How women’s issues could be more prominent at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual opening session remains an enigma. The topics of women’s rights and gender equality pop up in speeches by world leaders, including those by women, but their remarks just don’t stand out — especially this year.
“As the UN rightly tries to improve its record on women’s leadership within the organization, it is disconcerting that comparatively few women will be playing a leadership role for their countries during UNGA,” said Melanne Verveer, the executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. “This is not a hopeful sign.”
Nevertheless, here are key highlights of what was said about women’s rights during the high-level debates and related events at the UN.
Men Who Stand Up for Women
Finland, the first European country to grant women full suffrage, in 1906, has a history of progressive actions toward gender equality. Yet its current minister for development cooperation and foreign trade, Ville Skinnari, is male. That’s relevant because he says that one way he can do his job pushing for economic growth is to ensure the rights of women and girls.
To the Finns, Skinnari’s gender is a strength: ”The message of equality becomes stronger when voices delivering it are more plural,” wrote Skinnari in an email to PassBlue. “In my capacity, I have recently confirmed our development policy priorities, and the rights of women and girls remain as our number one priority. Finland’s Minister for Equality is a man as well and he works under the Foreign Ministry. It is this minister’s responsibility to ensure that any proposed new legislation has a positive impact on gender equality.”
Speeches Mentioning Women
Of the 83 world leaders speaking on the first two days of the UNGA debate, Sept. 24 and 25, only 5 were women. While women were grossly underrepresented, the role of women and women’s rights was used as a trope in some speeches — most notably by men.
President Donald Trump of the United States and President Emmanuel Macron of France mentioned women, for example, in a range of ways. For Trump, that meant two camps: talking about women as victims or as businesswomen. He accentuated that women in Venezuela must stand in line for food and that migrant women trying to reach the US must contend with sexual assault.
He also reaffirmed his administration’s anti-abortion stance, despite that the majority of Americans support access to comprehensive family planning, including abortion, saying: “Americans will also never tire of defending innocent life. We are aware that many United Nations projects have attempted to assert a global right to taxpayer funded abortion on demand right up until the moment of delivery. Global bureaucrats have absolutely no business attacking the sovereignty of nations that wish to protect innocent life.”
Trump also praised the global women’s entrepreneur initative of his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump, saying: “Nations that empower women are much wealthier, safer and much more politically stable. It is, therefore, vital not only to a nation’s prosperity but also is vital to its national security to pursue women’s economic development. Guided by these principles, my administration launched the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity Initiatives.”
Macron was more sophisticated about women’s rights. Although his speech was an ode to multilateralism, he called for nations to use best practices to benefit women globally. “We see inequalities between men and women become a step backward . . . a step backward for education, a step backward for economic growth. This is why we strongly support the United Nations on this agenda for three principles: to emancipate, protect and ensure equality.”
When Women Leaders Speak, Should They Call Out Women’s Issues?
The first day of the UNGA high-level debate, on Sept. 24, featured only three women: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Croatia’s President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova. None of them spoke at length on women’s issues. Instead, they focused on climate change and the need for international cooperation.
While Grabar-Kitarovic gave a token nod to multilateralism, she stuck primarily to climate change: Croatia’s coast has more than 1,200 islands, islets and crags. This topic also kept her off her country’s growing nationalist and populist politics.
Caputova and Ardern both spoke about climate change and the growing divide between globalism and patriotism (or nationalism), a theme that ran throughout many of the day’s speeches. By rebutting such political ideologies as populism and nationalism, which have been proven to have detrimental effects on women, the speeches of Arden and Caputova could be perceived as indirect comments on women’s issues.
“More and more often, we hear leaders speaking about putting the national interest before the global good,” Caputova said. “And yet, the best way to be patriotic actually lies not in national egoism but in cooperation.”
Ardern discussed the need for cooperation amid the world’s “increasing interconnection.”
She added: “Our globalised, borderless world asks us to be guardians not just for our people, but for all people.”
Estonia’s President Kersti Kajulaid, who spoke on Sept. 25, was more direct about women, connecting their empowerment to technology. “We see the Internet as a wonderful tool for educating girls globally, offering jobs for women globally, thus reducing global population growth by emancipating women,” she said.
The Climate Action Summit: Some Gender Numbers
Almost all of the women who spoke at the conference on Sept. 23 were global leaders — starting with the first group of speakers: Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel; Hilda Heine, president of the Marshall Islands; and Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was the lone male.
Ardern is considered part of the current wave of multilateralism cheerleaders. Heine, along with Bahamas’ Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, were both outspoken on the cataclysmic effects of climate change on small island nations.
“The world finds it possible to apply resources to solving male baldness,” said Mottley, calling these efforts “misplaced priorities,” adding, “We refuse to be relegated to the footnotes of history.”
Most of the conference’s panel events, however, never came close to gender parity. There was fewer than one woman on each panel, with an average appearance of only .82 women across the 23 panels. Women made up only 20 percent of the speakers at the climate conference.
Iran to the US: Enough of Your ‘Economic Terrorism’
Iran was front and center at the UN General Assembly general debate on Sept. 25, with President Hassan Rouhani’s speech highly anticipated that morning. But even earlier in the day, the European Union held a ministerial meeting at the UN to try to save the Iran nuclear deal.
It was not a moment of reckoning but a gesture by the E3/EU+2 — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia as well as Iran — to keep breathing life in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The meeting was chaired by the European Union high representative, Federica Mogherini.
Little to no progress was made on the dossier. If anything, it seemed impossible to see what happened at all. Mogherini kept a brave face, reading a statement to the media that the nuclear deal “remains a key element of the global nuclear nonproliferation architecture and a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy.”
A few beats later, she admitted to a reporter’s question about preserving the JCPOA, “I will not hide that it is increasingly difficult to do it and we have discussed today the fact that we will try and continue keeping the agreement in place and overcome the difficulties we are facing.”
Soon after, Rouhani stepped up to the General Assembly podium with a stern message to President Trump: Iran is fed up.
“Our response to any negotiations under sanctions is negative,” he said. He accused Washington of committing “economic terrorism,” just hours after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced new sanctions against Iran’s largest oil customer.
During Rouhani’s speech, Israel’s section in the General Assembly Hall was empty. Hugh Dugan, from the State Department’s Office of the Special Presidential Envoy of Hostage Affairs, was the sole American representing Washington in the US section. In the Saudi seats, two delegates were taking notes.
The Saudis had good reasons to pay close attention: Rouhani warned Saudi Arabia to stop bombing Yemen and to stop letting foreign powers interfere in the region: “The way to stability in the Middle East is found within rather than beyond,” he said.
Contrary to Trump’s speech at the General Assembly the day before, Rouhani did not directly threaten more military intervention in the region but appealed to foreign powers to work together to avoid such a conflict. He did not discuss the recent Aramco attacks in Saudi Arabia, in which Iran has denied a role but the Trump administration and some other Western countries have accused of Iran as the culprit.
“Let’s invest on hope for a better future rather than in war and violence,” Rouhani said. “Let’s return to justice, to peace, to law, to commitment and treaty and the negotiating table.”
In contrast, Trump boasted in his speech about his administration’s deep investment in the US military, saying: “Hopefully, it will not have to use this power. Others seek conquest and domination, our nation must be strong in wealth, might and spirit.” — STÉPHANIE FILLION
No US Visas for These Russian Diplomats
Russia accused the United States of denying — or delaying until it was too late — visas to several Russian diplomats who had been planning to attend the General Assembly opening session and as Russia holds the monthly rotating presidency of the Security Council.
The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Sept. 24, saying, “This latest case of disregard for the rights of sovereign states and international organisations, as well as failure to honor one’s obligations under international law, will be the main subject of Sergey Lavrov’s conversation with Mike Pompeo in New York.”
Dimitryi Polyanskiy, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue that at least three Russian diplomats did not get the appropriate paperwork from the US on time. The Russian press release said, “The required documents were submitted within the timeframe set by American diplomats.”
According to Polyanskiy, the Russian diplomats were Senator Leonid Slutsky; Konstantin Kosatchev, a member of the Duma (parliament); and the head of Lavrov’s secretariat, Sergey Butin. The US Department of State told PassBlue in a statement: “We evaluate each visa application on a case by case basis, consistent with existing laws and obligations.”
As the host government, the US is obliged to issue visas to diplomats who serve at UN headquarters. But the US has been known to delay the processing of the documents for political reasons. This month, it appeared to be deliberately delaying the visas for President Hassan Rouhani of Iran and the country’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, around the time of the attack on the Aramco oil production operations in Saudi Arabia. The visas came through in time for the UN General Assembly high-level debates.
Russia responded to the lack of visas for its diplomats by saying, “This is an outrageous example of US disrespect for UN member states and its obligations as the host country of this world organisation.”
In turn, the State Department said, “We take our obligations under the UNHQ Agreement seriously.”
Russian media reported the number of diplomats that were refused a US visa was around 10, but the Russian mission to the UN only named three people. — STÉPHANIE FILLION
Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.