Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, assured his place in UN history on Wednesday by calling George W. Bush, the US president, “the devil” and saying he could still smell the “sulphur” hanging around the General Assembly chamber.
His diatribe against US “imperialism,” and calls for a re-foundation of the United Nations, may be nothing new, but the grandeur of his stage and the applause he won hammered home the mounting sense of developing world anger at an organisation many countries believe to be irretrievably under the sway of rich western powers.
Mr Chávez’s invective came one day after Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, the Iranian president, slammed the inequities of the Security Council, and Evo Morales, the indigenous Bolivian leader, brandished a coca leaf before the hall and called for an end to injustice.
While the 15-member Council has returned to centre stage in trying to resolve many of the world’s most intractable crises, the General Assembly – of 192 countries – has found itself deadlocked over efforts to reform the way the UN is managed and how its resources are spent.
It cannot agree on a definition of terrorism, and has proved incapable of agreeing a strategy on nuclear non-proliferation.
All countries claim the UN needs reform, but the developing world is deeply sceptical of US efforts to overhaul its systems in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal, and believe the secretariat incapable of resisting the demands of its industrialised paymasters.
Even more moderate leaders such as Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, warned that unless the UN gave a greater voice to the poor it risked losing legitimacy. “For the UN to continue occupying its moral high ground, it has to reform urgently, and lead by practical example as to what it means to be democratic.”
Mr Chávez was less forgiving. “Let’s be honest,” he said. “The UN system born after the second world war collapsed. It’s worthless.”
He suggested: “We could call a psychiatrist to analyse Wednesday’s statement by the president of the United States,” referring to Mr Bush’s upbeat assessment of the situation in the Middle East.
“The hegemonistic pretensions of the American empire are placing at risk the very existence of the human species,” he said. “We appeal to the people of the United States and of the world to halt this threat which is like a sword hanging over our heads.”