SENIOR diplomats convened in New York last week for the kick-off of the annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). One by one, leaders took to the stage to make their case for their country on the topic of “Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.”
The eyes of the world were on them as some of the most recognisable faces in politics addressed the sea of international representatives.
Some struck a note of unity and cooperation, while others – I’m looking at you Trump – took a more nationalist approach.
Among them were some of Asia-Pacific’s favourite, and most controversial, figures.
Some swam, receiving rapturous applause, while others sunk, eliciting pained groans from the audience. Among them they covered topics ranging from genocide and terrorism, to women rights and kaitiakitanga.
Here are some of the winners and loser from this year’s UNGA.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was always going to make waves at the GA as she delivered her address with her three-month baby daughter watching from the gallery.
But the content of her speech also made her stand out from the pack.
She immediately grabbed people’s attention with her moving opening espousing New Zealand’s inclusive nature.
“If I could distil it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this – Kindness,” she said.
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern takes her newborn baby to work.
Her partner holds their 3-month-old daughter as Ardern addresses General Debate of 73rd session of UN General Assembly in New York pic.twitter.com/yeB03S5lPb
— China Xinhua News (@XHNews) September 28, 2018
Without mentioning him by name, the 38-year-old took a swipe at US President Donald Trump’s isolationist rhetoric with a message of international cooperation.
She praised the UN and the important work the collective has achieved since its founding.
“Emerging from a catastrophic war, we have collectively established through convention, charters and rules a set of international norms and human rights,” she said.
“All of these are an acknowledgement that we are not isolated, governments do have obligations to their people and each other, and that our actions have a global effect.”
Ardern also tackled big issues of the day like women’s rights and climate change. Again making a dig at Trump, she said: “We can use the environment to blame nameless, faceless ‘other’, to feed the sense of insecurity, to retreat into greater levels of isolationism.”
Instead, she said the world can acknowledge the problems and seek to fix them.
She ended by referencing the gender equality movement #MeToo, saying “Me Too must become We Too.” She was greeted with enthusiastic applause with her sign off: “We are all in this together.”
The world’s oldest leader made a glorious return to the UN after a 15-year break.
Off the back of an historic election win that saw him end the 61-year rule of UMNO, Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohamed brought Malaysia Baharu (New Malaysia) to the UN.
He too criticised the global, “trend to inward-looking nationalism,” and warned of the dangers of “governments pandering to populism [and] retreating from international collaborations.”
In a damning rebuke of fellow Southeast Asian nation Burma (Myanmar), the 93-year-old condemned leader Aung San Suu Kyi for her denial of the atrocities taking place against the Rohingya.
He questioned the non-interference policy in the face of genocide, asking: “Does the world watch massacres being carried out and do nothing?”
His impassioned defence of Palestinians will no doubt ruffle some feathers with the Israeli delegation but that didn’t stop him unapologetically championing Palestinians’ right to reclaim their land.
The Honourable Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia delivering statement during the General Debate of the 73rd UNGA session @chedetofficial @saifuddinabd @MalaysiaMFA @IkramShahrul @RamlanMFA pic.twitter.com/XWtu5VXg3C
— Malaysia at the UN (@MYNewYorkUN1) September 28, 2018
But it was Mahathir’s call for reform of the United Nations that drew attention from the international community. Referencing the UN’s power of veto given only to permanent members of the Security Council, Mahathir said:
“Five countries on the basis of their victories 70 over years ago cannot claim to have a right to hold the world to ransom forever.”
He suggested the system be changed so a veto would require the support two permanent members – rather than one – and backed by three non-permanent members in order to give other countries a fair say.
Mahathir ended his address highlighting Malaysia’s progress over the year and relayed the Malaysian people’s “high hopes that around the world – we will see peace, progress and prosperity.”
Special mention goes to India who, during their address, promised aid to Indonesia in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that rocked Sulawesi on Friday.
It wasn’t so much who represented Burma at the UN that drew rebuke, but rather who didn’t.
For the second year in a row, de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi chose to avoid the event. Last year’s UNGA fell just weeks after the latest outbreak of violence against the Rohingya.
Suu Kyi’s absence was yet another signal the Nobel laureate was unwilling to tackle the crisis head-on and was, instead, continuing her denial and evasion on the topic.
In her place was Union Minister Kyaw Tint Swe, who came out swinging in the face of UN accusations of genocide.
The minister said Burma had “serious concerns” over a report by the UN Human Rights Council fact-finding mission that accused the military of crimes against humanity.
The report, released in September, documents patterns of gross human rights violations and abuses that include killing indiscriminately, gang-raping women, assaulting children, and burning entire villages.
Kyaw also attacked the International Criminal Court (ICC), which recently ruled it has jurisdiction to prosecute Burma’s generals for their role in the killings.
He said Burma was “working hard to build harmony on the ground” and was making effort to “create the much-needed social cohesion in Rakhine state.”
Over 700,000 Rohingya have fled across the border to neighbouring Bangladesh. The majority are afraid to return to Burma where they fear continued persecution at the hands of the military. Those who have fled bear the physical scars of torture and mental scars of seeing their families murdered.
For a man accused of election fixing and silencing political dissent, it was a little rich to hear Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen denounce others for their “serious assault on the will of the Cambodian people.”
Tackling head-on those who questioned the legitimacy of the July general election, in which Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats, he said: “The free choice of the Cambodian people and the legitimate result of this election is not a subject for question or debate.”
As for the threats of sanctions raised by the US and the EU in response to Hun Sen’s crackdown on dissent, they are nothing but “the brutal force of a particular state to impose its will on other sovereign states.”
The former-Khmer Rouge general shirked off international concerns for human rights in the country, claiming they have become a tool “to impose civilization for some powerful nations.”
Special mention goes to the Philippines, whose Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano defended President Rodrigo Duterte’s human rights record despite rights groups claiming a possible 13,000 people have been murdered in extrajudicial killings as part of his ongoing war on drugs.