What was Said (And More Importantly, What Wasn’t) at the 70th UN General Assembly

In Obama’s address to the 70th meeting of the United Nations general assembly (UNGA), he reminded the member-state delegates, “Nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria.  When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs — it breeds human suffering on an order of magnitude that affects us all.”[1] Obama is right that Syria is proving to be the litmus test for our world’s ability to translate our compassion into action, and the subsequent meetings and summits of the UNGA revealed just how short the international community is falling.

Image Courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image Courtesy of United Nations Photo, © 2015, some rights reserved.

This year’s UNGA, an event described as the “greatest geopolitical spectacle on earth”, has been a particularly gripping annual start to the organization’s work.[2] Aside from the anniversary year celebrations, this meeting marked the reassessment of the UN’s millennium development goals, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s assessment that the Oslo Peace framework is no longer binding, the announcement of an anti-ISIS intelligence sharing coalition amongst Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and Putin’s reemergence from a decade-long absence at the general assembly. Importantly, the general assembly gathered at a juncture wherein refugee numbers in Europe are looking like the straw that broke the camel’s back in galvanizing international opinion against the bloody stalemate in Syria. Such a reaction can be found in the Russia and Iran-backed regime led by President Bashar al-Assad dueling with a slew of ‘rebel’ forces, some backed by the US, in a state also laid claim to by the Islamic State in areas in the North and East. With over 200,000 lives lost and around 11 million displaced (both figures subject to contention and ever-breaking reports), the extent of the tragedy goes far beyond the refugees who make it alive to neighboring countries and Europe. António Guterres, the sitting UN High Commissioner for Refugees, announced earlier this month that he will be stepping down from his post at the end of this year, fueling speculation as to who will be able to step into the demanding role amidst the what “has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”, in the words of Guterres himself.[3]

Nineteen countries have pledged 1.8 billion USD to alleviate the strain on refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan stemming from a German-led initiative to coordinate the financial might of the US, G-7, and GCC states.[4] The United States is the single largest donor of humanitarian aid to resettle refugees, amounting to nearly 500 billion USD.[5] In response to criticisms that the US has so far only absorbed a paltry 1,500 Syrians, White House press secretary Josh Earnest underlined the Obama administration’s interest in addressing the crisis by means of a political solution involving regime change and conflict resolution for Syria, rather than the stop-gap focus on resettlement. Secretary Kerry announced this month at a press conference with German foreign minister Steinmeier that the US will increase its refugee intake from 70,000 to 85,000 next year and to 100,000 in 2017. Such a move intends to show solidarity with European states bearing the brunt of the forced migration from neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey across the Mediterranean and beyond. Even Kerry’s proposal is subject to Congressional funding, and when pressed on the possibility for further intake the Secretary responded that, “We’re doing what we know we can manage immediately.” While Congressional Republicans have advocated enhanced security checks for those from Syria seeking asylum in the US, Hillary Clinton has said she thinks, ““We’re facing the worst refugee crisis since the end of world war two, and I think the United States has to do more.”[6][7] Similarly, fellow former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright urged the administration to go beyond even the new figures, saying, “Given the scale of the numbers and our capabilities, I don’t think we’re doing enough. I think we can do even more than that.”[8]

In a high-stakes game of “diplomatic poker” over Syria, as the New York Times dubbed it, the fact that the world’s nations must collectively deal with the increasingly international refugee issue is both accepted as an obvious principle but dismissed as a basis for a pragmatic solution. Both the United States and Russia are engaging in a blame game for the state of the conflict in Syria, and as a result, the proliferation of refugees from the war-torn state. On the refugee issue especially, far from the European discourse wherein the realities of displaced peoples loom large, the US and Russia publicly spin in rhetorical circles around each other, despite the fact that discussions towards an international settlement in Syria have been ongoing for over four years. Obama slammed Russia both explicitly and by general reference, citing powers that, “assert themselves in ways that contravene international law.”[9] In turn, Putin criticized the US for its “egotism” and overbearing role in past interventions in the Middle East.[10] Though President Obama and many other major powers have insisted that talks must stipulate the departure of Assad and his government, Russia continues to hold that propping up an Assad-led state is the surest way to defend against the encroachment of ISIS.[11] Reports have alleged that the US and its allies rejected a proposal that included the removal of Assad in 2012, proving embarrassing for Obama, whose subsequent ‘red line’ pledges and unwillingness to establish a no-fly zone or take other proactive measures have been a constant source of criticism.[12] The crisis is more internationalized than ever before, yet the state of relations amongst the two UN Security Council bulwarks is such that the Russians and Americans have publicly argued over who invited whom to meet privately while the two leaders were in New York City this week.

The futility of this political posturing is well-exemplified by Secretary of State John Kerry’s joint statement with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, wherein Kerry seemingly endorsed Russia’s bombing of targets on the ground in Syria which appear to be targeting rebel groups backed by the US.[13] Still amidst some confusion, US officials have since accused Russian actions of “pouring gasoline on the fire”, to quote Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.[14] Immediately after this press conference, a separate UN summit on migration convened to little fanfare and adjourned early.[15] When Commissioner Guterres was asked about Hungary’s use of military and police force deployed against incoming refugees, he responded that,  “refugees should be received in Europe with a welcoming spirit, not with barbed wire or violence,” adding that it was a “total consensus” between every the member-states at the summit that “human rights and human dignity of migrants need to preserved in all circumstances.”[16] The problem is that, aside from the ineffectual nature of the United Nations as evidenced the first few days of the general assembly, even when it is clear values are being undermined by the actions of member-states, as in Hungary’s treatment of refugees or Russian military action directed at different targets than those stated, the response is underwhelming politics-as-usual, little more than sound bytes for the 24-hour news cycle.

In Obama’s address to the UNGA, he argued that the world’s “concern for [refugees] is driven not just by conscience, but should also be drive by self-interest.  For helping people who have been pushed to the margins of our world is not mere charity, it is a matter of collective security. And the purpose of this institution is not merely to avoid conflict, it is to galvanize the collective action that makes life better on this planet.”[17] However, although Obama is right to recognize that population movements are related to security and conflict resolution, the avenues the UN is pursuing to address these far-reaching international predicaments does not mirror this- discrete meetings, commissions, lines of rhetoric for soft “humanitarian” issues and hard issues of “security”, ignoring that it is the lack of the latter which creates the former. Typically, migration is viewed through an economic lens, focusing on development issues and the movement of monies across borders, and forced migration issues through a humanitarian one. In a crisis moment, both media and governments are concerned about the pressing problems of housing and registering bodies crossing borders. The fact that so little has been accomplished for the relief of the over 4 million refugees (in addition to the 7.6 million displaced within Syria) is disappointing. It is the result of segregating the discussions of responding to the refugee crisis from the debate over a political solution to address the very situation from which these peoples are forced to flee. It is the result of a disconnect between the rhetoric about international solutions to international problems, the shared values binding humanity, the belief in the ability of diplomacy to alleviate conflict- the very reasons the UN was founded 70 years ago and continues to inspire- and the realities of a tragic quagmire in Syria. The great powers whom the international system has looked to for leadership had not just failed to play a constructive role in ending the conflict, but have used the ongoing strife to further goals in the region. Though the possibilities for a settlement and what will become of the Syrian state are many, there is no question that a coordinated effort replete with uncomfortable compromises and free from childish squabbling will be necessary to broker a lasting peace. We must hold this hand in hand with the sobering discussions on how to most appropriately and humanely share the burden of the influx of refugees, for the threat to international order is surely not these desperate peoples themselves, but the inability of our international system to effectively, or even to not counterproductively, address today’s challenges. The ongoing tragedies in Syria have left in their wake a crime scene bleeding the world over, but we must not let the efficacy of our international community die in the face of our ongoing failure to live up to our stated values.


[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/28/remarks-president-obama-united-nations-general-assembly

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2015/sep/28/united-nations-un-general-assembly-putin-obama-hollande-world-leaders

[3] http://www.unhcr.org/53ff76c99.html

[4] http://news.yahoo.com/latest-un-chief-scolds-south-sudan-leader-over-141229784.html

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-gives-419-million-more-to-aid-syrian-refugees/2015/09/21/7f0157c6-607e-11e5-8e9e-dce8a2a2a679_story.html

[6] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2015/09/21/hill-republicans-move-fast-to-check-obama-plan-for-more-syrian-refugees/

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/sep/20/syria-refugees-30000-john-kerry-hillary-clinton

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/madeleine-albright-refugees_5609b351e4b0768126fec193

[9] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/28/remarks-president-obama-united-nations-general-assembly

[10] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/28/putin-un-general-assembly-speech

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/29/world/middleeast/un-general-assembly-syria-isis-refugees.html

[12] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/15/west-ignored-russian-offer-in-2012-to-have-syrias-assad-step-aside, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2013/09/06/president-obama-and-the-red-line-on-syrias-chemical-weapons/

[13] http://www.vox.com/2015/9/30/9429039/syria-russia-kerry-lavrov, http://www.vox.com/2015/9/30/9423229/russia-bombing-isis-syria

[14] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/sep/30/russia-launches-first-airstrikes-against-targets-in-syria-says-us

[15] http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/01/the-u-n-migration-summit-that-wasnt/

[16] http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/10/01/the-u-n-migration-summit-that-wasnt/

[17] https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/28/remarks-president-obama-united-nations-general-assembly


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