THE 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly opened in the past week amid simmering tension in the Middle East over recent attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities, which Saudi Arabia and the United States blame on Iran. It also came just days after millions of young activists and their supporters marched in thousands of cities worldwide to demand greater action on climate change.
Amongst the notable absentees this time are Russia’s Putin, Syria’s Assad and Israel’s Netanyahu. For the first time in many years, the annual event was spared of the latter’s lying speeches.
UN secretary general António Guterres opened the first day of debate in the session, warning that the world was in a state of ‘disquiet’. He said, ‘A great many people fear getting trampled, thwarted or left behind.’ ‘Machines take their jobs, traffickers take their dignity, demagogues take their rights, warlords take their lives, fossil fuels take their future and yet people believe in the spirits and ideas that bring us to this hall’, he added. ‘They believe in the United Nations… and we the leaders must deliver for we the peoples.’
The secretary general told a high-level event celebrating ‘a new Sudan’ that it was ‘the happiest moment’ of the many dozens of meetings he has attended during this week’s annual gathering of world leaders. He called the formation of the first civilian-led government since the military overthrew former president Omar al-Bashir in April ‘a pivotal moment of change and hope’. The UN chief said that the transition ‘marks the start of Sudan’s long road’ to economic recovery, peace and better lives for all Sudanese. He urged the international community to do everything possible to make Sudan’s democratic experience a success, including immediately removing the country from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In his speech, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that nuclear power should either be free for all states or banned completely. He also warned that the ‘inequality’ between states which have nuclear power and those which do not undermines global balances. Holding a map of the Occupied Palestine, he showed how the successive Israeli governments since the illegitimate birth of the Zionist state have made a mockery of the world’s highest institution by grabbing Palestinian lands that have made the two-state theory an impossible proposition.
President Erdogan called for an end to the nearly nine-year-old civil war in Syria and said that many of the more than three million asylum seekers residing in Turkey are Syrian. The number of Syrian children born in Turkey has reached half a million. He urged that people must ‘never forget’ the world’s ‘baby Alans’ as he held up the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who died in 2015 while trying to reach Turkey’s shores. The image of the child’s lifeless body prompted outrage and drew the world’s attention to the plight of refugees.
On Friday, September 28, Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad took the United Nations to task for failing to prevent wars and criticising the countries of the Security Council for giving themselves ‘the right practically to rule the world’. He railed against the veto power held by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. He said, ‘The veto power, they must know, was against all the principles of human rights which they themselves claim to be the champions. It killed the very purpose of the great organisation that they had created. It ensured that all solution to all conflicts could be negated by any one of them. Broken up into ideological factions they frustrated all attempts at solving problems. Each one of them can negate the wishes of the nearly 200 other members. It is totally and absolutely undemocratic. Yet, there are among them those who berate other countries of the world for not being democratic or being not democratic enough.’
As the oldest and wisest statesman of our time, Mahathir Mohamad wisely recommended that the veto should only be valid if two veto powers together with three non-veto members agree to apply it. That way abuses would be less frequent. He said, ‘Three quarters of a century is a long time. We cannot be held to ransom by events of the distant past.’
He accused European countries of causing wars elsewhere. ‘The first act engineered by the western countries is the creation of the state of Israel by seizing Palestinian land and expelling its 90 per cent Arab population. Since then wars have been fought in many countries, many related to the creation of Israel’, he said. He said, ‘Malaysia accepts the state of Israel as a fait accompli. But it cannot accept the blatant seizure of Palestine land by Israel for their settlements as well as the occupation of Jerusalem by Israel. The Palestinians cannot even enter the settlements built on their land. Because of the creation of Israel, there is now enmity towards the Muslims and Islam. Muslims are accused of terrorism even if they did nothing.’
Mahathir Mohamad also highlighted the plight of the Rohingyas of Myanmar who dare not return to Myanmar because of insecurity. He said, ‘The helplessness of the world in stopping atrocities inflicted on the Rohingyas in Myanmar had reduced the regard for the resolution of the UN.’
He blamed the Indian government for its illegal invasion of Kashmir and advised a peaceful resolution of the problem: ‘Now, despite UN resolution on Jammu and Kashmir, the country has been invaded and occupied. There may be reasons for this action but it is still wrong. The problem must be solved by peaceful means. India should work with Pakistan to resolve this problem. Ignoring the UN would lead to other forms of disregard for the UN and the rule of law.’
Mahathir Mohamad criticised the mafia-like attitude of the former colonial masters who continue to strangulate the economic progress of their former colonies under the pretext of new regulations. He said trade wars are wasteful and does not benefit anyone.
He said, ‘In keeping with the objectives of the United Nations, Malaysia had launched a campaign to criminalise war. It is ridiculous to hang a murderer for killing one person but to glorify the people who are responsible for the deaths of millions of people.’
Mahathir Mohamad ended his speech by advocating for strengthening the world body: ‘We must resuscitate the original purpose of this great organisation — the United Nations Organisation. We must punish warmongers. We must make the world peaceful for all. That was our mission and that must remain our mission. Only if we succeed can we claim that we are civilised.’
In his speech, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that the political process is the top priority for Syria now so that in the near future, Syrian refugees can return to their homes. He said that Russia thinks that the UN should play a major role in the return of those refugees.
Lavrov accused western countries of having ‘double standards on human rights, banning journalists and influencing media.’ ‘The United States withdrew from the JCPOA, and Washington has started demanding from others to play by its rules’, he said.
Probably, the most impassioned speech of this year’s session was delivered by Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan. In his maiden speech, the Oxford-educated prime minister touched on four major themes: climate change, money laundering, Islamophobia, and Kashmir.
‘Corruption is impoverishing the developing world. Difference between rich and poor countries is growing due to this. Money laundering is not treated the same as drug money or terror financing. Today poor countries are being plundered by their elites’, he said.
He spoke about the difficulty of collecting money from corrupt leaders who have properties in western countries. He said, ‘The rich countries must show political will; they cannot allow this flight of capital from poor countries through corruption. How can poor countries meet the United Nations SDGs when money for human development can easily leave our countries?’
He spoke about Islamophobia, which, sadly, has defined our world in the post-9/11 era when the lives of ordinary Muslims are not valued at all by criminal regimes. The Islamophobic leaders have equated Islam with terrorism to justify their horrendous crimes against the innocent Muslims. Their criminal actions are leading to marginalisation of Muslims, which is responsible for radicalisation of the youth who are tired of being humiliated and would rather die as a dignified human being than be abused and witness the death, detention and rape of their loved ones. Imran Khan mentioned the utter folly of trying to equate radicalism with any faith. He deplored the fact that Muslim leaders have failed to explain ‘to the West that there is no such thing as radical Islam.’ He rightly noted, ‘There are radical fringes in every society, but the basis of all religion is compassion and justice.’
Imran Khan bemoaned the fact that the west has failed to guess Muslims’ love for their Prophet (S), who is the best of creation sent for the guidance of mankind. He said, ‘The Prophet (PBUH) is the ideal we want to live up to. He created the state of Medina which was a welfare state.’ He gave his audience a lesson in history: ‘The state of Medina was the first that took responsibility of women; the widows, the poor. State announced all humans were equal; whatever the colour of their skin. The Prophet (PBUH) announced that one of the greatest deeds is to free a slave. But if you have to; treat them as an equal member of the family. And as a result, the unprecedented happened, [the former] slaves became kings, and slave dynasties were formed.’ ‘In Islam, it was a sacred duty to protect places of worship of all religions. It was announced that all human beings were equal.’
He reminded his audience that the fourth caliph of Medina lost a court case against a Jewish citizen. No one was above the law. ‘When a Muslim community is unjust to a Minority, it is going against the teachings of our religion. Our Prophet (PBUH) lives in our heart, and when he is maligned, it hurts us’, he said. Thus, he asked them to stop Islamophobia.
Imran Khan mentioned how Pakistan fell victim to the post-9/11 era by joining the war on terror. ‘We lost 70,000 people to the war, 150 billion dollars to our economy. We joined the war against the Soviets in the 1980’s. Pakistan trained the then “Mujahedeen” at the behest of the Americans. The Soviets called them terrorists, the Americans called them freedom fighters, then. Soviets left, US packed up. Come 9/11, now that we had to join the US and tell the same indoctrinated people this is now not a “freedom struggle” but “terrorism”. They suddenly saw us as collaborators; it became a nightmare and they turned against us. 70,000 Pakistanis lost their lives, due to a war Pakistan had nothing to do with. No Pakistani was involved in 9/11.’
Imran Khan then touched upon the most pressing subject of Kashmir stating that India’s criminal actions there are bound to worsen the situation in the sub-continent. He reminded world leaders about Indian prime minister’s deep attachment with the RSS — the fascist organisation, which is the parent organisation of India’s ruling party, the BJP, that sees no place for minority Muslims and Christians in India. Eight million Kashmiris are caged up like animals in their homes who are cut off from the rest of the world while 900,000 Indian security forces are stationed there to deny them their legitimate human rights; the Kashmiri political leadership arrested, even the pro-Indian puppets; 13,000 boys picked up and taken to unknown locations; youngsters blinded with pellets; girls raped by Indian army.
He asked: ‘How would the Jewish community react if even 8000 Jews were under lockdown? How would the Europeans react? How would any human community react? Are we children of a lesser God? Don’t you know this causes us pain?’
He observed that the phrase Islamic terrorism has allowed India to dismiss human rights and further increase cruelty on the people of Kashmir. He rightly said that Modi’s actions are forcing people towards radicalisation. He mentioned about the Hollywood move ‘Death Wish’. ‘When people lose the will to live, they pick up guns.’
He blamed the world community for their nonchalant attitude towards the sufferings of the Kashmiri people and caring more about material gains than standing for what is morally right and just. ‘But the world did nothing and sees India as a huge market. Materialism has trumped humanity’, he noted.
Imran Khan reminded the world community of its responsibility to stop a major bloodbath waiting to happen. ‘I feel we are back in 1939; Munich. Czechoslovakia has been taken. Will the word community appease a market of 1.2b or will it stand up for justice and humanity?’
He pleaded them to act: ‘This is not the time for appeasement like that in 1939 in Munich. This is the time when you, the United Nations, must urge India to lift the curfew; to free the 13,000 Kashmiris who have disappeared meanwhile and this is the time when the UN must insist on Kashmir’s right to self-determination!’
In his speech on Friday at the UNGA, the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi did not mention the ongoing lockdown of Kashmir. He instead talked about India’s and his government’s achievements.
The same day, Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the 74th session urging the world leaders to realise the gravity of the Rohingya crisis, which has resulted in the forced exodus of nearly a million of this most persecuted people in our times. She reminded her audience that the crisis has been lingering for the third year but not a single Rohingya could return to Myanmar due to absence of safety and security, freedom of movement and overall conducive environment in Rakhine State.
Sheikh Hasina said, ‘I would request the international community to understand the un-tenability of the situation. The crisis is now going beyond the camps. Despite our all efforts to contain it, the crisis is now becoming a regional threat.’ She said that the crisis was Myanmar’s own making but Bangladesh is bearing the brunt. ‘It is an issue solely between Myanmar and its own people, the Rohingya. They themselves have to resolve it’, she said, reiterating that voluntary return of the Rohingya to their homes in the Rakhine state in safety, security and dignity is the ‘only’ solution to the crisis.
She mentioned a five-point proposal that she had placed earlier in the 72nd UN General Assembly to resolve the crisis which included a full implementation of recommendations of the Kofi Annan Commission and the establishment of civilian-monitored safe zone in Rakhine State. This includes: Myanmar must manifest clear political will supported by concrete actions for sustainable return and reintegration of the Rohingya to Myanmar; Myanmar must build trust among the Rohingya by discarding discriminatory laws and practices and allowing ‘‘go and see’ visit to the Northern Rakhine by the Rohingya representatives; Myanmar must guarantee security and safety of the Rohingya by deploying civilian monitors from international community in the Rakhine state; International community must ensure that the root causes of Rohingya problem area addressed and the violation of human rights and other atrocity crimes committed against the Rohingya are accounted for.
A sample of the speeches from the non-veto-yielding world leaders is sufficient to see that the UN has failed miserably to live up to its vision; it demands a fundamental change with the Security Council, which needs to be either eliminated or veto power revised for the greater good of human race. The status quo is simply not working and will not fix the world ‘disquiet’.
Dr Habib Siddiqui is a peace and rights activist.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Opinion