The United Nations 2012 General Assembly: What To Expect
Sep 18, 2012 5:30 PM EDT
The United Nations’ annual summit is always a memorable spectacle. What to expect at this year’s 67th Session.

It’s time again for the United Nations General Assembly, which kicked off today in midtown Manhattan (the General Debate is slated to open on Sept. 25). The annual summit always guarantees a circus-like atmosphere, with its interminable gridlock, long-winded speeches by world leaders, and kooky rants from the globe’s most notorious despots.

Ever since Nikita Kruschev famously banged his shoe during the 1960 General Assembly to drown out criticism of the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe, the forum has—to the ongoing dismay of U.N. organizers—oft-times been co-opted by rogue rulers with controversial agendas. Recent years have witnessed the now-deceased Libyan tyrant Muammar Gaddafi trying to pitch a Bedouin tent in Central Park to house his entourage of nubile nursemaids; Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad insisting the U.S. coordinated the 9/11 attacks; and Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe denouncing NATO for supporting the Libyan rebellion and making “unfounded allegations of destruction of civilian lives by Gaddafi.”

Despite the inevitable wackiness—and the near-guarantee of a delegate walk-out during Ahmadinejad’s diatribes—the General Assembly also shines a strong spotlight on the most pressing international issues of the day. Last year, the Assembly welcomed South Sudan as its newest member, cheered Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff as the first-ever woman to open the summit’s debate, and discussed the ongoing revolutions of the Arab Spring. It’s also a bellwether for the fortunes of individual leaders. Just three years ago, Gaddafi was holding the Assembly captive with a protracted and eccentric jeremiad—culminating in his destruction of the U.N. charter—that touched on swine flu and the death of JFK. By the 2011 Assembly, Gaddafi was a hunted, haunted man on the lam, and rebel leaders were receiving invites to take his seat in New York.

So what kind of spectacle does the U.N. promise this year for its 67th Session? Here’s a quick rundown of the topics and personalities sure to dominate the discussion:

The Carnage in Syria

As Syrian president Bashar al-Assad continues the violent crackdown on his own people, the global community remains deeply riven over the bloody conflict, with the U.S. and Europe calling for sanctions against the Assad regime and Russia and China resisting intervention. Last month—a day after Kofi Annan quit his post as special envoy to Syria in frustration—the General Assembly voted 133 to 12 to condemn its own Security Council for failing to stem the crisis, and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon slammed the great powers for turning the conflict into a “proxy war.” Expect a heated debate over Syria, with Saudi Arabia and Turkey lining up behind the Western powers to denounce the regime, and Russia and China bolstering their pro-Assad stance with support from Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran.

View of the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations in New York. (Timothy A. Clary, AFP / Getty Images)

The Coming Showdown of Israel v. Iran

Iranian president Ahmadinejad is always a loose cannon at the Assembly, usually using his appearances to float bombastic conspiracy theories about Sept. 11 and to peddle Holocaust denials. This year, his speech could be more outlandish than ever, due to a host of political pressures mounting at home and abroad. Back in Iran, he’s been locked in a covert power struggle with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and faces an uncertain future after the 2013 elections. Meanwhile, Syria—which Iran counted as a critical regional ally—is crumbling toward civil war, and Israel is loudly sounding off about bombing Tehran’s nuclear program before November, despite U.S. President Barack Obama’s calls for restraint. Ahmadinejad has long positioned Israel as the ultimate enemy, once calling it a “stinking corpse ... on its way to annihilation” and demanding that it be “wiped off the map.” What will he say now that its fighter jets are aimed squarely at Iran?

Chavez Craziness

While he can’t quite top Ahmadinejad’s invective, longtime Iran pal Hugo Chavez has had more than a few bizarre U.N. rants of his own—most memorably, in 2006, when he called then-President George W. Bush “the devil.” Since then, Chavez has claimed the U.S. has been using cancer as a weapon of mass destruction in South America (he underwent his own radiation therapy for an undisclosed form of the disease in Cuba this year, during which time he effectively ruled Venezuela by Twitter) and has strongly denounced the revolutions of the Arab Spring. This year, he’ll arrive in New York on the eve of a heated presidential election, desperate to show that he’s strong enough to continue his rule. Meanwhile, Wall Street analysts are predicting that a Chavez victory could tip Venezuela into default. In other words, all the elements are in place for vintage Chavez weirdness at the Assembly.