The United Nations General Assembly, a yearly gathering of the UN’s 193 Member States in New York City to discuss international issues, can often feel rehearsed and stilted. But, once in a while, it has the power to surprise us. US president Donald Trump learned this lesson when the representatives of UN nations laughed at him during his opening statement. And yesterday (Sept. 29), Karin Kneissl, Austria’s minister for Europe, integration and foreign affairs surprised the crowd by addressing the general assembly in Arabic.
“As the minister of foreign affairs of Austria, I am able to address you in Arabic,” she told the assembly. “Why do I do that? Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. I studied Arabic in the UN in Vienna. It is a beautiful language; it is part of the ancient Arab civilization. I also studied in Lebanon during the years of war and learned how people continue with their lives against all odds. This is the secret of life.”
Kneissl (pdf) spoke in Arabic for the first three minutes of her opening statement, after which she shifted to French, then Spanish, and finally English. During her speech, she talked about the plight of refugees from war-torn countries and asked the audience to use their political platforms for good. ”In this world, we have a voice,” she said. “And we have to use this voice to express the voice of those outside these halls … and especially in the Middle East.”
She dedicated a large part of her speech to criticizing the diplomatic inertia of the international community and the United Nations in the face of international crises like civil wars in Syria and Yemen, nuclear proliferation, and climate change. She noted that, all too often, the UN prioritized ”fine statements over genuine action.” “I would even venture to say that we accept a dialogue of the deaf when we limit ourselves to simply reading out prepared statement,” she explained. “This way of thinking shows that we have lost contact with reality. We no longer understand the meaning of a genuine exchange of views. When we speak, are we really discussing anything? Are we even still able to look at each other in the eyes?”
Kneissl’s plea for compassion for refugees is all the more surprising in light of her country’s current political climate. Austria’s new coalition government is led by chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and includes the far-right Freedom party, which ran on an anti-immigration and anti-refugee political platform. Kneissl, an independent, is not a member of Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party, but she was nominated to become foreign minister by the Freedom Party. She has been sharply criticized for some of her rhetoric surrounding migrants, and is considered a political conservative.
In calling for a more effective and less bureaucratic UN, Kneissl said: “With this speech, I have tried to depart a little bit from the usual United Nations discourse.”