The failed attempt by the U.S. and Russia to revive a cease-fire in Syria stole the spotlight at the annual U.N. gathering of world leaders but every other global hotspot had its moment — and there were some chuckles as well including a message to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to be ready to receive his gift of a “white bull” from South Sudan.
With the final speeches of the six-day gabfest delivered on Monday, there were also a few high points.
Last December’s Paris climate agreement got 31 more ratifications at a high-level event hosted by Ban, topping the 55 countries required and just over 7 percent short of the 55 percent of global emissions needed for the deal to enter into force. It is expected to reach that magic number before the next U.N. conference on climate change in November in Morocco.
U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson called the agreement a “historic achievement” that would never have happened if the world’s nations hadn’t shifted course to preserve life on Earth.
“There might be a Plan B in life but there certainly is no Planet B,” Eliasson said Monday in wrapping up the General Assembly’s annual General Debate which was attended by over 135 heads of state and government and more than 50 ministers.
The high-level meetings began with the first-ever U.N. summit on refugees and migrants called to tackle one of the most contentious issues facing the world: millions of people fleeing conflict and poverty — and not many countries willing to accept them.
World leaders approved the New York Declaration aimed at providing a more coordinated and humane response to the largest refugee crisis since World War II, and President Barack Obama secured thousands of new resettlement places and billions of dollars in pledges to help the refugees at a summit the following day.
Eliasson said both events gave “new structure to the work on refugees and migration which will be very useful.”
“But above all I hope we shall make sure that this organization sends the signal of everybody’s equal value, and that we need to work in such a way that we prevent the xenophobic tendencies to prevail which are still strong in today’s world,” he said.
As for the “buzz” in U.N. corridors, it was two newcomers making their debuts on the international stage that captured the most attention: British Prime Minister Theresa May and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
May assured the General Assembly that Britain will remain a global power and continue playing a role in trying to resolve the many challenges in the world despite its decision to leave the European Union. And Trudeau announced new plans for Canada to become more globally engaged, including providing 750 U.N. peacekeepers, and tried to calm security jitters after a weekend bombing in New York City on the eve of the global gathering.
When the VIPs meet, small countries are almost always ignored, which angers many.
Prime Minister Allen Chastanet of the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, population 183,000, told the 193-member General Assembly that “as a small island state within this body, our voice is meant to be equal, but long experience and realpolitik prove the contrary.”
Chastanet also questioned the format of the so-called General Debate where leaders deliver speeches from 9 a.m. often until after 8 p.m.
“While many speak, few stay around to listen; far less respond,” he said. “Then we wonder how and why this entity is so negatively perceived by the persons we are elected to serve.”
One of the U.N.’s great failures has been its inability to end the 5.5-year Syrian conflict, which has claimed over 300,000 lives. During the ministerial meeting, not only did lengthy U.S.-Russian negotiations fail to restore a cease-fire but the Syrian government announced a new offensive to retake Aleppo, unleashing some of the heaviest bombing of the war.
Other conflicts, large and small, had opposing sides attacking each other.
India and Pakistan squabbled over Kashmir, which is claimed by both countries who have fought two wars over the Himalayan region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predicted that Israel would have a bright future at the U.N. and invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to address Israel’s parliament — an offer Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour dismissed as “a new gimmick.”
A number of Pacific island nations including the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu and Tonga accused Indonesia of mass killings and other human rights violations in West Papua — criticism that Indonesia brushed off as being politically motivated. And the United Arab Emirates accused Iran of sponsoring “terrorism”, a claim Tehran denies.
In almost every speech, leaders called for global action against radical extremist groups which have spread from Syria and Iran to North Africa, Europe and the United States.
There were no speeches about the search for a successor to Ban, whose second term as secretary-general ends on Dec. 31. But there was plenty of behind-the-scenes chatter about the nine candidates vying to replace him and whether the winner would be front-runner Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister or someone from Eastern Europe which has never held the post that by tradition rotates by region, or the first woman.
Liechtenstein’s Foreign Minister Aurelia Frick told the assembly she would like “to finally see a woman lead this organization — which has been such a trailblazer for gender equality.”
One of the lighter moments came in the speech of Taban Deng Gai, first vice president of war-ravaged South Sudan, who paid tribute to Ban and recalled that President Salva Kiir gave the U.N. chief a “white bull” as a sign of peace.
“It has grown [and is] now ready to be delivered to his excellency,” Deng Gai said. There was no word on where and when the secretary-general will take delivery.