As so often these days, it is in a tweet that we receive communication from the highest political and diplomatic leadership. “Honoured to chair the 4th plenary meeting of the UN General Assembly. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda delivered his statement in less than 8 minutes. Probably one of the briefest and yet very powerful, inspiring and focused speeches in the history of the UNGA plenary debate.”
The tweet from Taye Atske Selassie, Ethiopia permanent representative at the UN, will come as no surprise to Rwandans, and anyone familiar with President Kagame’s speeches at home, where his promise not to keep his audience waiting is never broken.
President Kagame was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA,) underway since 17th September, and due to end on the 30th.
A glance at the President and his delegation’s timetable may suggest an extra reason for his brevity at the lectern.
As well as being the home of the UNGA, New York is also one of the world’s shopping meccas. Members of the Rwandan delegation will, however, be hard-pressed to find any time for even idle window shopping, so busy is their schedule, from the President to the most junior official.
The President may have looked at his timetable and decided that eight minutes was all he could spare.
The General Assembly is attended by leaders of all the 193 members of the UN. It is an opportunity for world leaders to meet one another, face to face, renew alliances, build new ones, or cement existing ones. Few, if any other country, makes more of this opportunity, than Rwanda, with President Kagame and his team.
At this year’s UNGA, as well as delivering that eight-minute speech, the President also chaired his Presidential Advisory Council. This is a uniquely Rwandan body, made up of Rwandans and non-Rwandans, from all walks of life. It was established to bring expert advice on strategies for development to the President, and the government of Rwanda generally.
President Kagame is the chair for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Centre for Africa Board of Directors, and as such, he co-chaired the SDGs board meeting. While also not to be missed, was the High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Care (UHC), at which the President delivered perhaps one of the more salient messages.
“No parent should have to choose between food and medicine for their family”, he said.
And he was only just hitting his stride. One of the biggest and arguably one of the most important events at this UNGA, was the Climate Action Summit, convened by the UN, “a race we can win, a race we must win” pleaded UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
Because of its progressive policies on the environment, and commitment to reducing greenhouse gases, Rwanda was selected by the Energy Transition Coalition to present the country’s actions, and actions on behalf of the coalition.
Next year, Rwanda will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting or CHOGM, and what better time to have a meeting with newly installed British Prime minister Boris Johnson, than at UNGA.
As well as that meeting, President Kagame was the host for a Commonwealth reception, at which in an even shorter speech, told guests, “the consensus around the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values, shows that cooperation remains the best way to build a better and more equal world for everybody.”
As well as these and other events, there were one to one meetings with other heads of state. The Prime minister of Luxembourg Xavier Bettel, Presidents Ismail Oguelleh of Djibouti, Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani of Mauritania, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, among others, not forgetting the Chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
Even if he were to step out of character and suddenly a penchant for long speeches, it is unlikely that his punishing schedule would have allowed it.
And Taye Atske Selassie will not have been the only one to appreciate the brevity of President Kagame’s presentation.
World leaders at the General Assembly are encouraged to take no more than fifteen minutes to deliver their speeches and are notorious for ignoring that request.
Some pay no heed to it whatsoever. In 1960, legendary Cuban leader Fidel Castro, managed a Guinness Book of records breaking fours hours and twenty-nine minutes. Although that was as nothing to his 7hours ten minutes, delivered to his own people in Cuba, at the 1987 Communist Party Congress.
In 2009, Colonel Gaddafi – former Libyan leader, managed an impressive 90 minutes, as other leaders waited their turn.
Whether at home or as this case the UNGA, President Kagame is the exception that proves the rule, that you do not give a politician the world stage and expect brevity.
One of the six organs of the UN, including the Security Council, the UN Secretariat, the International Court of Justice, the economic and social council, and the trusteeship council, the UNGA is the closest thing to a world’s parliament.
Unlike the Security Council, however, the UNGA’s resolutions are not binding on member states. But it does express world opinion and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council. It can be said to possess soft power to the Security Council’s hard power.
And it does provide that opportunity for world leaders to meet one another, and looking at the Rwandan’s delegation’s work rate, even the most demanding taxpayer back home, will feel that his or her nation’s presence at the UNGA is money well spent.