I write this on Monday as quite a few people — not all of them news reporters or news junkies — are keyed up for the General Debates at the United Nations General Assembly that begin on Tuesday and continue through September 30. The General Debates are of course an annual event where a pantheon of world leaders arrive in New York to take to the podium at the international body to discuss high-level global issues of pressing concern to the community of nations.
Serious stuff. But at the General Assembly it’s not, every September of every year, always doom and gloom. It’s not always sombre. As a journalist who covered the UN intermittently since 1974, I remember the unexpected levity that at times accompanied the annual event — the looney moments, the utter craziness, the diplomatic folly.
How could one forget the eccentric Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who arrived in New York in September 23, 2009, swathed in saffron robes, and demanded that the City Council allow him to pitch his tent in Central Park. (He was gruffly turned down.) His speech, which had been allotted a 15-minute slot, like other leaders’, stretched to an astonishing one hour and 40 minutes, during which he rambled on about who really shot JFK, how he was bummed out by jet lag, and, as he extrapolated from his own political culture, why “We would be happy to see Barack Obama stay president of America for life”. To be sure, Gaddafi’s 100-minute opus was modest in length, but not in verbosity, when compared to that of Fidel Castro’s in 1960, who spoke for four hours and 29 minutes.
To be sure, that record — and this is Ripley’s Believe It or Not territory — had been broken. In 1957, India’s then UN ambassador, Krishna Menon, who in his speech was defending India’s stance on Kashmir, spoke for eight hours. Reportedly, delegates went out, had lunch and came back, then went out again, had dinner and came back, and the man was still at it. And, yes, who would forget Yasser Arafat’s stirringly theatrical appearance at the podium as he spoke while wearing not just his trademark checkered hatta but a holstered pistol at the hip, a sartorial statement that scandalised countless observers.
And for a jejune presentation, who could beat that of then Iranian President. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010, who prompted snickers — and walkouts — from the chamber when he suggested that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were actually “an inside job”.
Here, no one, but no one, will forget the time when President Trump appeared before the General Assembly last September and boasted that his administration had accomplished more over two years than “any other administration in American history”, a posture that elicited audible guffaws from the delegates in the cavernous chamber. It was decidedly a painful moment that reflected America’s decline as the undisputed “leader of the free world”.
And so it goes.
Yet, beyond the levity, there is, at the end of the day, serious business the UN is tasked with attending to from Tuesday right through the end of the month. As President Trump addresses the assembly — with him being-the first to speak, since his country is UN host — ostensibly “to affirm America’s leadership role in the world”, he will be doing so not only at a time when US global leadership is waning but also at a time when America is seen as a nation led by someone not to be taken altogether seriously.
You can view the UN any way you please. View it benignly as Kofi Annan did: “More than ever before in human history we share a common destiny. We can master it if only we face it together, and that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations”. View it as nihilistically as the recently booted White House national security adviser, John Bolton, did: “There’s no such thing as the United Nations. If the UN building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
Or view it as ambivalently as Palestinian did in 1947 after the international body disenfranchised them of home and homeland, but then, guilt-ridden, turned around and provided them with succour in exile.
But view it. The UN will be around after our children and our children’s children had acquired a past of their own.
Fawaz Turki is a writer and lecturer who lives in Washington and the author of several books, including the Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.