The rhetoric at this year’s UN Assembly stopped at masks’ edge

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By John J. Metzler

One of the rites of Autumn has been playing out in New York, as the annual UN General Assembly meeting plowed through its list of 193 speakers in under a week.

Just before the session started, the South Korean boy band BTS put on a K-pop song and dance performance inside the cavernous Assembly hall.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the Debate with a stark challenge, “We are on the edge of an abyss, and moving in the wrong direction.  Our world has never been more threatened.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. / Eduardo Munoz / AP

While Presidents and Prime Ministers droned on in the majestic Assembly hall, the audience was often sparse and not particularly engaged. All the more reason why so many speakers took advantage of the recorded Video link option to address the Assembly.  China, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia were among them.

COVID, Climate Change, and Calamity underscored the session which nonetheless had few memorable moments or obvious rhetorical flareups.  Speakers duly genuflected before the sacred mantras of Sustainable Development and Climate Change.

Nonetheless the deep waters of the unexpected: The U.S. diplomatic conflict with France over the Biden Administration’s curt and clumsy miscommunication with the French concerned a nuclear submarine deal with Australia. The shipbuilding contracts which were originally signed by Australia with France were abruptly switched without telling the French government.

Paris withdrew its Ambassador from Washington, and the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian strongly condemned the Australia-UK-U.S. alliance, called AUKUS, “a stab in the back.” And this from America’s oldest ally!

U.S. President Biden’s first speech before the Assembly offered a rambling address long on  platitudes but short on substance or reassurances to allies; there was not a mention of China nor Russia!

Biden underscored America’s commitment to provide more COVID vaccines to the developing world, tackling climate change, and surging what he called “relentless diplomacy” to avoid new conflicts.

One of the session’s most contentious moments came when Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, addressing a near empty hall by video link, launched a rhetorical attack on neighboring India.

He warned, “The worst and most pervasive form of Islamophobia now rules India.  The hate- filled ‘Hindutva’ ideology, propagated by the fascist RSS-BJP regime, has unleashed a reign of fear and violence against India’s 200 million strong Muslim community.”

Prime Minister Khan added, “New Delhi has also embarked on what it ominously calls the ‘final solution’ for the Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” and underscored a litany of Indian actions which are in Khan’s opinion aiming to transform the disputed region “from a Muslim majority into a Muslim minority.”

The Prime Minister saved his best for the situation in Afghanistan, a country bordering Pakistan, and which has faced near continuous conflict since the former Soviet Union invaded and occupied the country in the 1980’s.  While there is no question Pakistan has borne the brunt of refugee outflows, and still does, at the same time the Islamabad government has played a double game in supporting some factions of the Taliban as a cat’s paw to promote its interests.

Now following the Taliban takeover and return to power in Afghanistan, Premier Khan advised, “A destabilized, chaotic Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for international terrorists, the reason why the U.S. came to Afghanistan in the first place…Therefore, there is only one way to go.  We must strengthen and stabilize the current government, for the sake of the people of Afghanistan.”

Khan implored, “What have the Taliban promised?  They will respect human rights. They will have an inclusive government … If the world community incentivizes them, and encourages them to walk this talk, it will be a win-win situation for everyone.”  Wishful hyperbole indeed!

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not take the political bait, but in a speech the following day he recounted India’s democratic credentials, yet warned obliquely, “The country that uses terrorism as a political tool must also understand that it will also suffer from the same tool that they are inflicting on others.”

This was a clear reference to Pakistani policy of supporting Taliban factions.  Modi added,  “It is absolutely essential to ensure that Afghanistan’s territory is not used to spread terrorism.”

Few of the speeches were noteworthy; most of the diplomatic sound bites were either awkward or quickly forgettable, and little of the week-long debate ritual was memorable.

Mind you the UN Assembly, still behind masks and COVID regulations and protocols, seems to have lost most of its buzz, vibe and political mojo. It moved to tepid and polite         applause.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]