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Speakers list at UN for a world in tumult: Obama, Hollande, Ahmadinijad, Chavez, Mugabe

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The UN General Assembly has opened amid global storm clouds and economic gloom.

Presidents, Prime Ministers, Kings and Potentates gather in New York for the 67th annual session to the backdrop of  spreading violence in the Middle East, a looming nuclear weapons program in Iran, a humanitarian crisis in much of the developing world, and the undertow of worldwide recession, delegates will be confronted and likely confounded by challenges which have long- simmered but are now at a boiling point.

Surprisingly the new president of the Assembly is Serbia’s Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic who was elected after a strong Russian lobbying effort for the year-long post. Though the youngest Assembly President ever at 37, (not to be confused with the Secretary General), British-educated Jeremic has become well-known for his lawyerly Security Council presentations on the issue of the breakaway Serb province of Kosovo.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, Iran, before leaving for New York to attend the UN General Assembly. / Vahid Salemi / AP

Imagine that less than twenty years following the breakup of former Yugoslavia and the subsequent indictment and conviction of many Serb war criminals in international courts, that a Serb, albeit from a different democratic government, would gain the prestige to lead the Assembly is quite a diplomatic feat. Significantly two of his advisors include former Russian Premier Yevgeny Primakov (a once legendary KGB Mid-East expert) and former Spanish  Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos of the Socialist Party.

As for the actual debate, the speakers list includes the Presidents and Prime Ministers from the UN’s 193 member states.   U.S. President Barack Obama, France’s Francois Hollande,  South Africa’s Jacob Zuma, and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai will speak on the first day along with the Kings of Morocco and Jordan.

Controversary shadows the speakers list with Mahmoud Ahmadinijad of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime dictator among them.

Faces new to the Assembly include Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood government is setting new foreign policy parameters for his country, and Burma’s /Myanmar’s leader who is wisely trying to break his country’s self-imposed isolation.

A blizzard of 168 Agenda  Items crowd the debate and ensuing Assembly sessions into December with the perennial items Question of Palestine, Sustainable Development, Risk of Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East, Prevention of an Arms Rave in Outer Space,. and overviews of humanitarian, human rights, and peacekeeping budgets.  My favorite remains Question of the Malagasy Islands of Glorieuses, Juan de Nova, Europa, and Bassas da India, places discovered in the 15th century by Portuguese mariners and  still in a legal limbo status?

Among the agenda items are but a backdrop to the wider debate, poignant political issues such as Syria’s ongoing civil war, the trashing of Western and especially American embassies in the Muslim world, and the perennial showdown with Iran are key points of concern.

Syria’s raging conflict, knocked off the headlines by mob violence and focused Al Qaida attacks throughout the Middle East, and the ramifications of the Arab Spring political movements, are yet to be resolved.

So too are the pressing humanitarian crises in Somalia, Haiti, Darfur and much of Central Africa which much of the world has so conveniently forgotten.

As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told a prayer service at the onset of the new Assembly, “Conflict continues to claim the lives of innocents from Syria to Central Africa to Afghanistan. In all regions, communities are facing economic hardship and political uncertainty,” adding that both global unemployment and intolerance are also on the rise.

“Peace and security is a prerequisite for the stability needed for global economic growth, sustainable development and social progress,” stated the new General Assembly President Jeremic.

Nonetheless those intractable problems of global peace and security usually go before the Security Council where the Damocles sword of the veto has led to political deadlock between the West and the Russians and the Chinese on key issues such as Syria. Will this change?  Not likely, especially in the countdown to the American elections and the near paralysis of U.S. foreign policy.

Though the General Assembly has passed tough resolutions on the Syrian situation, for example, the decisions are not legally binding upon the membership.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told correspondents, “This year’s general debate will be among our busiest ever… this reflects the tumultuous times in which we live; a time of turmoil and transition.”

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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