Syria and other toxic hazes shadow UN General Assembly opening

John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Presidents, prime ministers, kings and potentates will be in New York for the 68th annual UN General Assembly. The ongoing Syrian crisis and the toxic haze of recent chemical weapons use, clouds the diplomatic horizon at the global gathering as delegates confront issues of war, peace and widening humanitarian disasters.

But it’s the General Debate, the key policy speeches over the next two weeks where the headlines are generated, that’s the highlight of the session. While delegates speak with broad brush themes concerning development, disarmament, poverty and peacekeeping, be certain the focus will remain on Syria’s ongoing civil conflict and the regional shock waves reverberating throughout the Middle East from Turkey to Lebanon and Jordan.

ga-300x208By tradition Brazil speaks first followed by the United States. Normally this is a gracious formality between two friendly nations but this year Brazil’s leftist president is irate over alleged U.S. electronic eavesdropping on her government and herself personally. Dilma Rousseff has taken the unprecedented step to cancel a state visit to Washington, D.C. planned for October.

Brazil a close U.S. Latin American ally and rising economic power has been plainly insulted by the eavesdropping allegations and it looks like political damage control won’t work this late in the process.

Key figures to speak opening day after Brazil and the USA’s Obama include, Argentina’s President Christina Fernandez-Kirchner, Islamic Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, France’s Francois Hollande, and Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto.

King Abdullah of Jordan, probably the most erudite and sagacious speaker on the first day, as well as the Monarchs of Monaco and Qatar shall also address the delegates.
More controversial leaders to speak besides Iran, include Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator Robert Mugabe, Bolivia’s buffo ruler Ivo Morales, and Venezuela’s up and coming demagogue Nicolas Maduro.

At the same time will President Obama use the diplomatic occasion in New York to just “coincidentally” meet with his Iranian counterpart to discuss and attempt to defuse global concerns over Teheran’s embryonic nuclear weapons program?

Contrary to past years, delegations from 193 UN member states will not meet under the dome in the majestic General Assembly hall with its soaring ceilings, marble rostrums and aura of history but rather in what looks like an IKEA-type building with low ceilings, functional furniture, and a faux marble rostrum more akin to a model UN than to the real deal. Given that the Assembly hall is under renovation, as was the 38-story UN Secretariat building for the past five years, the whole presence looks a bit low budget.

One hundred thirty-one heads of state and government will attend the session as shall sixty foreign ministers. Yet many of the heavy-hitter countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, China, Germany, Russia, and South Korea will be represented by their respective foreign ministers.

There’s the plethora of 174 assembly agenda items to wade through; from hot button political issues, to vital peacekeeping operations, and budgetary items to a gaggle of the usual perfunctory anti-Israel resolutions, and slap on the wrist items ranging from the question of the Falkland Islands to the continuing American economic embargo on Cuba. Many of the agenda items center on the mantra of sustainable development.

After the controversial one year tenure of Serbia’s Vuk Jeremic, this year’s new Assembly President Dr. John Ashe hails from Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, himself from Korea, addressed some of the key development concerns on the eve of the Assembly. “While global economic trends are slowly improving, the crisis continues to takes its toll; for the first time official development assistance (ODA) has fallen for two consecutive years,” the Secretary General said.

Indeed according to a UN report, ODA declined in 2012, down to $126 billion from $134 billion in 2011, mainly due to fiscal austerity measures by countries in the European Union.

In parallel to aid cutbacks, key political flashpoints such as a nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula and the percolating political instability in Egypt, and near-continuous crisis in the Congo, have been overshadowed by Syria’s civil war and the massive humanitarian disaster in the making.

A busy assembly awaits diplomats: one hopes some statesmen will emerge from the session.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for He is the author of Transatlantic Divide ; USA/Euroland Rift (University Press, 2010).

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