The List

Five Stories to Watch for U.N. Week

What to expect when Obama, Hu, Qaddafi, and 120 other world leaders descend on New York.

CLIMATE CLIMAX

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When: Tuesday

What: Heads of state from over 100 countries are scheduled to attend Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s “high level meeting” on climate change. The idea behind the meeting is to generate some political momentum ahead of the critical international climate talks in Copenhagen this December. This momentum is badly needed:  The Kyoto Protocols will expire in 2012, and it will likely take a few years for countries to ratify a new climate change treaty.

Last time the secretary general hosted one of these confabs was in September 2007. Back then, heads of state from the two top emitters, China and the United States, didn’t even bother to show up. The atmospherics, as it were, are different this time around. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao plan to attend the meeting. The Chinese government in particular is playing up Hu’s scheduled speech as an “important address” that will lay out policies China is willing to undertake to combat climate change. Because China recently surpassed the United States as the world’s largest carbon emitter, environmentalists will be watching closely.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE WORLD

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When: Thursday

What: For the first time since the United Nations was created in 1945, a sitting U.S. president will chair a session of the Security Council. This is partly the result of a happy coincidence. The position of Security Council “president” is one that rotates between all 15 members on a monthly basis.

The United States just happens to hold the presidency during the month of September when world leaders descend on Turtle Bay.  Thursday’s meeting will focus on nonproliferation, but don’t expect a new round of sanctions on Iran or North Korea. According to U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, the meeting will focus on disarmament, nuclear trafficking, and the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which is up for review next year.

The U.S. mission circulated a draft text of a four-page resolution last week spelling out specific ways the council can support the international non-proliferation regime. This included a paragraph stating that a country’s “right” to civilian nuclear technology is contingent on fulfilling other obligations to the non-proliferation treaty -- a clear reference to Iran.

We will probably have to wait until the morning of the meeting to find out the specific contours of the draft resolution -- or if a resolution will be voted on at all. Another likely outcome is a so-called “presidential statement,” which is a mechanism to offer a consensus view of the council without getting into the specifics of a resolution text.

OBAMA THE ORATOR OR OBAMA THE WONK?

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When: Wednesday

What: Obama’s address to the United Nations this week won’t be his first, but it will certainly be his most-anticipated. The question for many U.N. watchers is how the president will frame the U.S.-U.N. relationship. In a speech in August, Susan Rice described the United Nations as an indispensable institution that advances American interests and the cause of universal rights. She further described how the United Nations is on the “front lines” of a new era of American engagement.

Needless to say, this is a significant departure from the attitude of the previous administration. The question, though, is how specific the president will get in elucidating how the U.N. does, as Rice said, “promote America’s core security interests.” For example, Rice has stated repeatedly that her top priority as ambassador is to bolster the United Nations’ overburdened and under-resourced peacekeeping operations. To that end, Obama will host a meeting for delegations from the U.N.’s top troop-contributing countries. Peacekeeping advocates will be watching to see how, if at all, the president uses this platform to communicate the value of peacekeeping to U.S. interests.

QADDAFI IN THE HOUSE

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When: Thursday

What: For the first time since assuming control of Libya in a coup 40 years ago, Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi will attend the U.N. summit in New York. Even prior to setting foot in Turtle Bay, Qaddafi’s trip has sucked up a quite a bit of media attention. His plans to pitch a Bedouin-style tent on Libyan-owned property across the river in Englewood, New Jersey, didn’t go over well with municipal authorities, who found pretext to deny him a permit.

And then, of course, there’s the hero’s welcome he gave to convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi upon his repatriation on Aug. 20 -- a spectacle that Susan Rice described as offending “virtually every American.” Qaddafi has also used the run-up to his U.N. trip to settle some old scores -- with Switzerland. Last year, Swiss authorities arrested his son and daughter-in-law for allegedly beating up a domestic servant. Qaddafi has responded in kind by circulating a nonsensical resolution to have the country abolished.  

Antics aside, Qaddafi has perfectly legitimate reasons to make 2009 his first trip to First Avenue. Veteran Libyan diplomat Ali Triki will serve as president of the 64th General Assembly, an annually elected position that rotates between the five geographical groups. He won the spot after receiving the backing of the Africa group on Sept. 15.  Libya also currently sits on the Security Council, which means that Qaddafi will be seated across the room from Obama during the Council’s non-proliferation meeting. Observers are waiting to see whether the mercurial leader will use his allotted five minutes to grandstand on topics beyond non-proliferation. Could he be this year’s Hugo Chávez?

WHICH CHINA?

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When: All week

What: For the first time since the official Chinese seat at the United Nations was restored to the People’s Republic of China in 1971, a Chinese president will be a near ubiquitous presence during U.N. week. Expect to see President Hu Jintao at the climate summit, the Security Council meeting on non-proliferation, the General Assembly, and later in the week at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. 

The question is, which China will show up? “If China addresses concerns about its trade imbalance with the United States and Europe, makes constructive compromises that would move the Doha round forward, or makes any numerical commitments to carbon reduction with a timeline,” explains Rand Corp. expert Scott Harold, “this would be a clear sign that China is ready to play a more substantial role in global governance.”

On the other hand, should Hu’s speeches show a preference for addressing issues surrounding terrorism (i.e., recent ethnic domestic disturbances in Xinjang) or “territorial integrity” (i.e. nationalist movements in Taiwan and Tibet), this optimism might be misplaced. Still, if the climate sentiments expressed by Chinese authorities prior to the meeting are any indication, September 2009 may be something of a coming-out party for Beijing.

The List

The World's Most Unruly Parliaments

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to admonish Rep. Joe Wilson for yelling "You lie!" during President Obama's recent address to Congress. But in some parts of the world, outbursts like Wilson's would barely raise an eyebrow.

SOUTH KOREA

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Source of tension: Korean democracy is a full-contact sport in which debates between the dominant Grand National Party (GNP) and its opponents over foreign policy and media freedom are frequently resolved with fists … or whatever heavy object is in the room.

Low points: South Korea’s first internationally noticed punch-up occurred in 2004 over the impeachment of then President Roh Moo-hyun. MPs loyal to Roh attempted to block what they saw as a coup by refusing to leave the assembly’s podium. Scuffles broke out as security tried to remove the unruly delegates, who began throwing punches and tossing furniture. (Meanwhile, an unidentified man crashed a car into the outside of the building.) The offending MPs later got down on their knees to apologize to the nation.

But the Roh impeachment battle was just a prelude to the December 2008 war over a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. After the GNP submitted the bill to a parliamentary committee on trade, attempting to rush it through before Barack Obama took office, opposition MPs attempted to break into the locked committee room with sledgehammers and an electric saw. The terrified lawmakers inside the room barricaded the door with furniture and fought the intruders with fire extinguishers. TV cameras broadcast the images, including one of a MP bleeding profusely from the face, to viewers around the world. A compromise was reached, but only after the opposition occupied the assembly building for 12 days.

The incident apparently didn’t satisfy the blood lust of Korean lawmakers, though. A debate over media privatization in July devolved into an all-out fistfight.

TAIWAN

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Source of tension: South Korea might be the current world leader in parliamentary brawling, but the all-time champion is probably Taiwan, which has a world-renowned tradition of legislative violence dating back to the late 1980s. Parliamentary riots, which were usually instigated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when its main rival, the nationalist Kuomintang, won't budge on a contentious issue, have been a common occurrence for years. These fights are usually pre-planned for maximum media coverage and have actually been used by the DPP as a sort of debating tactic for much of its history.

Low points: The best Taiwanese parliamentary fights can involve up to 50 people throwing punches, shoes, water, food, and microphones over issues ranging from election procedure to ties with mainland China. In one infamous incident, an MP was suspended for six months after punching a female colleague in the face. In May 2005, a Kuomintang parliamentarian sponsored a motion on a bill about transport links with the mainland only to have it snatched out of her hand and stuffed in her mouth. A few months later a Kuomintang legislator was hospitalized and given more than 100 stitches on his face after three DPP rivals forced him to the floor and beat him with plastic sticks. At one point, a minister proposed that legislators be made to take a breathalyzer test before entering debate.

The brawls have made Taiwan's parliament a bit of a laughingstock in Asia, and the mainland Chinese media has particularly relished reporting on them. After a crushing election defeat in 2008, the DPP formally renounced the practice of parliamentary brawling, citing the damage done to Taiwan's image.

UKRAINE

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Source of tension: Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s Supreme Rada has gotten particularly ugly as members of the ruling Orange Coalition have scrapped with their pro-Russian rivals.

Low points: Parliamentary disruptions were hardly uncommon in the Rada before 2004, but things have gotten particularly ugly in recent years. After the pro-Russian Party of the Regions won a parliamentary election in 2006, pro-Orange parliamentarians attempted to prevent their leader, Viktor Yanukovych, from being elected prime minister by blasting sirens and throwing eggs. Predictably, punches were thrown and one pro-government legislator was reportedly picked up and thrown across the room by a rival.

Other ugly moments include a shoving match involving dozens of lawmakers during a debate on NATO membership in 2008, only a few months after the interior minister slapped the mayor of Kiev in the face and kicked him in the groin during a government agency meeting (the minister said the mayor deserved the “manly slap”). The same minister was suspended this year after a drunken brawl with security guards at Frankfurt Airport.

BRITAIN

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Source of tension: While fistfights are rare in the British Parliament, question time has provided some classic moments of rudeness over the years as backbenchers attempt to score points against the prime minister and ruling party.

Low points: Some prime ministers, Tony Blair for instance, relish the chance to go up against the opposition. Others, like current Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has been described to his face as transitioning “from Stalin to Mr. Bean,” absolutely despise it. Jeering and booing are common reactions from the back bench, as are meticulously crafted put-downs. It takes quite a bit to actually be asked to withdraw a remark. One MP was formally rebuked for describing a colleague as "a second-rate Ms. Marple.”

In the past week, Joe Wilson’s outburst has frequently been compared to British parliamentary behavior, though ironically, calling someone a liar in parliament is usually frowned upon. (Winston Churchill coined the euphemism “terminological inexactitude” to get around this taboo.) Wilson would probably have been asked to withdraw his remark if he had said it during Prime Minister's Questions, though likening Margaret Thatcher to a “sex-starved boa constrictor," as Labour MP Tony Banks once did, is apparently fine.

AUSTRALIA

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Source of tension: The Australian Parliament inherited Britain’s tradition of “Prime Minister’s Questions” and cutting parliamentary debate style, but in many ways has even less decorum.

Low points: The colorful insult is something of an art in Australian politics and the undisputed master was former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who famously referred to opponents as “scumbags,” “rabble,” “foul-mouth pugs,” “intellectual hobos,” and “brain-damaged” during debates.

Politicians are occasionally ejected from question time for insults like “get back under your rock” and “you are a grub,” but the tradition lives on with leaders like former Foreign Minister Alexander Downer who, in 2007, described Labour Party leader and now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as mealy-mouthed, duplicitous, and “a boy in a bubble.”

Ducking question time doesn’t help much either. When Rudd tried to avoid the ritual in order to visit a flood-damaged town this February, opposition parliamentarians brought a cardboard cut-out of him into parliament to hurl abuse at.