By thrusting almost all of the world’s countries’ leaders together in the same place at the same time, it seems almost inevitable that the United Nations (UN) General Assembly meeting will produce its fair share of controversies. For one thing, it provides US adversaries with an opportunity to provide a counterbalance to the pro-Western narratives spun by Washington and dutifully repeated in in the corporate-owned press. Notable past instances of this include Venezuela’s then-President Hugo Chavez’s 2006 speech, in which he said of then-US President George W. Bush: “Yesterday, the devil came here — right here. And it smells of sulphur still today.” Three years later in 2009, then-leader of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, gave a speech lasting over an hour in which he railed against the UN Security Council’s veto power and demanded an investigation into the US invasion of Iraq.
On the other hand, the meeting has also seen its share of embarrassing antics. In 2011, a brawl broke out between security guards and members of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail. 2020’s meeting, meanwhile, came close to descending into farce. In addition to being dubbed “the world’s worst Zoom meeting” due to it being held virtually because of the then-raging coronavirus pandemic, the event saw expectedly ridiculous performances from the buffoonish far-right faux-populist then-leaders of the US and Brazil, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The following year Bolsonaro outdid even himself in a speech that The Guardian reported as containing “unproven Covid remedies” and “a succession of distortions and outright lies about Brazilian politics and the environment.”
This year was no different, containing instances of both the former and latter. Though naturally media attention focused on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who of course used his speech to bash Russia, it also provided an opportunity for leaders from the Global South to speak their minds. Barbados’ president Mia Amor Mottley, for example, called forreform of the global financial system and called on the Security Council to take the climate crisis as seriously as it is taking the war in Ukraine. Similarly, Colombian president Gustavo Petro made headlines with a speech that suggested the West should give as much attention to the conflict going on in Palestine as it does to the conflict in Ukraine.
The most notable case of embarrassing antics, meanwhile, took place during a speech delivered by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. As Raisi was speaking, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan was eventually escorted out of the chamber for disrupting Raisi’s remarks. Erdan was reportedly holding up a poster denouncing Iran’s treatment of women and bearing a picture of Mahsa Amini of Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, who died in police custody last year. The protest comes amid worsening relations between Israel and Iran following the return to power of the far-right Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s new coalition government contains some of the most extreme elements in Israeli politics including parties representing hardline settlers and ultra-nationalists.
Of course, Iran’s record on women’s rights is far from perfect. But recent developments in the Middle East show Erdan’s focus on Iran to be taking hypocrisy to new heights of brazenness, even by Israel’s already admittedly low standards. Because while he sanctimoniously waves protest signs at Iran, the government he represents is in the process of fully establishing diplomatic relations with none other than the Saudi dictatorship, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies.
And when it comes to women’s rights, Saudi Arabia makes Iran look comparatively progressive. Amnesty International has pointed out that Saudi Arabia regularly imprisons women for peaceful demonstrations in favor of women’s rights and imposes travel bans on female human rights activists. In March of last year, the government of Mohammed bin Salman implemented the Personal Status Law. According to Amnesty, the law “codifies many of the informal yet widespread problematic practices inherent in the male guardianship system and entrenches a system of gender-based discrimination in most aspects of family life, including in marriage, divorce, and child custody.”
Other human rights problems in Saudi Arabia include its prolific use of capital punishment — often via public beheadings. Its crushing of dissent, meanwhile, was best illustrated by its murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Its treatment of migrant workers has also come under fire from human rights groups. Amnesty stated in its 2022 report on Saudi Arabia: “Migrant workers continued to be abused and exploited under the sponsorship system and thousands were arbitrarily detained in inhumane conditions, tortured and otherwise ill-treated, and involuntarily returned to their home country.” As Noam Chomsky has put it: “In comparison with Saudi Arabia, Iran looks like a civil rights paradise.”
In addition to its poor human rights record, Saudi Arabia is also one of the world’s most notorious rogue states. It is currently spearheading a brutal war in Yemen in which it has committed war crimes including dropping a bomb on a school bus full of children. In February 2022, Saudi-led forces destroyeda detention facility in Yemen’s Saada province, killing at least 90 people.
Of course, we won’t hear a peep about any of this from the likes of Gilad Erdan or Benjamin Netanyahu. Clearly, they only care about human rights to the extent that they can use it as part of their propaganda arsenal against Israel’s adversaries. Indeed, Israel and Saudi Arabia are themselves the two worst human rights violators in the entire Middle East and also the US’s two closest allies in the region, which of course is no coincidence.
Though this year’s UN General Assembly meeting should be remembered for speeches from Global South leaders like Mottley and Petro, this revealing exercise in hypocrisy on the part of Israel should be what really sticks in our minds.