VAPPALA BALACHANDRAN | 25 SEPTEMBER, 2016
NEW DELHI: Every September delegations from193 member countries, nearly 20 in each group, descend on New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings. This annual gathering is important since heads of states or senior cabinet ministers get opportunities to present their opinions, exhibit outrages and offer quick fixes at the UNGA, the highest decision making body.
Perpetually feuding countries transport their disputes to New York to display their versions to the global audience. Along with them hordes of NGOs and media personnel also gravitate to the city, not to speak of hundreds of noisy demonstrations each outdoing the other, mainly to impress their domestic audience.
But that does not mean that even a fraction of what they say is heard or digested by others. The reason is simply because there are far too many speeches at UNGA and superabundant replies. Consequently there is very little time for anybody to understand real issues. As a result most of what they present does not even create a blip on the formation of global opinion. Thus only the home audience gets regurgitated on such country specific debates. Ultimately these September meetings remain only annual rituals producing nothing but protocol events and photo opportunities.
This will be evident if we study the long agenda of any such UN annual session. The 71st session started on September 20 with the customary address by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon followed by 18 speeches by VIPs in the forenoon session, including the address by General Assembly President Peter Thomson (Fiji). Those who spoke were leaders from Brazil, Chad, United States, Slovakia, Guyana, Qatar, Argentina, France, Malawi, Uruguay, Jordan, Switzerland, Peru, Turkey, Fiji, United Kingdom and Canada. On the same day there were 16 addresses in the afternoon: Tunisia, Poland, South Africa, Slovenia, Egypt, Nigeria, Uganda, Portugal, Mexico, Spain, Zambia, Panama, Costa Rica, Mongolia, Senegal, New Zealand and Italy.
On September 21, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the UN, there were 17 speakers in the morning session and 21 in the afternoon: Finland, Zimbabwe, Chile, Namibia, China, Colombia, Ghana, Afghanistan, European Union, Ukraine, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, Myanmar, Japan, Montenegro, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Sri Lanka, Micronesia, Latvia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Guinea-Bissau, Czech Republic, Bolivia, Mozambique, Estonia, Nauru, Honduras, Gambia, Ethiopia, Romania, Bangladesh, Georgia, Australia, Thailand and Austria. These “debates” will go on till 26th.
In this background it is difficult to understand the frenzied reports appearing hourly on our visual media that the “stinging reply” (“Ivy League of Terror”) read out by Enam Gambhir, our young lady diplomat in reply to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech has created such a global impact that it has resulted in shifting “the focus back on Pakistan sponsored terrorism”. (“India’s young envoy leaves Pak in tatters, punctures its claims”). According to a leading Indian daily this was a “Diplomatic win over Pakistan at UN”.
As a matter of fact for every address at UN, there is a “Right of First Reply”. For example the first to exercise this right was Cuba after Brazilian President Michel Temer’s speech on 20th. Cuba, Venezula, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua do not recognize Temer who became President after Dilma Rousseff was “impeached” by the Senate. A report in New York Times said that delegates from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua had walked out.
In the same way Enam Gambhir also exercised “The right of First Reply”. There was nothing path breaking in this as our media had pictured. Pakistan also exercised the “Right to reply” against India with their allegations of human rights violation and blinding of Kashmir youth. However this was not reported in our media. Are we not doing an overkill of these very normal exchanges by describing them as “India’s diplomatic victory” at the UN?
As for creating global publicity, has anyone considered the agony of international press covering such a large number of VIPs delivering their speeches in so many different languages on an astonishing variety of bilateral or multilateral grievances? As a result, only the national media of the affected countries publicizes such addresses. Sparring countries like India and Pakistan try to outdo each other on the so called effects their respective leaders have made on global audience, forgetting that nothing of that sort usually happens.
Usually the catalyst for each such session is the Secretary General’s opening address. But Ban Ki-moon’s opening address totally skipped our South Asian conflict. He flagged only the priority areas like the Syrian conflict, problem in Korean peninsula, refugee crisis, Paris Agreement on Climate change and human rights. International media highlighted only these issues. Global publicity was also focused on perennial problems like Israel, the Syrian Civil War or the present Saudi Arabia-US dispute on 9/11. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Naif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s speech on 21st was widely reported in New York only because he denounced the US Congress for allowing Americans to sue Saudis in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He described it as “a serious threat to the sovereign rights” of his country.
Similar publicity was also given to Kuwaiti Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah when he made the ritual denunciation of Israel on 21st “to implement resolutions that lead to the Palestinian people’s attaining their own independent state over their own territory, with East Jerusalem as capital, along the Israeli borders that existed before 1967”. British Prime Minister Teresa May’s first speech to the UN General Assembly on 21st also attracted global attention as she pledged billions of pounds in aid to tackle terrorism to stop thousands of migrants traveling to Europe. She also promised to help refugees in the Middle East and Africa.
Did international media publicize “Indian success” in making their complaint against Pakistan heard on the “sidelines” of the UN session? Did Secretary of State John Kerry “give an earful” to Nawaz Sharif during his meeting on September 20 as reported by the Washington based correspondent of an Indian daily?
New York Times reported on 20 September as under: “The top U.S. diplomat has urged Pakistan's prime minister to prevent ‘all terrorists’ from using the nation's territory as safe havens. The appeal from Secretary of State John Kerry to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came as tensions escalated between Pakistan and India after suspected rebels killed 18 Indian soldiers in an attack on a military base in the disputed territory of Kashmir….. Kerry expressed "strong concern" with the recent violence in Kashmir, particularly Sunday's attack, and called on all sides to reduce tensions’. (Italics mine) Would we describe it as “giving an earful”?
Our credibility is at stake if we do this type of media “Over kill”. Our image makers and media managers should keep this in mind. Instead they should read the “Economist” story “Guns and Ghee” (September 24, 2016) on our armed forces and take remedial measures to correct that impression.
[The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and author of “National Security & Intelligence Management-A new Paradigm”]