Africa at the UN General Assembly
September 18, 2009
The 64th UN General Assembly meeting is under way in New York, with its centerpiece event, the ministerial session, due to begin on Wednesday, September 23. African leaders are filing into Washington, D.C., and New York City over the coming days in preparation for the annual flurry of diplomatic activity and their chance to address world leaders at UN headquarters. Their interests and priorities differ widely across the continent, but there are several areas of common interest.
Q1: What issues do African leaders hope to raise at the United Nations?
A1: The forthcoming Copenhagen summit on climate change looms large over this year’s proceedings at the United Nations. Africa’s leaders have been vocal in their insistence that they should play a central part in the negotiations toward finding a successor to the Kyoto agreement. They will have the chance to express this view at a special UN summit meeting on climate control on September 22. Africa has the misfortune of being the continent least responsible for global warming but the one most likely to suffer its negative consequences. Its leaders have been trying to frame a common negotiating position, believing that a unified response is the only way of ensuring that they are taken seriously at Copenhagen in December. According to the African Union (AU), the continent needs a $300-billion investment in green technology to offset the expected environmental impact of climate change. In response, some African leaders have been demanding some kind of annual compensation from the world’s main polluting countries. Various figures have been floated—anything between $67 billion and $200 billion. Africa’s climate negotiations team, led by President Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, has already issued tough statements and has threatened to walk out of the Copenhagen summit if it does not get a fair hearing. The UN summit will be a useful gauge of how the negotiations are progressing.
Q2: What other African issues have made it onto the General Assembly agenda?
A2: Packed within the agenda for this session of the UN General Assembly are items on how best to develop agriculture and promote food security, two interlinked issues of great importance to the African continent. There will also be discussions about good governance, a theme that has featured prominently in President Obama’s dialogue with Africa since he took office. Specifically, there will be a debate about the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), an AU initiative that includes a system for African governments to assess the performance of their peers. The so-called African Peer Review Mechanism was hailed as a great idea when it was set up six years ago, but it has since been criticized for being toothless.
Q3: President Obama is due to hold a lunch specifically for African leaders. Who has been invited?
A3: President Obama has sought to reach out to Africa’s leaders since taking office, and the United Nations will provide another venue for him to continue this policy of engagement. The president is due to hold a special lunch, and economic development will top the agenda. The invitation list is a good guide to who is in and who is out of favor in Washington. A total of 43 leaders who have “demonstrated a commitment to democratic principles” have been asked to attend. Unsurprisingly, Presidents Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe will be missing. So too will be the Eritrean leader, Isaias Afwerki, who the United States accuses of financing and equipping Islamist fighters in Somalia. President Mamadou Tandja of Niger has fallen from favor since he amended the constitution to allow himself a possible third term in office. It is thought that the leaders of Madagascar and Guinea, who came to power in coups, will also be excluded. In addition to the lunch for African leaders, there will be an event to honor the world’s leading contributors of troops to UN peacekeeping operations, which will include Nigeria, Senegal, and South Africa, among others.
Q4: There has been a lot of interest in Mu’ammar Qadhafi’s speech to the United Nation. What is he likely to say?
A4: In short, no one knows. Colonel Qadhafi is predictably unpredictable. This will be the Libyan leader’s first official visit to the United Nations. It comes at a politically sensitive time, following the recent release by the Scottish government of the Libyan national, Abdelbeset Ali al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. Washington has cautioned Colonel Qadhafi to choose his words carefully, but its request drew a sharp response from the Libyan foreign office, which accused the United States of trying to dictate their leader’s speech. To add spice to the event, Colonel Qadhafi will address the general assembly immediately after President Obama, thanks to UN protocol, which arranges speakers by order of surname. Regardless of American disquiet, Libya will feature prominently at this session of the UN General Assembly. Its minister of AU affairs, Ali Treki, was elected as president of the General Assembly in June 2009 and is therefore the host of this year’s gathering.