Once a year, the circus comes to town. No, not the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, but the annual gathering of heads of state for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly. “UN Week” is notable for its massive traffic jams and speechifying by heads of state, be they truly representative of their citizens, or dictators.
I was not always cynical about the UN. In the 1950s, I was privileged to be part of an honor guard for Eleanor Roosevelt at a lecture sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association for the United Nations. We got to meet her privately to ask her questions; it was a memorable occasion.
Succeeding years would prove the UN was not living up to Mrs. Roosevelt’s vision of the organization, especially in the area of human rights.
Over the years, there have been moments of theater at the UN General Assembly. Everyone has heard of Nikita Khrushchev’s pounding a desk with his shoe during UN Week in 1960. During his visit to New York, Khrushchev met Fidel Castro — fresh off his successful revolution — at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa. This as Castro’s second New York residence that week, having been thrown out of The Shelburne under allegations of bringing live chickens into the rooms, plucking and dressing them in the wee morning hours, throwing lighted cigars onto expensive carpets, and cooking food on camp stoves set up in the bathrooms.
While Castro may have been the first leader to appear before the General Assembly dressed in revolutionary dress, he was not alone. In 1974, Yasser Arafat, in his revolutionary garb with a holster attached to his hip (the gun was left outside the hall), became the first representative of a non-governmental organization to appear before a plenary session and gave the first speech to the UN by the head of a terrorist organization.
The General Assembly has grown to 192 members, ranging from China, with about 1.4 billion people, to Tuvalu and Nauru, each with 10,000. Each member has the same one vote. According to Freedom House, 88 UN members — 46 percent — are democracies. This lack of shared values has prompted some UN observers to call for a League of Democracies as an alternative.
One of the largest, if not the largest, voting blocs in the UN is the 57-member Organization of the Islamic Conference, which claims to represent “the collective voice of the Muslim world.” This alone should put to rest that Islam is like other religions — other religions do not have a political arm.
The leading attractions of this year’s General Assembly were President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Obama spoke twice as long as his allotted time. Much of his speech was about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. He challenged the delegates — especially the signatories to the Arab Peace Initiative — to support the talks. Obama also praised Mahmoud Abbas as a man of courage.
Obama called on Israel to continue the settlement moratorium and said friends of Israel “must understand that true security for the Jewish state requires an independent Palestine.”
After 60 years, “Israel’s existence must not be a subject for debate,” he said. “Israel is a sovereign state, and the historic homeland of the Jewish people” and “efforts to chip away at Israel’s legitimacy will only be met by the unshakeable opposition of the United States.”
Obama said UN sanctions passed this year against Iran for its nuclear program show that international law is not an “empty promise” and the door is open for diplomacy.
Despite Obama’s personal popularity among UN delegates and his celebrity status, his important remarks about the Middle East were a sideshow to this event. Center ring belonged to Ahmadinejad and his performance as a “truther.”
Ahmadinejad gave three theories about how the United States caused 9/11. The first was that terrorists penetrated U.S. intelligence and defenses. The second: “[S]ome segments within the US. government orchestrated the attack to reverse the declining American economy and its grips on the Middle East in order also to save the Zionist regime,” i.e., Israel. He claimed, “The majority of the American people as well as other nations and politicians agree with this view.”
At that point, the American UN delegation pulled a “Popeye” (“That’s all I can stand, I can’t stands no more”) and walked out, missing Ahmadinejad’s third theory — that the attack was the work of terrorists, supported by the United States, which “took advantage of the situation.” That prompted allied nations, including EU delegates, to walk out as well.
Why didn’t the rest of the General Assembly leave? Did they subscribe to Ahmadinejad’s theories? Why do so many otherwise intelligent people expect good things from an organization which today gives free passes to, and sometimes honors, terrorists and their sponsors, and its Human Rights Council, whose members include rights advocates such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba, which can only find time to routinely condemn Israel?
Somewhere in Turtle Bay a calliope is playing.