The General Assembly is surely going to be a very interesting place this month — even if world leaders are staying home for the annual opening debate because of the pandemic.
On Monday, Sept. 21, the General Assembly is hosting a special session to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. For this virtual-hybrid event, delegates in New York City have over the last six months negotiated a joint declaration. The declaration is under embargo until Sept. 21, and it looks back to the founding of the UN from the ashes of World War II and ahead to a series of collective actions to address the world’s contemporary crises — the pandemic and its economic fallout — and to put the UN at the center of responses to the global disasters. The list of speakers, below, beginning with the United States, includes 82 heads of state.
The next day, the General Assembly formally begins its 75th session with opening statements from all member countries, with the handover to a new Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir of Turkey, having occurred on Sept. 15. The national statements are traditionally delivered in person by either the head of state, head of government, the minister of foreign affairs or the country’s permanent representative in New York City.
Normally, the General Assembly Hall is packed, with each country filling its six allocated seats. However, because of Covid-19, there will be only one government representative behind the country’s delegation sign and all senior government statements will be either pre-recorded or webcast, except possibly the statement by the host country.
In August, President Trump said he would like to deliver the US statement in person — albeit to a largely empty hall. So far, the UN says it has no confirmation on what the US will do. UPDATE: On Sept. 17, the US announced Trump will not be physically coming to the UN General Assembly opening session.
The timing of the Sept. 22 statement by the US, during the last weeks of Trump’s campaign for re-election on Nov. 3, is generating much speculation in the international community and among media about what he might say, given his bombastic style and hostility to the UN.
Over the past three and a half years, the US administration’s America First policy has taken many steps to distance the US from multilateralism. Some readers may be familiar with two or three of them that have been reported across the world. In fact, since the Trump administration has been in office since Jan. 20, 2017, it has taken 20 actions to deconstruct the post-WW II global governance system. These actions include:
• Quitting the Paris climate accord to combat climate change
• Withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
• Withdrawing from the Human Rights Council, Unesco and the World Health Organization
• Announcing its intent to leave the United Nations Postal Union
• Withdrawing from treaties on arms trade and intermediate-range nuclear forces
• Vetoing earlier Security Council resolutions on the status of Jerusalem, recognizing the city as Israel’s capital in violation of international agreements and moving the US embassy there
• Reversing positions on the occupied West Bank to open the way for more Jewish settlements
• Imposing sanctions on staff members, including the prosecutor, of the International Criminal Court
• Ending contributions to the UN Population Fund (Unfpa); aid to Palestinian refugees (Unrwa); and to counterterrorism, peacekeeping and the Green Climate funds
• Blocking the operations of the appellate body of World Trade Organization (WTO)
• Refusing to join the international alliance to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine (Covax)
• Boycotting international agreements on migration
• Meddling in procedures of the Law of the Sea Convention, which it has never ratified (Unclos)
So what should the world expect from Trump’s statements, on Sept. 21 and 22, to the General Assembly? Experts have raised a wide range of possibilities. They could be a repeat of previous years, explaining how Make America Great Again has restored American leadership, despite a series of Trump’s failures, most notably on containing the Covid-19 pandemic in the US. The country has by far the highest number of Covid-19 confirmed cases in the world, currently at 6.6 million and the most deaths: at least 196,000 people.
Or Trump may surprise everyone — which he tends to do — and use one of his speeches to advance his other campaign — to be selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In this scenario, he would highlight his role in bringing about peace among Israel and some of the smaller Arab countries in the region, although not the Palestinians.
On the high-risk side for multilateralism, UN-watchers have suggested that he could retaliate to the recent snub in the Security Council for its refusal in August to approve a resolution extending the Iran arms embargo (part of the Iran nuclear deal) and announce a postponement or cancellation of the US’s regularly scheduled October payment to the UN. He could advise his fellow UN members that he would consider in his next term withdrawing from the UN; or more dramatically and in line with the views of his base, he could announce that the US is withdrawing from the UN immediately.
That there are no provisions in the UN Charter for a member to withdraw would not undermine the political effect of any of these actions. According to Security Council Procedure, an independent organization that tracks the UN body’s work, wrote on Twitter on Sept. 14 (though not addressing whether the US would remain the host country):
“If Trump takes US out of the UN, this will *not* mean #UNHQ has to leave New York. By res. 100(I) the GA accepted Rockefeller gift of $8,500,000 by which UN bought the land where UN premises are now located.”
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