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The 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on 15 September 2009 and the General Debate opened today. During the General Debate, each member nation has the chance to address the General Assembly. Today's proceedings began with addresses by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-moon and the President of the General Assembly, Dr. Ali Abdussalam Treki of Libya. 

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil was next to address the UN General Assembly followed by President Barack Obama of the United States of America.

I consider President Obama’s address to be one of the most important as the USA is an extremely powerful nation and the USA are one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.  I hope to concentrate on the speeches by the representatives of all five permanent members of the Security Council as well as the speech by President Jacob Zuma of South Africa as this holds specific interest to me personally (being that I am a South African expat).

My brief overview of the UN General Assembly and Security Council can be found here: The United Nations: an overview.

President Barack Obama addresses the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly

A full transcript of this speech can be found at First Door on the Left.

Obama began by acknowledging that many have come to view America with distrust and scepticism but then went on to list many of the achievements that he has made during his first nine months as president, most notably being the prohibition of torture by the USA.  It is interesting that he mentions in this paragraph his order to close Guantanamo Bay which is interesting because the future of the unit remains uncertain just four months away from the deadline as they struggle to make decisions on how to deal with the remaining detainees.  I personally felt that this was going to be a broken promise but does Obama’s mention of it mean a renewed commitment or was he just hoping to gain mileage from the promise alone of closing it?

“We’ve also re-engaged the United Nations. We have paid our bills. We have joined the Human Rights Council.  We have signed the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We have fully embraced the Millennium Development Goals” – US President Barack Obama, address to UN General Assembly, 23 September 2009 [transcript]

I’m left incredibly uneasy by this later statement by Obama.  I feel that I want to say something like, “what do you mean that the US wasn’t already part of the Human Rights Council, that they hadn’t already fully committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations?”

There is so much that the United Nations is not achieving, so much that they feel powerless to do and yet they give permanent members of the Security Council the freedom to pick and choose which policies and programmes they will abide by?  No, I am sorry.  To me that is akin to not abiding by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Geneva Convention. 

“This is what we have already done. But this is just a beginning. Some of our actions have yielded progress. Some have laid the groundwork for progress in the future. But make no mistake: This cannot solely be America’s endeavour. Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone. We have sought — in word and deed — a new era of engagement with the world. And now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges” – US President Barack Obama, address to UN General Assembly, 23 September 2009 [transcript]

I think this is a very interesting statement. On the one hand, there is a sense that nations look to the USA to solve all of their problems and provide monetary support.  There seems to be a sentiment (especially in some British media) that the international and domestic financial crisis will not abate until the recession ends in the US, that improvements cannot be made until the US finds a solution.  Obama is saying that nations need to start taking responsibility for their own political situations but he is also saying that nations need to communicate and cooperate in finding global solutions.

On the other hand, there is a extent to which the US has been involved directly in the evolution of certain situations, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It is one thing to declare war on a government but what of the people that have been affected by those wars?  I’m not saying I have the answer to that but I certainly have many questions.   There is also the question of aid and financial support.  Aid is never a gift, is it?  US aid always provides revenue that is streamed back into the US as American companies and personnel are utilised.

My personal feelings are completely incongruent and dichotomous.  I feel that each country should be sovereign and should look after their own problems internally before getting involved in the affairs of others and in the same breath, I wonder what will become of the third world countries that were ravaged by slavery and colonisation if assistance is not provided.  Mostly though, I feel that if a country signs an agreement or makes a promise such as the US and United Kingdom respectively did with Zimbabwe, then they should uphold those agreements or promises.

“The choice is ours. We can be remembered as a generation that chose to drag the arguments of the 20th century into the 21st; that put off hard choices, refused to look ahead, failed to keep pace because we defined ourselves by what we were against instead of what we were for. Or we can be a generation that chooses to see the shoreline beyond the rough waters ahead; that comes together to serve the common interests of human beings, and finally gives meaning to the promise embedded in the name given to this institution: the United Nations” – US President Barack Obama, address to UN General Assembly, 23 September 2009 [transcript]

It seems that Obama is calling for the United Nations to achieve what they originally set out to achieve, to ignore the politics and the spineless diplomacy that continues to allow genocide, war crimes and perpetual humanitarian crises.  If so, I wholeheartedly agree with him.  I wonder if this will be the generation to finally get the United Nations back on track?

Obama reiterated the notion that all nations have rights as well as responsibilities and then he introduced four pillars that he feels are fundamental for the future:

  • non-proliferation and disarmament;
  • the promotion of peace and security;
  • the preservation of our planet; and
  • a global economy that advances opportunity for all people

Obama’s words on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation were powerful yet chilling as he promised to take action on Iran and North Korea if they continue to ignore international standards with respect to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

"The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced. We must insist that the future does not belong to fear" – US President Barack Obama, address to UN General Assembly, 23 September 2009 [transcript]

Obama went on to discuss the promotion of peace and security and spent quite some time on the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians to great applause from the General Assembly. 

“The United States does Israel no favours when we fail to couple an unwavering commitment to its security with an insistence that Israel respect the legitimate claims and rights of the Palestinians. And — and nations within this body do the Palestinians no favours when they choose vitriolic attacks against Israel over constructive willingness to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and its right to exist in peace and security– US President Barack Obama, address to UN General Assembly, 23 September 2009 [transcript]

Obama then discussed climate change. It has been reported that China and India totally owned the US yesterday in the UN climate change debate as they promised ‘aggressive’ cuts in CO2 emissions compared with Obama’s simple acknowledgement of an historical failure to act and an undertaking to take action in the future.

Obama then discussed the global economy moving from the current financial crisis to a commitment to the Millennium Development Goals and a commitment to approach the 2010 summit with a concrete plan to make the goals a reality.

President Barack Obama is an excellent orator and I love to read his speeches as they fill me with hope and determination for the future. The problem is that words and excellent public speaking are not going to achieve real change but I do hope to be pleasantly surprised in the future and to witness Obama having made a real difference.

About Mandy Southgate

Mandy Southgate is an accountant living and working in London. She is passionate about world events such as genocide and apartheid and has a desire to understand how these events continue to occur in the modern world. With a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries, A Passion to Understand reflects her continuing research and reading on these topics.
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