Dismay and frustration as world leaders gather

Democratic uprisings across the Arab world and the Palestinians’ bid for UN membership sparked hope and excitement at last year’s meeting of world leaders.

Dismay and frustration as world leaders gather

But with war raging in Syria, the Palestinian application sidelined, and deadly protests generated by an anti-Islamic video, the mood as this year’s UN gathering begins is one of both disappointment and frustration.

More than 120 presidents, prime ministers, and monarchs meeting this week under heavy security at the UN General Assembly and in sideline events will also be preoccupied by rising tension over Iran’s nuclear programme as well as the possibility of an Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, al Qaeda’s inroads in the Sahel region of west Africa, especially in Mali, and the first decline in years in international aid to help developing countries combat poverty.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon predicted that the ministerial session, which starts today, will be among the busiest ever, reflecting “the tumultuous time in which we live — a time of turmoil and transition”.

It is also taking place “against a backdrop of widespread violence linked to intolerance”, he said.

Ahead of the opening ministerial session, which President Barack Obama will address, the UN chief invited leaders to the first high-level meeting on the rule of law yesterday, hoping they “will send a strong signal to the world’s people that they are serious about establishing well-functioning institutions and delivering justice”.

Diplomats are not expecting any breakthroughs on the deadlock over Syria, despite a number of sideline meetings starting last night when the new UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi briefed the UN Security Council behind closed doors on his recent talks with Syrian president Bashar Assad and other leaders in the region.

“To increase pressure and to increase the isolation of the regime of Assad is one of the goals of this week,” Germany’s foreign minister Guido Westerwelle told reporters.

The Syrian conflict has bitterly divided the most powerful members of the Security Council, paralysing the only UN body that can impose global sanctions and authorise military action. Russia, Syria’s key protector, and China, have vetoed three Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to stop the violence and start political talks with opponents of his family’s 40-year dictatorship who began demonstrating against his regime 18 months ago.

Peter Wittig, Germany’s UN ambassador, the current Security Council president, said “change in the Arab world” will be uppermost in the minds of the leaders — as was the case at last year’s session.

Egypt’s president Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who was sworn in on Jun 30 after the first democratic elections in the country’s modern history, will be addressing the 193-member assembly for the first time tomorrow. So too will Yemen’s president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took office in February after over a year of political turmoil and is now trying to steer the country’s transition to democracy.

Last year, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas stole the spotlight with his submission of an application for Palestine to become the 194th member state of the UN. The US, Israel’s closest ally, made clear that it would veto any application until the Palestinians and Israelis negotiate an end to their decades-long conflict.

So Abbas is expected to come to the General Assembly on Thursday with a more modest proposal — to upgrade Palestine’s status as a UN observer to a non-member observer state — but likely putting off the date for submission of a resolution to the assembly, where there are no vetoes, until after the presidential election in the US in November.

The Palestinians expect overwhelming support from the assembly for the enhanced UN status, which they hope will give broad international legitimacy to the pre-1967 lines as Palestine’s border and grant them access to UN agencies and possibly the International Criminal Court.

Another issue looming large over the ministerial session is Iran’s nuclear programme, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu convinced that the Iranians are close to developing a nuclear weapon — which Tehran vehemently denies.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, who will step down next year, makes his final speech to the General Assembly tomorrow.

Netanyahu speaks on Thursday, before a private meeting of senior diplomats, and possibly ministers, from the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, who are trying to rein in Iran’s nuclear aims.

On Sunday, Secretary- General Ban met Ahmadinejad and “urged Iran to take the measures necessary to build international confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme,” said UN spokesman Martin Nesirky.

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