Russia-US: Sergey Lavrov will hear the Icelandic gavel at the UN

14:03 26.09.2018 • Maxim Dodonov , International Affairs journal, from New York

Before the start of the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, the United Nations’ official website published a number of interesting stories, one of which said that the president’s gavel, an inalienable part of official UN meetings which declares the beginning and end of meetings and the approval of the agenda or resolutions, was made of Icelandic pear wood in 2005. The choice fell on the wood from that country because the Althing, the “grandfather” of all modern parliaments, was convened in 930 in Iceland. But what was it that signalled the UN decisions before? Interestingly, there were two other gavels that were broken in the heat of debates. The first one, according to the GA website, was smashed by GA president Frederick Boland in October 1960, when he attempted to call to order the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. What kind of reception is in store for the Russian foreign minister, whose address to the participants in the political debate is scheduled for Friday? Will the UN wish to listen to and hear Russia as a whole?

The debates are starting against the background of the Russian-Turkish agreement to create a demilitarised area in Idlib and the Israeli-assisted shooting down of Russia’s Ilyushin Il-20 plane in Syria. But even under these circumstances, Russia is willing to talk to and cooperate with its long-standing partner. Before leaving for New York, Sergey Lavrov recalled: “In late 2016, when the outgoing Obama administration began promoting resolutions on the Palestinian-Israeli settlement at the UN Security Council, which, in effect, imposed ‘artificial’ parameters and predetermined the results of the talks for the parties, Russia did not support this US initiative, for it believed that it would inevitably lead to serious tension locally without a real payoff. This would be counterproductive. During a long telephone conversation with the US Secretary of State in late December, we explained this Russian position, which had also taken into account Benjamin Netanyahu’s request. We noted that we did not want the outgoing administration to slam the door and create problems for subsequent efforts in this area.”

Before the General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres focused on Idlib, saying that the Erdogan-Putin agreement on a demilitarised buffer zone would help to protect three million people, including one million children, from a disaster, if implemented properly.

At the same time, Russian Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya went on the record as saying that Idlib was just a “diversionary manoeuver meant to draw attention away from what is happening in other parts of Syria.” “Shortly before [the Russian-Turkish presidential meeting on September 17], they were fomenting an atmosphere of disaster and saying that an attack on Idlib would lead to the biggest humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. This has yet another motive aside from protecting civilians: If and when Idlib comes back to the Damascus fold – and this will happen sooner or later, because it is inevitable – Syria will be practically free of major seats of terrorist presence. So, what will then be left in Syria? The Northeast, where US troops are present illegally, the Al-Tanf base strategically located on the border between Syria, Jordan and Iraq, where there is also an illegal US military base, and other illegal military presences in Syria. There will be nothing to discuss aside from this,” the diplomat explained in an interview with radio Echo of Moscow.         

Syria, Iran, the Korean issue, Ukraine – these are just the tip of the iceberg. Far from all UN member states are ready to work together with Moscow to solve these issues, and some even add fuel to the fire with their actions. During the last session of the UN General Assembly, Sergey Lavrov left the door for talks open: “Moscow continues to believe in the UN’s viability.”

Recep Tayyip Erdogan used less diplomatic words in New York. He immediately said the UN Security Council should be reformed because “five out of 194 countries cannot judge the whole world,” according to Hurriyet. Erdogan pointed out the organisation’s inability to resolve the ongoing conflicts, in particular, to find a way out of the Syrian crisis. If that is so, who is hindering the work of the UN, and is it worth waiting for positive changes?

In 2016, Sergey Lavrov quoted George Orwell when talking about the UN: “All are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Certain countries are willing to agree even to unfavourable decisions, trying to please their patrons from the western hemisphere – even though the time of unipolarity has passed.

President Donald Trump invited heads of foreign delegations, including Sergey Lavrov, to a reception at one of the most luxurious hotels, Lotte New York Palace. His event is to take place literally an hour before the meeting of countries that remain in the Iranian nuclear deal (Russia, Great Britain, Germany, China and France). The future of the deal itself hangs in the balance after the US decision to withdraw. Is it possible to resume negotiations, or is Trump preparing a new proposal to Tehran on its own terms?

So far, we know that on September 26, the US President plans to preside at a meeting of the General Assembly on Iran. The US media even discussed the possibility of Trump meeting with President of Iran Hassan Rouhani afterwards. However, the comment by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sounds more like mockery than a readiness for dialogue: “The president said he’ll talk with anyone [from the Iranian leadership] if we can have a constructive conversation. We want Iran to stop being the largest – the world’s largest state sponsor of terror.”

Here we go again: “a sponsor of terror.” This does not seem like a kind invitation to a discussion. “Isn’t Pompeo talking too much for a foreign policy department head?” US critics wonder.

He was also the one who announced that Russia has proved of no use for the United States in Ukraine and Syria. “They have not proven helpful in the Ukraine, in Syria. It's a pretty fair assessment, and it's most unfortunate because there are places where we have shared interests,” Pompeo told NBC on September 22.

The words about Russia being of no use to the United States, including in Syria, were said amid Moscow providing objective regional updates to Washington. “We told our colleagues in detail about the terrorists, namely the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group (banned in Russia), preparing for a new provocation in Idlib to accuse Damascus of using toxic chemicals against civilians and hold the government forces responsible for this,” Russian Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov said. “We reported the delivery of eight chlorine tanks to the city of Jisr al-Shughur, which were later transported to the village of Hulluuz by the Hizb ut-Turkestan al-Islami militants (banned in Russia). A group of specially trained fighters (trained under the leadership of the British private military company Olive) arrived on the scene to later simulate the rescue of the victims of chemical weapons. They even plan to involve children taken hostage,” he added.

A fake chemical attack video produced by the White Helmets as usual even appeared on the web last week, but was immediately deleted.

As for Ukraine, as Sergey Lavrov said in early September, the US plans to create a dangerous irritant on the Russian-Ukrainian border. The Russian minister criticised Washington's policy towards Kiev, noting that the United States is supplying ammunition and weapons to Ukraine.

And then there are the sanctions. The US State Department said the US administration is going to impose tougher sanctions in November to punish Russia for the Skripal case. This warning was made by Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Manisha Singh. The US did London’s bidding and joined the September 6 statement, in which they spelled out the far-fetched accusations of poisonings in Salisbury and Amesbury. But Anatoly Antonov expressed confidence that the new anti-Russia restrictions would most likely hit US companies.

Stepping up anti-Russia sanctions leads nowhere, he said: “Our country will withstand the pressure. But US companies will become the victims. Their own administration will make them lose significant revenues and lose ground in the Russian market.”

The Russian ambassador added that there are about 3,000 businesses with American capital operating in Russia, employing about 180,000 people, with total assets amounting to about 75 billion dollars.”

It is on this negative backdrop that Trump will inaugurate the General Debate at the UN General Assembly. According to Axios, the US president is expected to talk about cooperation with other countries based on “mutual respect and sovereignty.” It is surprising that mutual respect was mentioned, considering, for example, demands coming from the Senate to do everything it takes to place US weapons in near-Earth orbit, even if this is at odds with the US national missile defence strategy and contradicts what military experts are suggesting. The $716 billion defence bill has been approved by both chambers of Congress and awaits signature by the US president. At the same time, one of the themes at this year’s General Assembly is the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

President Trump is also expected to talk about reforming international trade. It is quite possible that some of the questionable initiatives promoted by the US will be supported, albeit by its underlings.

For instance, Kiev intends to raise the issue of deploying a UN mission in Donbass, while casting aside the Minsk Agreements.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova said earlier that Sergey Lavrov will have meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Despite all the differences, talks held under the auspices of the UN are a vital necessity. At least this is what president of the preceding UN General Assembly Miroslav Lajcak believes. The results are there to prove this point, he argues. In an interview with the Russian News Service, he said that the thaw in relations between North and South Korea was one of the highlights of the past year: “I had a meeting with the DPRK foreign minister when he came here in September, and I also met with the permanent representatives from both Koreas. The situation was very tense, but I tried to play my part in order to bring the positions closer to each other, and sought to promote the participation of a team from North Korea in the Pyeongchang Olympics,” Lajcak pointed, adding that he was very glad to see this happen. “I was invited to Pyeongchang, and when I saw the joint Korean team at the opening ceremony and witnessed the emotional and positive response from the crowd, this was one of the best moments in my life.”

These are the days when you can easily come across a head of state or government or foreign ministers on UN grounds, while people holding microphones and cameras watch round the clock so that they do not miss a single piece of breaking news or a newsworthy performance.

Take, for example, how the late President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez lashed out at George W. Bush, comparing the 43rd US president to a “devil” and saying that it smelled of sulfur in the UN. We also witnessed fervent speeches by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during which diplomats from the US and some European countries left the room as a way to show their protest. Who will take this baton today?

The new Cuban leader, Miguel Diaz-Canel, said that in his speech at the 73rd UN General Assembly he will condemn the blockade imposed by the US on his country. “We bring the voice of Cuba, and we came there, first of all, to denounce the deviant policy of the blockade that has already failed and will continue to fail, and that is the longest blockade in the history of humanity,” Diaz-Canel said.

Every country gets 15 minutes during the UN General Assembly General Debate, and speakers who fail to stick to the time limit are diplomatically reminded to end their remarks by a special light on the podium. These lamps were installed back in 1960 after the speech by the leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, who talked for 269 minutes.

Commenting on Sergey Lavrov’s participation in the UN General Assembly, the Russian Foreign Ministry emphasised that this platform should not be used for settling scores in foreign and domestic policy. “We strongly believe that the General Assembly should not be exploited for settling scores in domestic and foreign policy. It should be dominated by an atmosphere of constructive cooperation conducive to overcoming the existing differences.”

The Icelandic gavel will call to order the General Debate at the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly on September 25, at 4 pm Moscow time.


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