by the Syrian government. In fact, if anything his speech was seen as “defiant to the outside world and absolute to Syrians. There is no alternative. There will be no reform. There will be no other president than Bashar Al Assad… Syria’s foreign minister went to the UN not to praise Syrians, but to bury them. Nobody hearing his speech could be in any doubt what the regime thinks and how it will act after the war is over…. This was Mr. Al Muallem signaling that nothing would change. The threat of terrorism would never fade. Everything – military service, mass surveillance, disappearances – would continue as before…. Mr. Al Muallem went to the General Assembly, as he put it in his speech, to ‘close the last chapter’ of the conflict. On the borders of Idlib province, the regime’s troops and tanks are waiting to do precisely that.”

Finally, some expressed concern regarding the perceived abdication of the United States as the “leader of the free world” as it withdraws further into isolationism. As Orly Azoulay points out in a recent op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, such developments are concerning, even for an Israel that has benefitted from Mr. Trump’s policies: “Donald Trump stood at the rostrum at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday and read word for word from the script of his speech, barely removing his gaze from the teleprompter. During the speech, he removed from his head the crown that belongs to the leader of the free world which has always been reserved for the US president. The significance of this crown has been in a precarious position since the day he was elected, but on Tuesday he unambiguously presented the doctrine by which he is guided and which is predicated, first and foremost, on the policy of ‘America First’…. In Israel, many were overjoyed when he transferred the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, but when America forfeits its position as the world’s leader, it is the worst thing that can happen to Israel.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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