UN General Assembly Debate – Day 1 Wrap

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at the leaders lunch hosted by Ban Ki-moon (UN Photo)

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at a leaders lunch hosted by Ban Ki-moon on Monday (UN Photo)

Sept. 28, 2015 – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the 70th General Debate with a speech in which he called for the situation in Syria to be referred to the International Criminal Court and said that five countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Turkey and the United States – are key to finding a solution to the conflict, now in its fifth year, and which has claimed more than 250,000 lives.

Three of those countries – the United States, Russia and Iran – spoke in the morning session with U.S. President Barack Obama telling delegates that the US is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to find a solution but there is ultimately no place for Bashar Al Assad in a future Syrian government. He called for a “managed transition away” from Assad who he held responsible for killing tens of thousands of his own citizens and creating the conditions that led to the emergence of ISIS, who he called “an apocalyptic cult.” Obama said military power alone is not sufficient to resolve the situation in Syria. Preempting criticism from Putin, he said the U.S. learned a “hard lesson” in Iraq and that after the 2011 intervention in Libya, U.S. and other NATO members did not do enough for the country after the killing of Muammar Gaddafi and this had contributed to the collapse of institutions there.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first appearance at the UN in ten years, told the General Assembly that foreign interference in the Middle East and North Africa had lead to the “flagrant destruction of national institutions” and that “nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life.” He said arming opposition forces in Syria only leads to more arms going to, and people joining, ISIS. Putin said it should “be acknowledged” that Assad forces and Kurdish militia are the only ones “truly fighting ISIS.” Russia has been supplying arms to Assad forces and recently moved military logistics equipment into Syria. Putin called for a coalition to fight terrorism “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” and that the Sept. 30 ministerial Security Council meeting under the Russian presidency is aimed at agreeing on a resolution on coordinating actions on fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups.

Neither Obama nor Putin made any mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in their addresses. Nor did either mention the deteriorating situation in Yemen.

Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, began his speech by saying mismanagement by Saudi Arabia had led to last week’s Haj tragedy that left more than 800 pilgrims dead, including more than 200 Iranians. He called for an independent investigation and immediate consular access to help identify the bodies. Rouhani said the agreement reached with the E3+3 on Iran’s disputed nuclear program had opened up a “new chapter in Iran’s relations with the world.” He said his country is “prepared to assist in the eradication of terrorism and … are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and Yemen.” He blamed U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan and its support for Israel, which he called the “Zionist regime,” for the current situation in the Middle East. He closed by declaring “ultimate victory will be won by those with good-natured piety.” Iran provides arms and financing for Hezbollah, which is currently fighting in Syria in support of Assad forces. Members of Iran’s Republican Guards are also fighting on Assad’s behalf in Syria. A recent UN Security Council report stated that an Iranian vessel had delivered 180 tons of arms to a Yemen port under Houthi control.

In the afternoon, Obama held a leaders summit on peacekeeping and said some 50 countries had pledged to contribute an additional 30,000 troops to current and future peace operations. He added that the US would double the number of military advisers serving in UN peacekeeping operations. In a separate memo, Obama said he would not relinquish command over any troops deployed to UN peace operations. The US currently has 78 personnel deployed in UN missions. The total number of current peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions is more than 106,000. The U.S. is the biggest financial contributor to peacekeeping operations – assessed at 28 percent of the more than $8 billion annual budget.

China’s President Xi Jingpin said his country would provide 8,000 troops to a UN peacekeeping standby force as well as providing $100 million to the African Union for peacekeeping operations. Beijing, which is the largest troop contributor among the permanent five members of the Security Council, will also take the lead in establishing a standing UN police force.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, said his country – currently the fourth largest troop contributor with more than 7,500 Pakistanis deployed in blue-helmet operations – vowed continuing support for peacekeeping, including pledging additional utility helicopters, an infantry battalion, and a canine unit. He said UN peacekeeping should not be used for counter-terrorism operations.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the summit that troop contributing countries do not have a role in the decision-making process to form a peacekeeping operation. He also said troop contributing countries lack representation in senior management posts and as force commanders. India, which UN insiders say covets the top peacekeeping job currently held by France, is the third biggest troop contributor, and has served in 48 of 69 peacekeeping mission and lost 161 troops. Modi pledged an additional 850 troops for new operations as well as three police units. In closing, he called for reform of the Security Council to keep the UN relevant.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi spoke of his country’s contributions to peacekeeping, which includes heading the UN mission in Lebanon, a 10,000-strong force. He proposed establishing a peacekeeping unit that would be tasked with preserving cultural heritage.

Among the some 50 countries also speaking was the Netherlands. The country’s prime minister, Mark Rutte, announced that the current deployment of 450 Dutch troops with MINUSMA in Mali would be extended by one year. He also said the Netherlands, in conjunction with the U.S., is devising a training program for peacekeepers on protection of civilians. The country is still grappling with shame over the decision by its troops to handover Bosnian Muslims to Serb forces in 1995 when they were sheltering in a UN compound. A court in the Hague last year found the Netherlands liable for the deaths of 300 Bosnian Muslim men killed in the Srebrenica massacre.

– Denis Fitzgerald
@denisfitz