UN General Assembly: A platform for international tyrants

UN General Assembly: A platform for international tyrants
Comment: The UN General Assembly has a history of giving the floor to dictators, criminals and tyrants peddling their self-justifying propaganda, writes Sam Hamad
6 min read
20 Sep, 2016
Gaddafi famously demanded that the UN headquarters relocate from New York to Libya [Getty]
As the 71st Session of the UN General Assembly moves into that period where world leaders are given time to strut their stuff in front of the political elites of the world, perhaps the most pertinent question is what's the point of the whole charade? 

In the past, it has provided moments of entertainment, such as during the US-led "war on terror" when the late Hugo Chavez, brandishing Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival, denounced the "US Empire" and famously referred to George W. Bush as "the Devil". 

In a sense, if this aspect of the UN General Assembly is good for anything it's for briefly making a spectacle out of geopolitical tensions, but mostly such tensions are subsumed by the strained formalities of diplomacy and we're left with rather more mundane displays. But there is a more sinister side to these proceedings. 

2009 was a particularly inglorious year. There we saw the late Brotherly Leader of Libya Colonel Gaddafi deliver a 100-minute speech in which he rambled about various subjects, including everything from calling for the reopening of the investigation of the assassination of President Kennedy, to demanding that the UN headquarters relocate from New York to Libya. 

Gaddafi's bluster was taken as a joke by most of the world media, but it was oddly prophetic of the coming era of political discourse regarding the Arab Spring. An era where conspiracy theories reign supreme and are used, as Gaddafi himself did when the Libyan people rose to overthrow him, to deflect from and justify the monstrous crimes of tyrants. 

That year also saw then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad return triumphantly to the podium. Never a popular figure within the General Assembly, Ahmadinejad defended his controversial election result. He had won the Iranian presidential election against the genuine reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi amid allegations of widespread voter fraud. This prompted the Green uprising, a nascent democratic revolution across Iran that was brutally crushed by the Iranian state. 

This is the problem of the UN General Assembly - it provides a platform for the powerful that is completely unchecked

With thousands of pro-democracy Iranian protestors demonstrating outside, Ahmadinejad defended his election as "glorious and fully democratic" and blamed a "private network" of Jews who dominate the world. No one of course held Ahmadinejad to account - not even his perceived "enemies" in the US. The also newly elected Barack Obama made his maiden speech at the UN and, following his general standoffish approach to the Green uprising, said nothing of it. 

But then, this is the problem of the UN General Assembly - it provides a platform for the powerful that is completely unchecked. The UN was set up in the wake of the mass genocidal carnage of World War II and has a charter that enshrines human rights, yet it provides a completely uncritical platform for those engaged in possible or definite human rights abuses or war crimes, including genocide.

This is as true of Ahmadinejad as it was of George W. Bush, who was of course allowed to peddle his propaganda during the criminal invasion of Iraq with zero accountability at the UN.  The UN was supposed to be an entity that stood above any one state in order for it to hold them to account when necessary, but, with its permanent member set-up and the ability of these most powerful states to veto anything that goes against their interests, this capacity was limited from the beginning.  

Add to that the fact that the UN has no real powers to stop any state from essentially doing what it likes, regardless of its status, and you have a neutered and unscrupulous entity.

A noxious mixture of uncritical self-justifications often coming from tyrants and criminals, as well as the sleazy showmanship of modern politics

If the UN was meaningfully functional, the General Assembly might somehow provide a platform for genuine debate between world leaders - some kind of truly critical forum where ordinary people can see the most powerful forces in the world held to account. Maybe then those leaders who speak at it would be forced to use the platform to shine a light on complex situations and try to use the power of mass communication to make the world better. 

But it's the opposite - a noxious mixture of uncritical self-justifications often coming from tyrants and criminals, as well as the sleazy showmanship of modern politics, combined with the prosaic pleasantries of diplomats and dignitaries.

This is the only kind of political discourse the UN is capable of – one that allows the world only to glimpse what the powerful want them to see and hear. In this sense, the General Assembly is not meaningless but actively regressive. 

Take, for example, 2014, during the height of the Assad regime's genocide in Syria. Here the General Assembly allowed Assad's foreign minister Walid Muallem to make a speech depicting Assad as the force that stands between the civilised world and the barbarism of the Islamic State group (IS). Of course, there was nobody there to point out that it was the criminal regime that Muallem represents that fostered IS, and that has carried out mass murder and destruction on levels that IS could merely dream of.

They're allowed to carve their own self-justifying narratives on the world stage

In the same session, and on the same theme, Binyamin Netanyahu seized the opportunity to claim that Hamas were the same as IS and that it was thus Israel that was on the front lines against the great existential evil of jihadi terrorism. The only Palestinian representatives attending the General Assembly were affiliated to the corrupt, collaborators of the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, who far from rebutting Netanyahu's absurd claims about Hamas and IS, has essentially agreed with them. 

Then, there was the President Field Marshal Abdel Fateh al-Sisi. Little over a year after murdering over 1,000 pro-democracy Egyptians in a single day, arresting tens of thousands, 'disappearing' countless others and smashing democracy in Egypt, he was given free reign to peddle his fascistic propaganda. Again, like his Israeli and Baathist allies, he claimed to be a stabilising influence against terrorism. 

At the height of these leaders committing active crimes against humanity, whether Assad's seemingly unending genocide, Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands or Sisi's brutal counter-revolution, we see them being given an uncritical platform at the UN General Assembly.

Speaking to the mostly accepting political elites, they're allowed to carve their own self-justifying narratives on the world stage. There's little, if any room for counter-narratives, while the voices of the victims of these forces are almost always entirely absent. 

This week I'm sure many important people will give speeches at the General Assembly, on issues such as the refugee crisis that stems from Assad's genocide, and which was the theme of yesterday's high level plenary.

However, at a time when the UN finds itself not just complicit in the crimes of the main force making the refugees - namely the Assad regime - you'd be a fool to believe that anything will change or that it won't yet again be used as a platform for criminals, tyrants and the powerful to push their propaganda. 


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.