US President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Traditionally, the United Nations Secretary General’s office informs ambassadors that their heads of state should confine their speeches to about 15 minutes when they address the General Assembly’s annual session.
On Tuesday, the UN General Assembly president reiterated this position. The first to speak was Brazil’s President. Why Brazil first, some may ask. This is because, in terms of a tradition followed in international fora, when no one wanted to speak first, Brazil always offered to speak first. Thus this South American nation earned the right to speak first at the General Assembly. Brazil has done so since the 10th UNGA in 1955.
On Tuesday, the opening day of the UNGA’s 72nd annual sessions, Brazil’s President Michel Temer spoke first and kept his speech to about 15 minutes. The next slot was for the United States. In walked President Donald Trump to deliver his debut speech at the United Nations, an institution he, during the campaign, slammed as a weak and incompetent organisation and even threatened to cut funds. Throwing aside the UNGA president’s 15-minute rule, he spoke for 43 minutes.
True, many world leaders pay little attention to this 15-minute rule. US President Barack Obama, delivering his last UNGA speech in 2016, spoke for 47 minutes. The record for the longest UNGA speech belongs to Fidel Castro for his 269 minute-speech in 1960. It is said that the UN at the 50th anniversary sessions introduced a red light which would start flashing after the 15th minute. Sri Lanka’s former President Ranasinghe Premadasa, it is said, took out his handkerchief, put it on the flashing light and continued to speak. Castro did the same two years later.
The lack of respect for the 15-minute rule, however, brings out a truism: On the one hand, it shows most world leaders do not care two hoots about a rule-based order and, on the other, it exposes the United Nations inability to rein in the violators of the rule. The UN is powerless even to switch off the microphone if a world leader violates the 15-minute rule. Perhaps, in UN parlance, the timidity is called diplomatic niceties.
Length of speeches apart, what about the content? There is little to cheer about in Trump’s UN speech. He spoke about the United States’ resilience in the face of devastation caused by the two recent hurricanes, but deliberately avoided climate change, although it is more serious a matter than the North Korean nuclear missile threat. How many natural disasters do world leaders like Trump require for them to understand that it is the damage that we cause to our environment that revisits us in the form of natural disasters with catastrophic consequences?
As expected, Trump’s ‘America first’ speech was mere bombast of gung-ho militarism. Usually, most US presidents in recent time, including Nobel peace prize winner Obama, have held out threats to nations that have challenged the US-dominant world order. But Trump appeared rhetorical and frighteningly fascist. His understanding of world affairs appeared wanting. He turned the world body’s podium into a stage for the burning of the UN Charter, which in its opening paragraph declares “We the peoples of the United Nations are determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…”
His speech was virtually a declaration of war on North Korea. Is he as reckless -- and ruthless -- as North Korean leader Kim Jung-un? Instead of embracing war and declaring he was ready to “totally destroy” North Korea, shouldn’t he have spelt out plans to sort out the dispute with the reclusive nation? So bankrupt, he has no peace formula to end the dispute with North Korea or the wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan, or bring peace to Palestine. War and more war appear to be his policy. Going by the response of North Korea, it appears Trump is expediting World War III. Trump has made the world more dangerous a place than it was before he addressed the UN.
Trump was also selective in his condemnation of terrorism. While he whitewashed his Gulf allies who funded myriad terrorist groups in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, he singled out Iran to project it as the only nation that was promoting terrorism in the world
North Korea said it would prepare a resolute and pre-emptive strike if the US showed any slight sign of provocation. “In case the US opts for confrontation and war at last... it will meet horrible nuclear strike and miserable and final ruin,” North Korea’s official news agency KCNA warned yesterday.
It was hardly surprising that Trump drew not much applause during his speech. An air of disapproval appeared to pervade the assembly. The only leader who was nodding in approval of Trump’s tirade was Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an oppressor, to whose delight Trump said nothing about peace in Palestine.
Trump was also selective in his condemnation of terrorism. While he whitewashed his Gulf allies who funded myriad terrorist groups in Libya, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, he singled out Iran to project it as the only nation that was promoting terrorism in the world.
Can Trump show a single incident where Hezbollah or any other Iran-backed group is engaged in terror attacks in the United States or Europe? Since 9/11, almost all the terror attacks that have taken place in the West are linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS, which have nothing to do with Iran, but are ideologically connected with the United States’ Gulf allies.
In another move that undermined world peace, Trump denounced the world powers’ deal with Iran to dissuade that country from pursuing a nuclear programme. On this score, even Trump’s western allies are not with him.
Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani, addressing the UN, said, “The ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric, filled with ridiculously baseless allegations… was not only unfit to be heard at the United Nations — which was established to promote peace and respect between nations— but indeed contradicted the demands of our nations from this world body to bring governments together to combat war and terror.”
Trump must thank Rouhani for not being a Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, one of the countries that Trump lambasted in his speech. Chavez through his socialist measures brought prosperity to millions of his people who were languishing in poverty. Addressing the UN in 2006 a day after the war mongering US President, George W. Bush, addressed the UNGA, Chavez said, “Yesterday, the devil came here… And it smells of sulfur still today….”
Trump’s Tuesday speech also stinks. The height of absurdity was when Trump, being one of the world’s biggest capitalist bandits, scorned socialism. Whether socialism has succeeded or not in its effort to achieve income equality, it is certainly better than capitalism which has created a United States where those in the top one percent earn 40 times more income than the bottom 90 percent. The world’s 10 richest billionaires, according to Forbes, own US$505 billion in combined wealth, a sum greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis – or more than six times the size of Sri Lanka’s US$ 80 billion economy. Something is not correct, isn’t it? Can someone tell Trump that godless socialism is much better than capitalism that sells even religion