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Strongmen to Kick Off the UN General Assembly Session in September


President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil with President Donald Trump
President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil with President Donald Trump of the United States, March 19, 2019, in the White House. Both men are scheduled to attend the annual opening session of the UN General Assembly, which will feature not only the parade of leaders but also a climate-change conference. ALAN SANTOS/PR

Donald Trump will shake hands with Emmanuel Macron, Jair Bolsonaro and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But will Benjamin Netanyahu; Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel be there, too?

The 74th opening debate of the United Nations General Assembly, which starts on Sept.17 and ends on Sept. 30; the general debate begins on Sept. 24. With most member states signed up right now, the Assembly gives world leaders and their representatives a chance to make their points in front of the international community. Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, will preside over the 74th session.

It coincides with other important UN gatherings, including a climate change summit on the 23d and other “high-level” meetings, focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals and universal health care coverage.

Hear our podcast on what to expect at the UN session.

As of now, three highly visible strongmen — Bolsonaro, Trump and el-Sisi — will most likely kick things off at the UN among national leaders, with an unknown number of others following in their wake and, it appears, not many of them women — only about 10 percent. (See our article on female global leaders who are scheduled to speak.)

Vladimir Putin has declined, though Russia has the rotating presidency of the Security Council in September. Although Putin last attended the General Assembly in 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov normally represents his country at the yearly assembly. Last year, no contact was made by the American delegation to the Russians to meet or talk, but this time it could be different.

PassBlue is filing regular updates. Here’s what we know as of Sept. 20.


António Guterres

O.K., the UN secretary-general’s attendance can be taken for granted. But not the content of his speech. Last year, Guterres talked about the importance of multilateralism and the rise of populism around the world. He also addressed the question of UN reform and how he intends to get that done. As these problems and various conflicts persisted throughout this year — Syria, Yemen, Libya, Palestine-Israel and Ukraine, to name a few — it will be interesting to hear what he has to say about them and what other issues he will address, most notably climate change as he pushes for a no-coal-powered world.

United States’ Donald Trump

Trump will be the second speaker on Sept. 24, after Bolsonaro of Brazil, by tradition. Given the pressing foreign policy matters before Trump — and his sheer unpredictability — what he will choose to say is a gamble, though his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has mentioned Iran, the rights of the Uighur population in China and North Korea as top priorities. Last year, Trump arrived late to the podium and immediately boasted of his political achievements, drawing laughs, a highly unusual response to which he paused before nervously joining the laughter, too. One thing is certain: This will be a chance for Trump to set the tone for his 2020 presidential re-election run, focus on whether he will meet President Rouhani of Iran and be seen with his new UN ambassador, Kelly Knight Craft. (Listen to our new podcast episode on what to expect of Knight Craft  in her new role.)

It has been reported that Trump will not participate in the UN climate change conference, given the US’ decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. But representatives from the State Department are reportedly attending. Instead, Trump and Vice President Pence are said to be holding a conference on Sept. 23 about promoting the right of religious freedom. Details were not available as of Sept. 20.

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France’s Emmanuel Macron

If other countries are reluctant to confirm their leaders’ attendance for security and other reasons, France seemed only too eager, saying yes in mid-July. Macron’s focus will be on climate change, sustainable development, a multilateralism initiative with Germany and women’s rights — France will host a Beijing+25 conference in June 2020, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the meeting on improving women’s rights.

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro

It has been a tradition since 1955 that Brazil speaks first at the GA, as it is known, and though Bolsonaro was schedule to attend, his hernia surgery on Sept. 8 may prevent him from traveling to New York. On the day of his operation, Reuters reported that Bolsonaro will be able to travel from São Paulo to the country’s capital, Brasília, “in a week to 10 days.” The foreign ministry is saying that Bolsonaro is still attending UNGA. If he shows up in New York, Bolsonaro, a Trump fan, will likely tackle environmental issues — keep in mind that a sharp rise in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is taking place under his unapologetic leadership; with France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, trying to protect the Amazon amid recent fires there, the GA could provide drama if the two leaders collide.

Indeed, Brazilian media reported that Brazil’s foreign minister, Ernesto Araújo, who was visiting Washington at the time and met with Pompeo, US secretary of state, also dined with Steve Bannon, the ex-Trump nationalist, to discuss what Bolsonaro would say in his speech at the GA. Top Brazilian media reported that some countries threaten to direct their diplomats to leave the General Assembly when Bolsonaro steps up to the podium. 

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Turkish mission to the UN has not confirmed Erdogan’s attendance yet, but he has attended every GA session in the past as president, and he is high up on the preliminary schedule (fourth, on Sept. 24), so there’s a strong chance he will be there. With Erdogan growing closer to Russia militarily and the US becoming more critical of this NATO ally, Erdogan will play a core geopolitical role at the GA this year, as he does every time.

It will also be important to also hear what he intends to do about criticism over his country’s natural-gas drilling off Cyprus, whose northern half is governed by Turkish Cypriots and the rest by Greek Cypriots. The US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are partnering on “energy cooperation” in Cyprus, leaving Turkey out of the loop.

Poland’s Andrzej Duda

This Assembly will be Poland’s last chance to show off its status as an elected member of the Security Council, probably for decades. Duda is scheduled to attend the annual gathering. In his Assembly speech last year, he pushed for Security Council reforms and European Union reforms as well; as a nationalist, he is highly skeptical of the EU.

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, was elected president of the General Assembly’s 74th session on June 4, 2019. It is unclear if his country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, will attend the annual conference in September.

Cyprus’ President Nikos Anastasiadis

Greek Cypriot President Anastasiadis is scheduled to attend the meeting. With peace talks between the two sides in Cyprus stalled for more than a year but hints of a thaw, he may want to further momentum during the Assembly by meeting with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart. Resolution of the conflict that has affected the Mediterranean island for decades could end one of the longest UN peacekeeping missions.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg

This will be the last Assembly opening session during which UN members can decide how to fill the two open seats in the Security Council’s Western European and Others regional group for the 2021-22 term: Canada, Ireland or Norway? So Norway is all in. Solberg and other Norwegian top officials will attend, including a prominent member of the opposition party and former UN envoy, Espen Barth Eide, all aiming to strengthen the country’s bid. Jens Stoltenberg, the head of NATO and a Norwegian, is also supposed to attend.

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani

Iranian sources confirm, after sudden visa hurdles instigated by the US, that he is coming to speak on Sept. 25, so the president’s attendance will be one to observe closely, considering the heat in the Strait of Hormuz and possible dealmaking with Trump, now that John Bolton, his national security adviser and a staunch anti-Iran hawk, is gone. Furthermore, US sanctions against Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, had also affected his visa possibilities to enter the US, but Iran says he is coming to UNGA. (Earlier in July, a US State Department spokesperson told CNN, “The State Department will evaluate specific circumstances related to this designated on a case-by-case basis consistent with existing laws.”)

India’s Narendra Modi

Heightened strife between India and Pakistan regarding Indian Prime Minister Modi’s sudden move in August to seize full control Kashmir will surely be reflected at the Assembly session, and Modi is confirmed as attending (on the 27th). Earlier in August, India revoked article 370 of the Indian constitution, giving a special independent status to the region of Kashmir and stoking a potential conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations. On Aug. 16, the UN Security Council met in a closed-door session to discuss the highly disputed move by Modi on Kashmir but no statement was issued, and Russia, a permanent member of the Council, reiterated that the problem is an internal affair of India’s. Modi is planning to discuss development issues in his speech at the GA and apparently has no plans to meet with Imran Khan, below. Yet “fireworks,” may be set off, one UN pundit claims, between Khan and Modi during UNGA. (See our Aug. 19, 2019 report on the Kashmir action by India, by Barbara Crossette.)

Pakistan’s Imran Khan

Since India revoked Article 370 recently, Pakistani diplomats first met at the UN bilaterally with the president of the Security Council, who in August was Joanna Wronecka, ambassador for Poland. That followed with a closed-door meeting in the Council on Aug. 16, which produced no results except for China to publicly throw its support behind Pakistan and Russia to reinforce India’s position that the problem is an internal affair. Khan, Pakistan’s head of government, is on the GA’s schedule (for the 27th), and is confirmed as coming. This would be an opportunity for him to rally support for Pakistan in defending against Modi’s moves on Kashmir. Khan is a relatively new political player in South Asia, however, and he will be tested as he wasn’t last year because of Kashmir. Pakistani diplomats at the UN say he will talk about Kashmir the entire time he is in New York, and he has plans to meet with Trump.

Ireland’s Michael Higgins

Ireland is another candidate for the Security Council seat that checked “attending” the GA. President Higgins is scheduled to address the Assembly and will probably try to get as many pledges as possible for a Council seat next year from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (Presumably, Ireland has Europe’s backing, being a member of the European Union, whereas Norway is not.) Higgins, who has been in office since 2011, attends the Assembly regularly. (For Canada’s plans, see below.)

Italy’s Giuseppe Conte

In late August, the government of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte nearly collapsed, but by early September he succeeded in hanging on and even named a new foreign minister, Luigi De Maio, so it looks like they will both attend the General Assembly session, with Conte scheduled to speak on Sept. 27. The burning question as to whether the minister of interior, Matteo Salvini, will be there is now moot. Yet Italy’s new controversial law on refugees remains a sore point. It was criticized by the UN because it would slap a fine of one million euros on any nonprofit group with a rescuing boat carrying migrants across the Mediterranean.

Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari

Nigerian President Buhari is scheduled to speak early on, after Turkey, on Sept. 24. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Nigeria’s UN permanent representative, will also serve as president of the Assembly for the year, so September is a big month for the country. The latter’s priorities are said to be “peace and security, poverty eradication, zero hunger, quality education, climate action and inclusion.”

Britain’s Boris Johnson

Stable is not how British politics can be described right now, and Johnson is still settling in as prime minister, facing critical hurdles. The UN schedule says Britain’s head of government will speak on Sept. 24 (Johnson last visited the UN when he was foreign minister, in 2017), and he is confirmed as speaking. Priorities will be the SDGs, girls’ education, climate change and trade. Any interaction he has with Trump will be duly noted.

Germany’s Angela Merkel

Germany will be represented in the speaking slot on Sept. 28 by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who has traveled to the UN several times in his new role already. A four-year interval seems the right time for Merkel’s appearance, and her arrival at the UNGA was just confirmed by her government, but it is a brief stay. She will speak at the climate change summit on Sept. 23 and is attending the Sustainable Development Goals conferences.

Merkel’s speech at the climate meeting gives Germany a chance to boast about its ambitions, including going carbon-neutral by 2050. (First, it must close its coal-producing operations, no easy goal.) Merkel, ever practical, was considering who else will be at the GA and potential bilateral meetings she could arrange (she has no plans to meet with Trump). The government is organizing a conference with the UN to bring together major players in the Libyan civil war, and Maas is holding a ministerial-level forum on Sept. 25 on multilateralism with France and dozens of other countries, but Merkel will be gone by then.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, last appeared at the United Nations in New York in September 2015, to attend the prominent meeting adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. She will show up for the new General Assembly session. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

Palestinian National Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas

As issues touching Palestine remain at the top of the UN’s agenda, the attendance of Mahmoud Abbas is inevitably scrutinized. Abbas may address controversies within the leadership of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa), as well as expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank by Israel. The Palestinian Authority’s blatant rebuttal of Trump’s still-secret “peace plan” for the region could also come up in his speech. Moreover, Palestine leadership was eagerly awaiting the Israeli election results on Sept. 17, hoping Netanyahu would be voted out and giving the Palestinians, they said at a media briefing at the UN, “breathing room” to revive peace talks on their terms. That space may already be open, as Netanyahu is not coming to the UNGA.


China’s Xi Jinping

With crumbling relations between the US and China over trade, Xi Jinping will probably not meet with his American counterpart in New York City. That’s what the schedule indicates for now — the Chinese mission to the UN says it’s too early to tell. Although China is scheduled to speak at the end of the first high-level week, off the record, officials indicate that Xi will not attend. The riots in Hong Kong could keep him grounded in China as well.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin

Russia will be the rotating president of the Security Council in September, yet Moscow has said it will entrust Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to speak at the Assembly. As Russia’s ambassador to the UN from 1994 to 2004, Lavrov usually handles all UN-related business for his government. He is scheduled to speak on Sept. 28 but is apparently jockeying to have his date moved up.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau

Canada’s situation is tricky. During the Assembly session, Prime Minister Trudeau will be in the middle of the last month of his re-election campaign, and thus unlikely to take off for New York. The tentative schedule says Canada will be represented by its head of state, which could mean either the Queen of England or the Governor General, who rarely attends high-level international events. According to the UN, Julie Payette, the governor general, is scheduled to speak for Canada on Sept. 24.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was planning to attend, according to the Israeli mission at the UN, but the Sept. 18 election has nixed that possibility amid uncertain results from the national vote. He was scheduled to speak on Sept. 27, the day after the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is tentatively planned to speak.

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman

As of Aug. 30, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was no longer on the list of attending heads of state, and in his stead a government minister is now speaking. For the media and many other sectors of society around the world, Saudi Arabia is still not absolved of the 2018 murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and a columnist for The Washington Post. The Saudis will be watched for their response to a UN report that concluded the Saudi government was responsible for what amounted to a premeditated execution. In June, a French human-rights expert and UN special rapporteur, Agnès Callamard, called on the UN in her report to launch an international criminal investigation to determine individual liability. Nothing has been done so far, at least publicly known.


Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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