An annual event, the UN General Assembly meeting in September often hits the headlines for just one reason: the speeches made by Heads of State, Prime Ministers or other luminaries of various states. Often the analysis is due to the ‘comedy value’ presented by the hyperbole of certain re-occurring speech makers, last year Presidents Chavez and Ahmadinejad, provided much of the reason for coverage. As a prime example of such misuse President Chavez once memorably referred to President Bush as the devil in the midst of his speech. The question is then what is the value of such speechifying, does it add to the work of the UN, does it bring about change, or is just an excuse for anti-American politicising in New York, under the protection of head of state immunity or the opposite righteous indignation at the content of some speeches?
A prime example is President Ahmadinejad speech on Thursday in which he accused the US of orchestrating the September 11th attacks. While the Iranian President also made a call for the end of the veto power in the Security Council, an important aspect of the reform debate at the UN, this is overshadowed by the walk outs caused by such ridiculous embellishments regarding the US and Israel. The speech is hardly out of character for the Iranian President, his pronouncement 2 years ago that there were no gay people in Iran nor any repression of women also caused an outcry. Barack Obama used the occasion of his first UN speech to call for Israel, ultimately unsuccessfully, to continue with the freeze in further settlements in the West Bank. This appeared to be an attempt to keep the current peace process going. Nick Clegg used his speech to denounce the comments regarding September 11th made by President Ahmadinejad. He also used the opportunity to call for reform.
Minister for Foreign Affairs, Micheál Martin T.D. made his speech on Monday. In the speech he referred to one of the ongoing themes of this year’s meeting; reform of the UN, particularly of the Security Council. Several other states have made similar calls including; Japan, France , Australia, and South Africa. However the question needs to be asked whether these calls are perhaps no more substantive than President Ahmadinejad’s comments. Reform has been on the agenda of the UN, particularly change within the Security Council, for many years. The most recent attempts at reform came about following the In Larger Freedom Report which set out proposed changes throughout the UN, but most particularly within the Security Council. Yet this came to naught. The membership, in these calls for change, seem to wish to distance themselves from the stalemate. Reform will not take place in some abstract UN bureaucracy, but by the members themselves taking substantive action. The main reason for the lack of reform is the unwillingness of members to compromise on Security Council membership and the use of the veto power. Yet, the annual speechifying leads to nothing more than theatrical antics, whether of absurdity or righteousness. For the annual General Assembly meeting to have any relevance, these speeches must take on some actual relevance, for at the present, they do not appear to have any effect whatsoever.