By Shaylyn MacKinnon
President Barack Obama gave his final address to the 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly last Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Recounting the progress made over the last eight years, Obama discussed the growth of the global economy, diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear issue, and opening relations between the United States and Cuba, only to name a few of the topics he highlighted during the address. His speech lasted 48 minutes and ended on an inspiring note as he entered the conclusion of his speech with a quote from a young Martin Luther King, Jr.; “Human progress never rolls on the wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God.” President Obama claimed that he has witnessed this spirit of progress throughout the world during his time in office. President Obama was the third of political leaders from 33 different countries to hold the floor on the first day of the assembly, one of which included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada who addressed the Assembly for his first time. With the line, “We’re Canadian and we’re here to help,” Trudeau set the tone for a more globally active Canada he promises to introduce to the world.
The U.N. General Assembly took place from Sept. 20 through Sept. 28, and it had an ambitious agenda to address in the weeklong event. From counter-terrorism to refugees to human rights, the Assembly intended to give every nation a voice, though many critics of the U.N. claim that is all the General Assembly does.
For those Drewids whom may not have taken Introduction to International Relations (or any Political Science course) since they’ve been at Drew, the United Nations General Assembly meets each year to discuss—and potentially take action on—global issues that affect the world and fall under the U.N.’s jurisdictions (though with so many conflicting opinions and fear of imposing one world view on vulnerable nations, action is rarely seen). The General Assembly is the only branch of the U.N. that has equal representation for each nation, thus allowing it to be the platform on which smaller or less influential nations can finally be heard over the booming voices of the world’s Super Powers. In principle it sounds good, however with over 140 presidents and prime ministers addressing the Assembly in an eight-day period, much may be lost in the mix of speeches.
How do Drewids feel about the General Assembly? Or rather, did Drewids even follow the event?
The answer to the latter would be a resounding ‘no’. From freshmen to seniors it seems that the General Assembly either evoked no interest or was not advertised enough toward Millennials. Alex Slotkin (’17), told The Drew Acorn, “I didn’t follow it. I didn’t know it was happening.” A phrase that was repeated by many Drewids, including Ben Schnieder (’19), though he also added that had he known, he likely wouldn’t have followed it anyway. Taylor and Sakinah Noble-Harris (’20), both admitted that they simply “did not follow it” because they had no interest in the event.
Josie Emanuelli (’19), blamed the overwhelming focus of media outlets on the 2016 election on why students were not aware of the Assembly. “I feel like it was overpowered by the election news.”
One student did happen to follow coverage of the Assembly. Gage Wheeler (’19), explained, “I followed it through CNN just because I’m an International Relations major. I just wanted to see how Obama talked about foreign policy.” Wheeler also added his own opinion on the Assembly, “[This year’s General Assembly was] a definite positive step forward. I mean this is the first meeting that they talked about Sustainable Development Goals.”
There is an evident lack of awareness on the happenings of the United Nations at Drew, even with the unique U.N. shortTREC. With events, like the debate watch party held earlier this week receiving such a large student presence, perhaps a group on campus could take it upon themselves to hold similar events focused on international events.
Professor Yordan, the head of the U.N. shortTREC, sat down with the Acorn to discuss his own thoughts on how the General Assembly went.
Yordan agreed with the Drew students that the 2016 election has overwhelmed media outlets and took away from the coverage of the Assembly; however, he also blamed the lack of legitimacy Americans have given towards the U.N. since its disapproval of the invasion of Iraq during the Bush administration as another reason why Americans in general (and not just Drewids) paid little or no attention to the event. Even in more recent years, it seems that the U.S. generally discredits the United Nations when its decisions that go against American interest. Yordan noted during his interview, “President Obama over the years has had a very tenuous relationship to the U.N. I think what it comes down to is he supported the U.N., but the U.N. has also created obstacles to American interests; for instance, President Obama has decided that he is going to use drone strikes to address terrorism concerns, while the U.N. doesn’t like that because, of course, those drone strikes are very controversial.” This disregard for the decisions of the U.N. has created a national apathetic sentiment toward the international organization–one that Professor Yordan hopes will change with future generations.
As for what were the most important issues discussed during the General Assembly, Professor Yordan said, “The two big items that they talked about were Syria, or the inability to address the Syrian conflict, [and] the refugee crisis.”
South Sudan, Yordan added, was a high profile topic during the Assembly. “Their political system is really unstable right now and the country is moving to civil war once again. The U.N. is trying to prevent that from taking place, the U.N. has a small force already in the county, but a lot of people are leaving South Sudan and flooding their neighbors. So it’s part of the refugee crisis that we’re talking about.” Other topics of note, according to Professor Yordan, include the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the environment (with the climate change treaty having taken effect last week).
During the interview, Yordan implied the importance of having a better global awareness on the Drew campus and throughout the United States as a whole, though how to promote this–be it through better U.S. media coverage of the United Nations or inspiring the personal desire to be more aware in each individual–is a difficult issue to address.