To give him his rightful due, it is not as though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left no lasting impression during the just-concluded “leaders week” opening of the 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly. By Friday night, for example, a Google search for Justin Trudeau and Chewbacca returned 166,000 hits, on account of Trudeau’s choice in hosiery for his public appearances around town on Wednesday—a pair of socks adorned with the image of that hairy bipedal giant from the Star Wars series.
New York Fashion Week had ended the week before the UN General Assembly reconvened, but you’d have never known it. So much fuss was made about the blindingly pink $3,000 outfit First Lady Melania Trump wore at a Wednesday luncheon she’d arranged at the UN to give a speech about bullying that even less attention was paid to the ironies involved (starting with her husband being a virtuoso in that field). After her talk she was seated at a table with Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron’s wife Brigitte, and Emine Erdoğan, wife of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who presided over one of his trademark goon riots the following day at the Marriot Marquis Hotel. Punches were thrown and protesters were dragged out but no arrests were made.
It was at a conference put on by Bill and Melinda Gates to shine a spotlight on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals that Trudeau’s socks took over the conversation, while what was said to stand out about UN Secretary-General Special Advocate Queen Máxima of the Netherlands at the same event was her bright red pantsuit. And also her long gold necklace. Ivanka Trump was busy elsewhere in the UN complex with her various devotions to the lives of working women and girls. Irony factor: Three months ago, an undercover investigation of the shoe factory producing Ivanka’s brand revealed some of the worst working conditions Li Qiang of China Labor Watch said that he’d seen in almost 20 years of looking into labour abuses in China. Ivanka’s outfit Wednesday: Grey pantsuit, blue kitten heels, hoop earrings and aviator sunglasses.
But it was the socks chosen by Marie Claire magazine’s “dreamy feminist” Trudeau, first noticed at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum Wednesday, that everyone was raving about. “A bold fashion statement”—Us Magazine. “Sent the Internet into a fenzy.”—Hello magazine. “Zany.”—Time magazine. Vanity Fair’s An In-Depth Reading of Justin Trudeau’s Chewbacca Socks fingered Trudeau’s motivation: “Namely, this guy knows you’ll talk about him, and this is one way of controlling the conversation.”
And then Justin and Sophie were off to a massive teenage pep rally at the UN “WE day” event at Madison Square Garden, with Whoopi Goldberg, the Marching Cobras Drumline, Chelsea Clinton, Princess Beatrice of York, and a phalanx of motivational speakers and self-improvement enthusiasts.
Trudeau wanted everybody talking about him in New York this week because whatever real-word catastrophes and crises require the UN’s immediate and urgent attention—the apparent genocide the Myanmar regime is carrying out upon the Rohingya Muslims of Rakhine State, for instance—what Trudeau wants is a thing he was candid enough to allow after his peculiar address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday. It’s a shot at the temporary two-year seat on the 15-member UN Security Council coming up in 2021. That means getting on the good side of just about everyone who has turned the UN into the scandalously useless hulk that it has become. It means reassuring them all that he wasn’t in town to cause any trouble.
The Security Council seat is a status thing. It’s a prestige thing, a rubbing-it-in-the-noses-of-the
Last weekend across Canada there were vigils and demonstrations on behalf the Rohingya, with protestors demanding that the disgraced Nobel Peace laureate and former democracy crusader Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s 2015 landslide-win State Counsellor, be made to give up her honorary Canadian citizenship. At a rally in Toronto, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland showed up to say that both she and Trudeau were going to “focus” on the Rohingya crisis at the UN General Assembly in New York.
There was no evidence of that this week, although Trudeau is said to have discussed the issue at side meetings. During his address to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, Trudeau said nothing about any of the various crises facing the UN—not least the crisis of its own credibility, specifically in the matter of the Rohingya catastrophe. Two years ago, the UN was alerted by the International State Crime Initiative’s in-depth and aptly titled report, Countdown to Annihilation: Genocide in Myanmar. The UN failed to intervene. After the latest round of murders and village burnings broke out last month, another 400,000 Rohingyas have fled into neighbouring Bangladesh. None of this even was even mentioned in Trudeau’s address.
Trudeau chose instead to enumerate and acknowledge Canada’s sins in the subjection of Canada’s long-suffering Indigenous people to the innumerable humiliations of colonialism, which he asserted were only now being properly acknowledged and addressed. The question everybody was asking afterwards: well, what was that all that about? Perhaps Trudeau had taken the rare opportunity of speaking to the world and opted instead speak to domestic audiences? Trudeau set that straight right away: “In conversations over the years, when I’ve suggested that certain countries need to do better on their own human rights, their own internal challenges, the response has been, ‘Well, tell me about the plight of Indigenous people.'”
We should grant Trudeau the benefit of the doubt. He has probably encountered that hackneyed, subject-changing dodge in any number of its varieties, any number of times. Who hasn’t?
“And you are lynching negroes” was the version of the retort the Soviets were fond of employing during the depths of Josef Stalin’s depravities, whenever it happened to be an American drawing attention to Russia’s vast prison labour camp system, say, or the Kremlin’s gruesome show trials. The great Czech revolutionary democrat Vaclev Havel counted the ploy among the most “commonly canonized demagogical tricks” police states play to silence their free-world critics.
But that Trudeau should so easily fall for it, and then go on to take up almost the entirety of an address to the UN General Assembly in playing along with it, raises certain awkward questions. Here’s one now: which leader among the UN’s 193 member states would have been made happiest by Trudeau’s speech on Thursday? Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei? China’s Xi Jinping? Perhaps Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe?
A surrender to such a cheap, tu quoque feint—we have no right to criticize these regimes, given “the plight of Indigenous people” in Canada—raises another question. How does such a frivolous and disingenuous alibi for inaction and self-inflicted paralysis offer any hope, courage or comfort to the hundreds of millions of vote-denied women, jailed journalists and persecuted democracy activists in the 108 UN member states that are only partly free or are wholly unfree?
Is it really possible that the blood thirst of the Security Council’s tyrant states and the UN General Assembly’s genocidaires will somehow be slaked by the knowledge that Justin Trudeau’s government is building or is about to build 4,000 new homes on First Nations reserves, and has lately managed to reduce by a couple of dozen the 153 long-term drinking water advisories in effect in Indigenous communities across Canada? Will Canada’s addition of a new federal department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs somehow discourage Myanmar’s soldiers from burning Rohingya villages and raping Rohingya women?
Of course not. But to devote an address to the UN General Assembly to these things is to leave the lasting impression that when Justin Trudeau came to town, he didn’t come to cause any trouble.