Speaking at the UN General Assembly is never a missed opportunity

SPEAKING at any event organised by the United Nations (UN) is never a missed opportunity. This is especially the case with the UN General Assembly, which is held throughout the month of September each year. Heads of government take turns expressing their views to reflect on the issues that affect the world over and again.

The late Jeanne Kirkpatrick at Georgetown University, who once served as the Permanent Representative of the United States (US) to the UN Security Council during the Reagan Administration even has this to say: “The UN General Assembly (UNGA) is a Turkish Bath.” For the lack of better expression, she was not referring to UNGA strictly as a talk shop.

Rather, she was alluding to how world leaders, occasionally activists such as the likes of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) were once allowed to speak at the UNGA.

By allowing leaders to let off steam, even to hyperventilate, by excoriating others of their sins of omission and commission, some leaders would become less antagonistic and amenable to dialogue to resolve an issue.

It is not always the case that such a rostrum would work flawlessly to prevent great wars, endemic conflicts and a world economy filled with debauchery, let alone to protect the world from all sorts of mayhem, especially extreme climate, but it allows all and sundry to unleash their emotions.

The fact is if there is no UNGA, one would have to be created for it. By this token, it is important to note that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim also gave a Friday sermon at a mosque in New York not too far from Turtle’s Bay where the headquarter of the UN is located.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim delivering the Friday prayer sermon at the Islamic Cultural Centre of New York (ICCNY) on Sept 22. (Pic credit: Bernama)

While the congregation was not made up of UN bureaucrats, the message he delivered was important. A believer must demonstrate good character, personify the sophistication of understanding various issues and be the bearer of their faith and knowledge.

At any rate, the UNGA is indeed a global platform that can allow leaders to speak to the audience, either physically or virtually, to douse the ambers of any controversial subject into one that is less acerbic and belligerent.

It does not mean that UNGA can stop all wars and conflicts but without UNGA, there would be even more of them.

Besides, the UNGA is an event that poses a grave political danger to those leaders who are committed to attending the event by flying to New York City.

Given the fixed speaking arrangement, once a leader has agreed to speak at the UNGA, their political nemesis, including the people whom they govern, can seize the opportunity when the leader and his cabinet former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand in September 2006.

Since the risk is high, it is the case that the trip to UN is not all about UN alone. If anything, the key rests with his sidebar activities. In any attempt to judge any leader’s presence in UNGA as a failed opportunity, the critic must have an in-depth understanding of international relations.

In looking at the likes of some who spoke of Anwar’s “missed opportunity at the UN”, one must add that the Prime Minister did not just address the UN only.

Anwar was also there to engage American policymakers, large would-be investors, leading intellectuals at the Council for Foreign Relations – one of the oldest think tanks in the West – and old friends in the US too.

These interactions would pave the way for his Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in San Francisco this November 2023.

At the sidelines of the UNGA both before and after his speech, Anwar also met with leaders of Indonesia, Turkey and Iran, to name a few.

Through these meetings, the likes of them would try to understand how the developing world can all unite into a more cohesive whole, when all of them are facing the issues of global inflation and unstable supply chain on anything ranging from food to fuel.

To anyone unconvinced that Anwar has not touched on any substantive issues, one might want to hear his approach to South China Sea and the works with Bloomberg, which was arranged in New York City.

There is also his engagement with the audience at the Council for Foreign Relations that can give an outlook into his method in projecting Malaysia foreign policy outlook beyond what the Foreign Affairs Ministry or Wisma Putra has been actively doing. In all, it is far too easy to be a dismissive armchair critic.

But given the delicate return of intense geopolitics and geo-economics that have always been there at the backstage of world politics, Anwar’s public address at the UNGA should not be taken lightly least of all by anyone who is not clued in on the currents of world politics sui generis. – Oct 3, 2023


Dr Rais Hussin is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EMIR Research, a think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.


Main pic credit: Bernama

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