“The concentration on the hot spots of the world – mainly the Middle East – is not without reason, and it shows that the U.N. is concerned about world peace,” said Liberian delegate Abu Kamara, who’s served as a diplomat in several Arab countries. “But African countries are lagging far behind the development goals, and these are critical issues that we believe should be highlighted, too, as we talk about the Middle East.”
Reports circulating at the conference seem determined to outdo one another in doom and gloom, as if to shock attendants into looking beyond Middle Eastern borders. More than 100 million people will die by 2030 if there’s no action on climate change, one report warns. Some 900 million people suffer from undernourishment when the world should be able to feed twice its population, according to another.
The tiny South Pacific island of Nauru tried to marshal attention to what it called “a staggering and irrevocable loss of biodiversity and our shared natural heritage.”
“This summer, we were treated to a new round of truly terrifying news: Arctic sea ice dropped to its lowest extent in recorded history, shattering the previous record by a jaw-dropping 18 percent,” Nauru President Sprent Dabwido told the assembly. “Some scientists are predicting that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in as little as five years.”
It’s unclear how many leaders heard Nauru’s distressing message; many had filed out after Obama’s address to the assembly Tuesday morning.
The U.S. president, naturally, had focused on the Middle East, eulogizing the slain American ambassador to Libya, defending free speech after Arab riots over an anti-Islam film and reiterating his call for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster.
Those themes were echoed – often with Syria as the only crisis mentioned by name – in the speeches of leaders from countries big and small. Finland lamented “the tragic situation” in Syria, Cyprus condemned the “violence and massacres of innocent civilians in Syria,” Indonesia called it a “human catastrophe” and Qatar ruffled feathers by calling for “all sorts of support” – presumably including weapons – to help the Syrians overthrow Assad.
“As in 2011, the Middle East and Northern Africa continue to be at the center of the attentions of the international community,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said in her speech to the assembly.
Syria has commanded so much attention this week that even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an annual topic of contention at the U.N., has been shoved to the background, leaving some delegates feeling like yesterday’s news.
Ambassador Hisham Badr, assistant foreign minister of Egypt, said, “There’s a lot of frustration” with the lack of discussion this week on reviving peace talks. He echoed the wistfulness of his African and Latin American counterparts in describing how Syria is detracting from important dialogue on other topics.
“Yes, of course Syria is very important and should be on the front burner,” Badr said. “But Palestine should not be forgotten, as the mother of all the problems in the region, and any attempts to divert from that are misguided.”