The U.N. General Assembly is a magnet for protest from every race, color, and creed. Meet some of the people behind the picketing.
This week, heads of state from around the world have gathered in New York City to tackle the most pressing global issues during the opening of the annual United Nations General Assembly. Always compelling, previous editions of the U.N.G.A. have led to some of the most memorable moments in diplomacy: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev removing his shoe in 1960 and famously banging it on a table in an attempt to silence a Filipino delegate; Cuban President Fidel Castro harboring live chickens at his Harlem hotel and delivering an epic four-and-a-half-hour U.N.G.A. speech the same year; and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s 1974 declaration, while bedecked in military fatigues and brandishing a pistol holder, that, "I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun." More recently, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called George W. Bush “the devil” and insisted that the podium “smelled of sulfur” in 2006, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unveiled his much-ridiculed Looney Tunes-style cartoon Iran bomb diagram just last year.
But alongside the major foreign policy speeches, gridlock, shuttle diplomacy, and preposterously securitized environment, diverse groups of protesters are also omnipresent, raising awareness and demanding action on a bevy of international issues. Some of their concerns are well known and draw large, organized protests, while others are overlooked by the media and bring out small groups of protesters or even just passionate individuals.
At the U.N. this week, as high-level discussions on climate change, counter-terrorism in Syria and Iraq, and Ebola were unfolding, we talked to the protesters making their voices heard about a variety of issues, from members of a persecuted ethnic group in South Sudan, to an indigenous woman from Bolivia calling for her community and the Earth to be protected, to a group of Mauritanians whose friend is being held hostage by ISIS in Syria. While the countries they hail from and the specific issues they are protesting differ, the threads that connect their demands for change this year largely center on protecting civilians and ensuring accountability in the face of impunity.
These are the issues that matter to them, in their own words.
“The government of Sudan is waging ethnic cleansing on its own people in Darfur, the Blue Nile, and the Nuba mountains. They are killing civilians, bombing schools and hospitals, and denying humanitarian aid. We are here to ask the U.N. to arrest President Omar [al-]Bashir and send him to the International Criminal Court, where he is already indicted. We also ask the U.N. to protect Sudanese civilians and impose a no fly zone.”
“I'm here from Bolivia to ask for respect for all the indigenous people and areas in my country. I also ask for Bolivian President Evo Morales to protect the rights of indigenous people and also to protect Mother Earth from all contamination. We are calling for justice.”
“I live in the U.K., and when I heard that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani would be at the U.N., I decided to come here and say ‘no.’ He does not represent the Iranian people. His government is a terror regime. Last year they executed over 1,000 people—three a day—by hanging them in the street. Iran is like a big prison. We are asking for western countries to not appease Rouhani, who is using his smiles and charm to build a bomb. He is the same as Ahmadinejad. They are all criminals.”
“We are here to raise the current issues in Nigeria and to show our support for President Goodluck Jonathan. He's doing good work at home and is leading the important fight against Boko Haram terrorism. There is a lot of propaganda and negative reporting against him, but he cares about the Nigerian people. Our support is not unconditional though, he still needs to improve infrastructure, build schools, and provide education for our children.”
Ann (South Africa/U.S.)
“We are waging war on the earth. We are clearly in a climate crisis. Extraction of uranium, fracking—where will we get our water? We are so willfully ignorant, but it's all capital, capital, capital. I really don't know if there is any possibility of mitigating what we have wrought; but we will certainly try.”
“We are here to support the democratically elected President of Egypt, Dr. Mohamed Morsi, and protest the current dictator, General Sisi, who is in New York this week. Sisi massacred hundreds of innocent civilians in Rabaa Square and we want our voices to reach the U.N. and the rest of the world. They must act to stop Sisi's war crimes.”
“We are calling on the government of Nepal to release Dr. C.K. Raut, a political prisoner arrested three weeks ago. He is a Cambridge University-educated human rights and anti-discrimination advocate for the Madhesh population of Nepal. The Madhesh are mostly farmers who are darker-skinned and barred from many professions in Nepal. Dr. Raut is on hunger strike now. You see, in Nepal, impunity is at the highest levels. Many people are tortured with electric shocks and even killed in prison.”
Nyawal (South Sudan)
“Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, must go. We are protesting at the U.N. because he is a dictator and is committing genocide against his own people for ethnic reasons, including our tribe, the Nuer people. He is also selling our country and its resources to foreign interests like Uganda and China. We want to raise awareness of the crimes being committed in South Sudan.”
“Climate change is not caused by CO2, but by deicers. This is the mushrooming of desalination systems in the Middle East and artificial island development in the Arabian Gulf. These are the main causes of climate calamities. Stop sea rise now and air conditioning Mother Earth!”
“We demand the release of our friend Ishak Moctar, a Mauritanian journalist for Sky Arabia who was kidnapped by ISIS last year in Syria. We are calling on the Syrian government and other regional countries to secure his release so he can see his family, his kids, and his mother again.”