From afar, the annual United Nations General Assembly might seem excruciatingly boring, with dark-suited world leaders reading hours upon hours of speeches extolling their own nations’ achievements and paying lip service to crises that defy easy resolution.
Up close, that’s still true.
Only half-kidding. The so-called UNGA – nicknamed “FUN”-GA for its lack thereof – might not bring the high drama of a reality TV show, but there are still plenty of breakups, blowups, walkouts, grandstanding and other moments when protocol goes by the wayside.
Here are a few of the controversial moments from this year’s General Assembly:
Castro doesn’t mince words in his first U.N. speech
Cuban President Raúl Castro received a long round of applause and scattered cheers when he took the podium for his first speech before the General Assembly, which was especially noteworthy because of the island’s recent, tentative détente with the United States after a five-decade break in relations.
However, the warm welcome was a tad premature – the communist leader immediately lashed out at his fellow member states for failing to produce much beyond an “illusion” of the human rights, justice and development promised in the U.N. charter. He accused world superpowers of allowing millions to remain hungry, illiterate and at risk of death by curable illnesses while they spent billions on their militaries.
Castro railed against the Western colonialism and imperialism he claims are at the roots of today’s conflicts, and he blamed climate change on the superpowers’ “irrational and unsustainable consumerism.”
Members of the audience looked on with facial expressions ranging from disdain to mild amusement.
On the plus side, Castro’s speech was fairly short. After all, his brother and predecessor Fidel Castro still holds the record for the longest General Assembly speech in history, clocking in at 4 ½ hours in 1960 after the classic opener: “We shall endeavor to be brief.”
Palestinian flag flies for the first time at the United Nations
For the first time, the Palestinian flag joined other nations’ standards outside the U.N. headquarters in New York, thanks to a General Assembly vote last month to raise it in recognition of Palestine’s status since 2012 as a “non-member observer state.” Israel, the United States and six other nations voted against the motion. Another 45 abstained.
After a ceremony attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian-Americans snapped selfies in front of the flagpole, many wearing traditional dress and black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh scarves.
Stateless Palestinians were clear-eyed that the move was more about symbolism than substance, however. In truth, there’s nothing new about the moribund peace process, and analysts say that a two-state solution appears more elusive than ever.
As if to underscore the desperation surrounding the unresolved issue of Palestinian statehood, Abbas threatened in his General Assembly speech to ignore longstanding agreements with Israel that he said were “continually violated.” Faced with Israel’s internationally condemned settlement activities and other breaches of agreements, Abbas said, the Palestinians were no longer bound by the agreements and “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power.”
Neither Arab nor Israeli analysts took the declaration seriously, noting that Abbas in the past has threatened to dissolve the authority and give Israel responsibility for the West Bank in the absence of a peace deal.
Samantha Power skips Netanyahu’s annual attack on Iran
Pundits who thought that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bombastic opposition to the Iranian nuclear accord would die down now that the deal is done were wrong. In his General Assembly speech, Netanyahu repeated the same warnings about the dangers of an Iran with more cash from sanctions relief, only this time there were fewer listeners. Not even the U.S. envoy to the U.N., Samantha Power, stuck around to hear him.
Before a half-empty assembly hall and a much bigger – and snarkier – audience on Twitter, Netanyahu returned to his signature rhetorical style, likening the regime in Tehran to “a rapacious tiger” and warning that “unleashed and unmuzzled, Iran will go on the prowl, devouring more and more prey.” He also reminded the world about Israel’s contributions, claiming credit for the cultivation of cherry tomatoes, sparking a tongue-in-cheek fact-checking frenzy online.
But by far the most striking part of the speech was Netanyahu’s 40 seconds of silence – some called it a “pause for dramatic glare” – to draw attention to what he called the world’s “deafening silence” in the face of Iran’s threats against Israel. Supporters praised it as a powerful flourish; critics called it “the best and most important part” of the speech.
Iranian hardliners slam foreign minister for shaking Obama’s hand
Given the newly inked Iranian nuclear deal, many U.N. observers were eager to hear from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who had a number of appearances and meetings scheduled for his third trip to New York since taking office in 2013.
But instead of staying until Sept. 29 as planned, Rouhani flew home midweek to deal with the escalating dispute with archenemy Saudi Arabia over a stampede at the annual Hajj that killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims. Rouhani gave his General Assembly address but canceled a news conference where he would’ve faced tough questions on the Iranian end of the nuclear accord.
As it turned out, a handshake was the most notable part of Iran’s presence. In what both Iranian and U.S. officials call an unscripted moment, President Barack Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif crossed paths at a luncheon and shook hands – a diplomatic nicety unseen between the two nations since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif immediately caught flak from hardliners back home, some of whom demanded an apology and an investigation into his conduct.
Ukraine attacks “double-tongued” Putin
Though Moscow’s military escalation in Syria stole the limelight this week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko strode into the assembly hall determined to remind the world of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s incursions closer to home.
The conflict – sparked by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and fighting in the eastern part of the country – is still unsettled, but it receives scant attention anymore because a cease-fire is in place for now. In his speech, Poroshenko scoffed at Putin’s efforts to portray himself as a coalition-building, terrorist-fighting leader: “Cool story but really hard to believe!”
And then Poroshenko hammered his Russian nemesis with a series of pointed questions, including: How can you urge an anti-terrorist coalition if you inspire terrorism right in front of your door? How can you talk about peace and legitimacy if you policy is war via puppet governments? How can you demand respect for all if you don’t have respect for anyone?
The Russian delegation stormed out, as did the Ukrainians when Putin spoke earlier in the week.
U.N. shelves a plan for independent human rights inquiry in Yemen
Another talked-about U.N. development came at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, but it made ripples among the diplomats gathered in New York: Western governments scrapped a planned international inquiry into human rights violations in the bloody conflict in Yemen.
Intense lobbying by Saudi Arabia, whose coalition is carrying out airstrikes in Yemen to rout Houthi rebels, appeared to pay off when the Netherlands withdrew a draft resolution that would’ve asked for independent investigators to examine the myriad reports of human rights violations in a war that’s killed more than 2,300 people.
In a move that outraged human rights groups and Yemen experts, the Dutch resolution was replaced by one that will allow Yemen’s exiled, Saudi-backed government to conduct its own inquiry with only “technical assistance” from the U.N. rights council.
Many of the world’s most prominent human rights advocates took to social media to condemn the outcome, describing it as a “disgrace,” and a “shameful capitulation,” and warning that it virtually guarantees “a whitewash” of the atrocities in Yemen.