Each September, leaders from nations big and small are allotted 15 minutes to address the world from the United Nations’s green marble podium. It’s a chance to air complaints, highlight pressing national or global issues, and score diplomatic points. For some leaders, the UN General Assembly is an opportunity to make their name – or burnish a reputation.
Former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was known for memorable quotes like his 2006 reference to President George W. Bush as “the devil,” and his failed bid for a seat on the Security Council. Back in 1960, Fidel Castro addressed the UNGA, where he started off his speech promising brevity. The Cuban president then continued talking for nearly two hours and railed against US foreign policy, deriding President Kennedy as an "illiterate and ignorant" millionaire.
Though speakers from Latin America this year have been decidedly less controversial than Chávez, they had plenty to say. Here’s a small sampling:
Each year, Brazil is the first country to address the UNGA after the secretary general. The United States, as the meeting’s host, follows Brazil. According to The Guardian, “[Brazil] was such an enthusiastic participant at the UN’s founding in 1947 … that it managed to nail down first-speaking privileges in perpetuity.”
This year, President Dilma Rousseff preempted President Obama’s call for global action against terrorist threats like the Islamic State. Ms. Rousseff, who is standing for reelection next month, criticized attempts to solve conflicts by military means.
“Each military intervention leads not to peace, but instead those conflicts intensify. We witness a tragic proliferation in the numbers of civilian victims and humanitarian catastrophes,” Rousseff said. “The use of force cannot eliminate the deep-rooted causes of the conflicts,” she said, citing examples of ongoing violence in Syria, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Libya, Iraq, and Ukraine.
With an eye on Brazil's election, a large portion of her speech focused on domestic affairs, such as defending Brazil’s economic policies, its record on combating corruption, and its success in poverty alleviation.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner also had a domestic agenda. At the podium, she praised the UNGA for passing a resolution to begin negotiations for a global bankruptcy process, which could help halt predatory actions by hedge funds. This summer, Argentina was forced into a "technical default" after a US court ruled that it had to pay a small group of holdout creditors that didn't accept the terms of an Argentine bond restructuring.
In her speech yesterday, Ms. Kirchner referred to so-called vulture funds as “economic terrorists that create poverty, hunger, and misery through the sin of speculation.” She also blamed the US justice system and its “complacency” in ruling in favor of holdout creditors.
Kirchner spoke to more traditional terrorism as well, calling IS “deplorable and inhumane,” (and remarking on the groups “quirky name.”) But she also criticized the use of force against IS. “If the UN General Assembly is actually allowed to serve its mandate, despite the lack of observance by some nations, I am sure that we could actually have international law and order built on dialogue and peace instead of military intervention.”
Despite touching on salient topics, some listeners found Kirchner's train of thought hard to follow:
President Enrique Peña Nieto made his first address to the UNGA on Wednesday, announcing that Mexico will begin participating in UN peacekeeping missions for the first time in more than two decades. It’s a reversal of a long-standing stance – noted in Mexico’s Constitution – of not intervening in outside conflicts.
Mr. Peña Nieto said, “Mexico has the necessary experience in humanitarian assistance to serve the UN without neglecting its domestic duties.”
Mexico’s last overseas peacekeeping mission took place in El Salvador from 1992-93, according to Reuters.
Peña Nieto also called for reform to the UN Security Council, including adding more seats and limiting the veto power of permanent members, of which the US is one of five.
President Nicolás Maduro addressed a near-empty auditorium last night, where he called for a reorganization of the United Nations that better reflects a “multi-polar" world.
“If this whole system of UN had at least a little human nature about it, then we would all concentrate on tackling the real threat, instead of sending drones and missiles to destroy cities in Gaza, Iraq, and Syria,” Mr. Maduro said.
He criticized the US, saying it has “tried again and again to undermine democracy.” Maduro quoted his predecessor, former President Hugo Chávez, but didn't resort to Chávez-style personal attacks. He also praised Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for fighting IS, and pledged his support for African countries battling Ebola.
Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was a no show this year, apparently upset that his previous speeches to the UNGA went unheralded.
“It seems like only the first speeches are given importance,” Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño told Democracy Now. “[Correa] was quite frankly, just frustrated, and he’s not really interested in participating in an event where nobody really seems to be interested in hearing each other."
Mr. Patiño went on to condemn alleged US spying on other countries, calling it “a violation of international law.” In 2013, Ecuador offered asylum to Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is currently living in its embassy in London.
“The UN should take that up…. [But] it’s not on the agenda of the UN General Assembly. And that’s unfortunate,” Patiño said.
President Juan Orlando Hernández addressed the topic of children migrating from Central America toward the US. He acknowledged that violence in Honduras and other Central American countries contributed to the exodus of its citizens. But Mr. Hernández also blamed nations that produce and consume drugs for the violence.
"Our territory is one of the principal battlegrounds in a war that is not our own. It's a war we didn't initiate," he said, noting that there must be "shared responsibility" for taking on drug cartels and related violence.
Hernández called for the creation of a multinational force, "capable of successfully confronting this transnational phenomenon."