Sep 20, 2022 - World

What to watch for at the UN General Assembly

One of the roughly 10 billion maze-like security checkpoints outside UN HQ. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

High-level week at the UN General Assembly kicks off Tuesday morning with speeches from 33 world leaders — but not President Biden. He forfeited the prime U.S. speaking slot (always second behind Brazil) to travel back from Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.

What to watch: Tuesday's speakers include President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and President Emmanuel Macron of France. Biden will speak Wednesday.

  • The Biden administration intends to use the gathering — the first full-scale UN summit since before the pandemic — to rally international support for Ukraine and condemnation for Russia. It will also co-host a food security summit with the African Union and EU.
  • With Biden no longer headlining Tuesday’s opening session, more attention is likely to fall on the address from Secretary-General António Guterres. Guterres will emphasize climate action and warn that “geopolitical divides are putting all of us at risk,” his spokesperson briefed reporters Monday.

While the vast majority of countries will be represented by presidents, prime ministers or monarchs, there are some notable absences.

  • The leaders of China, India and Russia — all of whom gathered last week at a summit in Uzbekistan — have sent their foreign ministers in their places.
  • Because ministerial-level officials get the worst speaking slots, those countries won’t address the General Assembly until Saturday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, however, is slated to address the forum remotely on Wednesday.

  • The UN General Assembly voted to exempt him from the rule that speakers must appear in person. Seven countries, including Russia, opposed that motion.
  • A ministerial-level meeting on Ukraine is expected Thursday at the UN Security Council, but Russia can of course veto any significant action. “The chances of a peace deal are minimal at the present moment,” Guterres acknowledged.

Our thought bubbles...

Axios’ Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath is watching for concrete commitments on humanitarian crises outside of Ukraine, particularly the looming famine in Somalia, ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, deteriorating security situation in Haiti and continuing crises in Afghanistan and Yemen.

  • “Efforts to address many of these crises remain underfunded and underreported due in large part to heightened attention on war in Ukraine,” she writes. “Gatherings like UNGA produce statements, but aid groups often criticize the lack of sustained action in the weeks and months after world leaders return home.”

Axios fellow Han Chen, who joined us this week from Radio Free Asia, is watching to see whether any world leaders will speak up about Xinjiang following the UN’s report on Beijing’s human rights abuses there.

  • He’s also watching to see whether Biden or other leaders will use the UN platform to push for Taiwan to be granted more meaningful participation in international fora.

Axios Latino’s Marina E. Franco notes that this will be the first General Assembly for the young Chilean president Gabriel Boric, who was recently handed a blow when voters rejected the new constitution he championed.

  • She’ll also be watching the speech from El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, who has defied international criticism over the mass arrests of more than 50,000 people, and for a purported Mexican plan for peace negotiations in Ukraine.

Axios’ Barak Ravid reports that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas intended to use his speech to launch an appeal for full UN membership, but is likely to hold off due to U.S. pressure.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, meanwhile, will address the General Assembly for the first time ahead of a general election showdown with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to whom his performance will inevitably be compared.
  • Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also attending for the first time, and his speech on Wednesday will be closely watched for signals about the Iran nuclear deal.

Worth noting: Raisi has ruled out a meeting with Biden while in New York, and the general consensus is, "We’re nowhere near a breakthrough."

  • But for what it’s worth, I did bump into the U.S. and EU point people on the deal — Rob Malley and Enrique Mora — strolling smilingly near the UN today.
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