The 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly commenced on September 25 in New York. 37-old Foreign Minister of Serbia, Mr. Vuk Jeremic, was elected as the President of this session of the General Assembly. The session will be participated by 193 state-members of the UN, out of which 120 heads of states/government will attend at various times.
President Jeremic reportedly said: "I'm going to call on the member states to participate in the general debate with the aim of providing us with new thoughts and ideas on revitalising the General Assembly. We do have some plans and ideas of our own but I would rather hear out the leaders of the world participating in the general debate."
The main theme selected for the general debate of the Assembly was peaceful resolution of disputes, mediation and conflict prevention. The theme actually reflects the tumultuous time that the world, especially in the Arab World, is going through.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon predicted that the session would be among the busiest ever, reflecting "the tumultuous time in which we live -- a time of turmoil and transition." It is also taking place "against a backdrop of widespread violence linked to intolerance," he said.
Although the meeting is intended to celebrate the world's common values, this year is exposing instead the gulf between Western and Islamic perspectives on freedom of expression.
Democratic uprisings across the Arab world and the Palestinians' bid for UN membership sparked excitement and hope among world leaders. But with war raging in Syria, and deadly protests generated by an anti-Islamic video, the mood as this year's UN gathering begins is one of disappointment and frustration.
Several issues are dominating the debate:
* Freedom of speech is not licence to provoke reli gious sentiments;
* Armed conflict in Syria;
* Israel-Palestinian issue;
* Iran's nuclear programme and Israeli threat to attack;
* Global climate change
The mood of the delegates of Muslim countries is restive. Prompted by the anti-Muslim video produced in the US, that has stirred riots around the world, delegations from Muslim nations have arrived at the UN prepared to demand international curbs on speech or media that they believe defames their religion or Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
The demand for limits on anti-Islamic expression is coming from leading Islamic groups such as the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation, and leaders as diverse as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These leaders consider anti-Islamic material a kind of "hate speech'' that should be banned around the world. They are expected to make the demand when they speak in the General Assembly.
The Security Council remains divided on the Syrian conflict with Russia and China arguing that the opposition needs to be curbed while the West wants President Assad to step aside.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad said that Iran has been threatened but is committed to peace, though he also accused world powers of double standards in pursuing an arms race. Iran has a "global vision and welcomes any effort intended to provide and promote peace, stability and tranquility" in the world.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel pointed to a graphic of a bomb and asked UN leaders to draw a "red line" on Iran's nuclear bomb plans.
Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of Palestinian Authority, will present the General Assembly with a more modest proposal -- to upgrade Palestine's current status as a UN observer to a non-member observer state.
On September 25, United States President Barack Obama, in his address to a packed United Nations General Assembly, railed against the "crude and disgusting" film as well as the ensuing violence. Obama stressed America's distaste for insults to religion while insisting there was no excuse for violence.
He conceded that governments are becoming increasingly powerless to control the content of social media criticising the recent amateur film that disrespected Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). But he said free speech needed to be upheld -- and that must be tackled with free speech, not mindless violence.
He said: "The US government had nothing to do with this video and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. All of us are to address honestly the tensions between the West and an Arab world moving to democracy. Leaders of all countries must speak out forcefully against violence and extremism, and the use of hatred of America, the West or Israel as a central principle of politics."
On September 28, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina called upon UN members to reaffirm their political and financial commitments for the sake of sustainable international peace and security. She called for reforms of the United Nations, World Bank, IMF and other international financial institutions so they can serve the interests of large majorities instead of a privileged few.
Hasina said the new millennium warranted a changed world order based on justice, mutual respect and sovereign equality. Mentioning the recent popular uprisings, intra-state conflicts, climate change disasters and global financial crises, the prime minister stressed the need for collective efforts for peaceful resolution of the crises on the UN floor.
Lauding this year's UNGA theme -- "Settlement of International Disputes or Situations by Peaceful Means" -- Hasina said Bangladesh's commitment to global peace had been demonstrated through its contribution to the UN peacekeeping missions and in being a founder member of the UN Peace Building Commission.
The General Assembly is a forum of developing countries to flag the contemporary issues of the day. By airing views in the Assembly the issues get attention, and many disputes which are potential threats to peace and security receive publicity in the world media. The General Assembly can only be as effective as it members allow it to be, especially the veto-wielding permanent members of the UN.
The writer is a former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.