US-UN Relations

#UNGA76 Vaccination Rules; Gabon Peacekeepers Ousted; Macron Drops Out of UN Debate

Abdulla Shahid, the new president of the United Nations General Assembly and from the Maldives, held a press conference on his first day in that role, on Sept. 14. He pledged, among other goals, not to sit on any panel discussion that is not gender-balanced. JOHN PENNEY

Vaccine-policy confusion as delegates arrive for UNGA; Gabon’s troops repatriated from a United Nations peacekeeping mission; President Macron of France won’t participate in the UN high-level debate.

You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues facing the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources.

UNGA updates: As global leaders are already descending on New York City for the annual gathering of the General Assembly, from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27, more information is coming out about what will happen at the 76th session. Our preview story (published with Geneva Solutions) and podcast episode on UNGA, as it’s known, cover much ground. But flux is the word for each day, including sudden new requirements by New York City that delegates must show proof of vaccination to enter the UN — a problem that has been resolved, more or less (see Sept. 16).

The parties to the Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA (Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) may meet during UNGA, but no date has been confirmed yet. On Sept. 17, however, US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said of such a meeting with Iran Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, while he is in the city: “We have not made any direct plans for bilateral meetings while they are here, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see value in having discussions with the Iranians, because we do want to move forward on issues related to the JCPOA.” The Iran talks in Vienna have been suspended since June. Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, is scheduled to speak to the General Assembly on Sept. 21 by pre-recorded video. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be in town from Sept. 20 to 23.

Per European diplomats: Germany will participate in UNGA with three top officials, a big showing over previous years: Chancellor Angela Merkel is virtually attending the closed-door climate-change roundtable held by UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Sept. 20 (co-led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, also in person); President Frank-Walter Steinmeier is speaking for the country on Sept. 24 (and meeting with Guterres that day); and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is attending a meeting on Libya (Sept. 21) and on Afghanistan (a G20 meeting led by Italy, on Sept. 22). The main focus for Germany’s participation in UNGA will be overcoming Covid-19, women’s rights and — its overarching theme — multilateralism. Germany’s new ambassador to the UN, its first woman in the post, has arrived. Her name is Antje Leendertse.

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The day after the US announced a new security partnership with Australia and Britain, France — livid over the deal — recalled its Washington and Canberra ambassadors. Plus, President Emmanuel Macron was scheduled to speak (via pre-recorded video) at UNGA on Sept. 21, the same day that President Joe Biden is to make his debut at the rostrum. But as of Sept. 18, the plan for Macron changed, and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will speak for France on Sept. 27, by video, according to the French mission to the UN.

In “bilats,” leaders who are scheduled to meet one on one with Guterres on Sept. 20 include Biden; Josep Borrell, foreign affairs minister of the European Commission; Charles Michel, president of the European Council; and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission.

The International Crisis Group‘s Richard Gowan and Ashish Pradhan said in their preview of UNGA that they expected a subdued affair, given the pandemic’s still-thriving status. The main star will be Biden, speaking for the first time as president. He will probably rhapsodize on multilateralism, not say much about Afghanistan and cast China as a country that is disrupting the rules-based order, the previewers said. The US participation will also feature a Biden-led virtual Covid vaccine summit, on Sept. 22 (see Sept. 17). Beyond the US, President Bolsonaro of Brazil, who speaks first, before Biden, could set off “fireworks,” as Gowan put it, given current affairs in his country over the pandemic and his re-election quest. For poorer countries, their main focus in UNGA speeches will be emphasizing global vaccine inequities.

Volkan Bozkir, center, whose yearlong term as president of the UN General Assembly has just ended, had a goodbye party before he returns to Turkey. The event, held outdoors at the UN, was austere, keeping in mind the pandemic: no food or drinks. JOHN PENNEY

Who will sit in Afghanistan‘s seat at the UN? The ambassador assigned by the previous Afghan regime, Ghulam Isaczai, was credentialed by the General Assembly only until this week, and the Taliban have not notified the UN that they want to send their own representative, although they could do so at any time. (Afghanistan is scheduled to speak on Sept. 27, but it may end up being an empty seat, or Isaczai could sit in it. He asked the UN recently if he can stay on.) A foreign-ministers’ lunch with Britain, France, Russia and the US is in the works, but a British Cabinet shuffle on Sept. 15 left Dominic Raab out and Liz Truss in as the new foreign minister. (Johnson is scheduled to speak at UNGA on Sept. 22; Truss is planning a meeting with the permament members of the UN Security Council that day on Afghanistan; Johnson and Truss are also visiting the White House on Wednesday.)

At the Sept. 22 vaccine summit led by Biden, he will focus on reaching international consensus on ending the coronavirus pandemic, according to The Washington Post. World leaders who attend the conference are being asked to commit to “shared targets,” such as ensuring that at least 70 percent of the global population is vaccinated by next year’s UNGA. About a third of the world has been fully vaccinated.

The “climate action” roundtable on Sept. 20 at 9 A.M. EDT, led by Guterres and Boris Johnson of the UK, will address the mitigation, financing and adaptation gaps in dealing with the global warming “crisis,” but it is primarily meant to drum up excitement for the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November. John Kerry, the US envoy for climate, is expected to attend, among others. Guterres and Johnson are holding a media stakeout after the meeting (live on UN WebTV). (Relatedly, a new report from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on the Nationally Determined Contributions of all Parties to the Paris Agreement reveals an ever-grim picture for the world.)

Scoop: Staffan de Mistura, who was the UN’s previous envoy for Syria and has held other high-profile posts for the organization over many decades, has again been proposed as the UN envoy for Western Sahara. His name was originally proposed by Guterres several months ago, but a source familiar with the discussions told PassBlue that Morocco, which is in dispute with the Frente Polisario-led enclave, rejected de Mistura for the role. But apparently Morocco was pressured by the US to accept him more recently, and his name has been submitted to the Security Council for approval. The back-and-forth on de Mistura has raised questions as to why Morocco agreed finally. The US holds the file in the Security Council on Minurso, the UN referendum mission in Western Sahara, whose mandate is up for renewal in October. In August, Alexander Ivanko of Russia was named the head of Minurso, where he had been chief of staff since 2009. It is rare for Russia to hold the top post in a UN mission. (For more on US-Morocco relations, see Sept. 13.)

Culture: The New York-based Photoville nonprofit group is sponsoring an exhibition with the UN, “In Their Hands: Women Taking Ownership of Peace,” opening in Brooklyn Bridge Park on Sept. 18 at  7 P.M. The show profiles 14 women from around the world “who have mediated with armed groups, participated in peace talks, advanced political solutions and advocated for women’s rights and participation.” Their stories come from the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, South Sudan, Sudan, Lebanon, Yemen and Colombia.

Our new UNGA quiz will sharpen your IQ. And please don’t forget to donate to PassBlue, an independent, women-led media site that has been reporting on the UN since 2011. This marks our 10th UNGA, and spotting global leaders as they rush down the hallways and throwing questions at them is part of the scene. (Merhaba, President Erdogan!)

Sunday, Sept. 12

Myanmar’s Credentials at the UN: Some of the world’s best minds on international law publish a letter asking the General Assembly’s secretive credentials committee to keep the current Myanmar ambassador to the UN in place and the junta’s candidate out.

Monday, Sept. 13

UN’s Guterres Proposes a 2023 Summit of the Future in ‘Our Common Agenda’ Report, an essay by Richard Ponzio and Joris Larik explain how the secretary-general’s proposal for a “new social contract between governments and governed” features the active, equal participation of women, universal social protection, health coverage and universal Internet access as a basic human right.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres held a fund-raiser for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, generating $1 billion in pledges. His speech is here. At the event, Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, said that when he met with the Taliban recently in Kabul, he received assurances, now in writing, that include these excerpts: “We have made it clear in all public forums that we are committed to all rights of women, rights of minorities and principles of freedom of expression in the light of religion and culture, therefore we once again reiterate our commitment and will gradually take concrete steps with the help of the international community.”

• The permanent missions of the US, Israel, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco to the UN marked the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. The Israeli ambassador to the US and the UN said that universities in Israel, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain and the US are opening programs “so that the next generation . . . can tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, together.” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks. In addition, on Sept. 17, Blinken commemorated the anniversary with the parties to the accords virtually. The Moroccan foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, said, among other things, that “partnerships in sensitive sectors have been launched” with his country and Israel, “including in cybersecurity and interoperability of forces through joint military special forces exercises. . . .”

Sawako Shirahase of Japan has been named senior vice-rector of United Nations University.

Tuesday, Sept. 14

• Spokesperson’s briefing: At commemorations marking the closing of the 75th session of the General Assembly and the opening of the 76th, incoming UNGA president Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives gave a speech describing his “five rays of hope.” He committed to prioritizing vaccine equity and equitable Covid recovery for developing countries; declared the 76th session the “supersession for nature”; and highlighted the need for climate action, particularly for island states like the Maldives. Finally, he committed to prioritizing human rights and women’s rights and noted specifically that he will not sit on any panels that are not gender-balanced.

Wednesday, Sept. 15

The UN Urges the Somali Government to Stop a Surge in Sexual Assault Cases: Catherine Morrison reports on new UN data revealing a surge in sexual assault cases against women, girls and boys in Somalia from 2019 to 2020.

• Spokesperson’s briefing: The UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic is repatriating all Gabonese military units from the operation. “This decision follows credible reports received by the Mission of sexual abuse by the Gabonese military contingent deployed to the peacekeeping mission,” Stéphane Dujarric said. A total of 32 allegations of sexual exploitation since 2015 have been documented by the UN. In a blog post for the Council on Foreign Relations, Haydn Welch pointed out about the news that “no UN investigations into peacekeepers’ sexual misconduct have led to any public convictions.”

• Abdulla Shahid, the new president of the General Assembly, received a letter from the New York City mayor’s office saying that all delegates attending UNGA will have to show proof of vaccination, a UN-based reporter for The Mainichi tweeted. This countered the arrangement proposed by the previous Assembly president, Volkan Bozkir. Shahid then wrote a letter voicing his support for the New York City policy. That stance infuriated Russia, whose UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, sent a letter to Shahid and Guterres saying that Russia was “very much surprised and disappointed” by Shahid’s response. Russia said that requiring proof of vaccination is “discriminatory” and “contrary” to the agreement between the UN and the US “regarding the Headquarters of the United Nations of 1947.”

A protest across the street from UN headquarters this week, demanding attention by the UN to Cuban political prisoners. “Shame on the UN,” some demonstrators shouted through a bullhorn. JOHN PENNEY 

Thursday, Sept. 16

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Dujarric noted the level of Covid precautions being taken at the UN headquarters in New York City. Answering a reporter’s question on the new requirement for proof of vaccination from the city, Dujarric emphasized Guterres’s penchant for caution since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020: masks are mandatory and UN staff are required to be vaccinated to work in UN headquarters. Moreover, for UNGA, national delegations are limited to four people each in the General Assembly Hall (including the head of state or government), and the “honor system” remains (see Shahid’s letter below), whereby the action of swiping a badge to enter the UN acts as a Covid-free attestation. The UN is still working with the US and New York City officials to accommodate the needs amid the pandemic. “We fully expect to find appropriate solutions consistent with our respective requirements and status,” Dujarric said.

As PassBlue reported, the US, as the UN’s host country, strongly encouraged member states not to come to UNGA but to send pre-recorded videos instead. That message seems to have been heard by approximately half of the UN’s 193 members, according to the latest list of speakers.

The honor system for delegates entering the UN General Assembly Hall was back into play as of Sept. 16.

Friday, Sept. 17

• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres spoke at the Major Economies Forum convened by Biden. “There is a high risk of failure of COP26,” Guterres said. He also referred to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change report, which notes a 16 percent increase in carbon emissions since 2010, putting the world on a “catastrophic pathway to 2.7 degrees Celsius of heating.”

US Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield held a media briefing highlighting the country’s priorities at UNGA. She described three areas of focus: ending the pandemic, resolving the “climate crisis” and supporting human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order throughout the world. Full recording here.

ICYMI:

• Just add okra: Politico’s Ryan Heath interviews Thomas-Greenfield.

• Konrad Adenauer Stiftung’s New York office has launched UN AGORA, a blog focusing on democracy, peace and security, human rights and the rule of law, “key pillars of our work around the world, but specifically here in New York and in liaison with the United Nations.”

Dulcie Leimbach contributed reporting to this summary. 

This article will be updated continuously with new information on UNGA.

Anna Bianca Roach

Anna Bianca Roach is a Simon and June Li Center for Global Journalism Fellow who focuses on climate reporting. She has worked in Canada, Armenia and the United States and is a native speaker of English, French and Italian. She has an M.S. in investigating reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in conflict studies from the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. She has written for OpenDemocracy, The Washington Post and Deutsche Welle.

View Comments

  • Here in Canada, there is ZERO talk about any "Patent Waivers" for covid vaccines. UN also seems to be silent on a co-operative ideal of the urgent "sharing" of technology. A reminder: "Us and Them" philosophies lead to division upon division of humanity that is entirely ONE homo sapiens chromosomal "set," one "genus," if you will. Russia deemed Afghanistan as a "Them," while USA created opposition against the Russian "Them" in Afghanistan, and then of course the USA-led coalition deemed the Taliban and others as "Them" to be occupied and converted to the appropriately tamed "US." Until humanity recognizes the addiction of Us and Them, we will be at war. Australia buying submarines for "defence" from China is the Us and Them flatulence of global Military Industrial Complex, determined to create new enemies to promote "divide and conquer" with "Us and Them Hate Technology."

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