Wednesday, September 30, 2009



29th September, 2009
By Opiyo Oloya

FORMER US president George Bush once called the United Nations a worthless debating club until he needed it for his war on Iraq. Every leader, especially disgraced dictators, it seems, is eager to use the UN as a platform for making some grand statement that means absolutely nothing to the rest of the world.

Last week, for instance, dithering dank-mouthed disreputable dictators dominated the proceedings at the UN. There was Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gadaffi, in all his finery, and at his first ever address to the United Nations General Assembly, trying to tear up the preamble to the UN Security Council Charter. He did not do it because the document proved too thick to tear up. Instead, he tossed it over his shoulder.

Speaking way beyond the 15 minutes allotted to heads of state to address the 64th UN General Assembly, Gadaffi railed for 95 minutes against the evil that stalks the world. He called the UN Security Council and its permanent members the “terror council”.

For the record, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China are permanent veto wielding members of the Security Council, the most powerful body within the United Nations. He wanted to know who killed American president John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. He accused the US of inventing the swine flu to sell vaccine and antidote to cure the illness. By the time his speech ended, most delegates had either walked out in protest or fallen asleep in their chairs.

Not to be outdone, Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gave a speech too which sounded like a religious lecture on creationism. “God created the world for humans and humans for Himself,” he began. “Without justice, it would be impossible for human society to taste real peace, beauty, joy and happiness,” he went on. At this point, someone should have interjected and said: “Mr. President, what about all those Iranians that you killed after the elections in June this year, don’t they deserve justice too?” Nobody did, and so Ahmadinejad went on: “These are the same powers that produce new generations of lethal nuclear arms and possess stockpiles of nuclear weapons that no international organisation is monitoring; and, the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were perpetrated by one of them.”

Even a six-year-old would have guessed Ahmadinejad was speaking about the United States of America. The problem though is that by the time he came around to making his point, many of the Western nations led by France had walked out of the assembly. No matter, he carried on.

Meanwhile Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, always a very eloquent speaker, took a swipe at Western countries for their sanctions against his country. He said: “If they will not assist the Inclusive Government in rehabilitating our economy, could they please stop their filthy clandestine divisive antics. Where stand their humanitarian principles when their illegal sanctions are ruining the lives of our children?” Of course one could say to Mr. Mugabe: “Your moral turpitude is what is preventing the children of Zimbabwe from realising their fullest potential because you must hang onto power until your last breath.”

The problem is that the UN has become a place where leaders whose credibility no longer matter or are in tatters at home come to bask in international limelight. The long-winded speeches they give are not for the assembled leaders of the world, but for the folks back home. It is as if they are saying: “Geez, look at me now, I am here in New York giving a big speech, and if I can give a big speech in New York, I can’t be all bad.” It is a self-congratulatory act that strokes the ego of the dictators and, most importantly, gives them a sense of power that they can feel and see slipping away. The UN is the Viagra that gives them a temporary lift before they go limp again.

These leaders crave legitimacy which, in fact, can only come from real reform back home. Through reforms they raise the hope as well as wellbeing of the masses of their population from biting poverty. But reform also threatens their power base, and so many of them look for legitimacy elsewhere, say, by indulging in anti-American rhetoric or anti-Semitic rant. It makes them feel potent that they are fighting for the little guy, for something worth fighting for. The problem is that the little guy can’t eat anti-American rhetoric.

The big irony lost on many of these dictators is that they speak freely at the UN without constraint. Yet, back home, their citizens do not have the freedom to speak. “The Iranian people are prepared, along with other nations, to help you be rescued from your current situation and to establish peace and prosperity,’ squeaked Ahmadinejad to America. Really, how? How about starting with Iran before exporting the idea to other countries?

Many of the speeches at the UN last week were about reforming the UN to make it work for all nations, big and small. However, in my opinion, the most needed reform at the UN is to provide a forum for opposition and civil leaders from each country to speak at the assembly right after their heads of government have spoken. This way, there is a response, another viewpoint that balances whatever the leader said.

Maybe the very possibility of opposition and civil leaders speaking at the UN General Assembly would keep some of these dictators at home.