x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN braces for another turbulent presidency

Ali Abdessalam Treki, a former Libyan foreign minister, shares his outspoken predecessor's strained background with western powers.

NEW YORK // Western diplomats had been breathing sighs of relief, three months ahead of Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, the outspoken president of the UN General Assembly, completing his one-year term in office. But following this week's election of Ali Abdessalam Treki, the former Libyan foreign minister, as his successor, it remains unclear whether the next UN session will be any less turbulent. The assembly president role has traditionally been ceremonial, but Mr D'Escoto, from Nicaragua, used his pulpit to advance a leftist agenda, attack US foreign policy and speak out for the poor and marginalised. He controversially hugged Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on the assembly podium last year and has been branded an "Israel-hater" for criticising the Jewish state. While such showmanship has irked the world's traditional western power-brokers, steadfast support for the Palestinian cause has won Mr D'Escoto fans across the Middle East and other parts of the developing world. The five permanent members of the Security Council - Britain, France, the US, Russia and China - exercise great influence over the UN's big decisions, but an assembly president is chosen by all 192 member nations. This week's election was little more than a rubber-stamping exercise, because the post rotates annually between five regional groups: Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Western Europe and Others, and Asia. The upcoming 64th UN session is Africa's turn, and Mr Treki won the backing of the 53-nation African Union. The assembly allows sidelined states to show their collective muscle and secure top jobs for such candidates as Mr D'Escoto and Mr Treki. Mr D'Escoto, a Catholic priest, identifies with the Sandinista government, with which he served as foreign minister throughout the 1980s, and such Latin American revolutionary figures as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. The 76-year-old has sought to wrest power from the Security Council and democratise the UN, put the Palestinian issue high on the global agenda and criticise US "aggression" in Iraq and Afghanistan. Following Mr Treki's election by acclamation, Mr D'Escoto said his successor would lead with equivalent "passion and determination" and seek to restore the UN's "authority and leadership on the world stage during these perilous times". Mr Treki does not meet journalists until today, although his acceptance speech made reference to the incumbent's priorities: climate change, the financial crisis and "reforming the Security Council". While the 71-year-old has a more traditional diplomatic pedigree than his predecessor, having represented Libya at the UN, he shares Mr D'Escoto's strained background with western powers. Libya has embraced a détente with the US, but it spent decades as a pariah state under Muammer Qadafi's leadership, implicated in the bombings of a Berlin nightclub in 1986 and Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary general, was one of many to welcome Mr Treki, stressing the appointee's "wide-ranging diplomatic experience" and the need for members to "achieve consensus". Ahmed al Jarman, the UAE ambassador to the UN, welcomed the president-elect while warning of the need to address the "escalating global financial and economic crunch" alongside such long-standing concerns as nuclear disarmament and food security. Christian Wenaweser, Lichtenstein's ambassador to the UN and head of the group of International Criminal Court members, urged Mr Treki not to make the same mistake as Mr D'Escoto and criticise the court's proceedings. Mr D'Escoto joined Arab and African diplomats to attack the prosecution of Sudan's president, Omar al Bashir, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, as "absurd" and politically motivated. Mr Wenaweser said the comments were "counterproductive" and advised Mr Treki to "limit his activities" within the more traditional boundaries of a General ­Assembly president. Although Mr D'Escoto has only months before his successor takes the reins on Sept 15, the Maryknoll priest is likely to ruffle more feathers this month during the UN summit on the financial crisis. The June 24-26 parley is supposed to focus on the developing world's economic woes, but representatives of big economies fear it will become a platform for speakers to denounce capitalism. Diplomats from the so-called "Group of 20" large developed and developing economies have told Reuters that Mr D'Escoto's economic summit will be a "joke," a "tragedy" and a "waste of time". A draft outcome document criticised the "anti-values of greed, individualism, and exclusion" and the "mindless accumulation of wealth" and highlights the importance of "stewardship of the Earth for all living things". But such unconventional terminology means the summit is not likely to attract senior G20 officials, and receive high-level delegates only from among Mr D'Escoto's allies, such as the presidents of ­Bolivia, Evo Morales, and Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega. Mr D'Escoto's spokesman, Enrique Yeves, said the assembly boss was "not affected" by critical murmurings in the corridors of the UN, adding: "He is a political figure, and this is part of the political process." jreinl@thenational.ae