This week, we focus on the preparations of the annual United Nations General Assembly opening session with world leaders — “high-level week” — from Sept. 20-26 and other stories around the world. The speakers’ list is constantly revising, though it’s confirmed that President Biden is now slated to deliver his remarks on Sept. 21.
You are reading This Week @UN, summarizing the most pressing issues before the organization. The information is gathered from UN press briefings, PassBlue reporting and other sources. This week, we look at the happenings in Britain with the late Queen Elizabeth II’s obsequies, Russia’s ammonia export woes and overall expectations for the 77th General Assembly session, known as UNGA77.
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Check out our new quiz, on UNGA77, for its stumping questions and bubbly laugh at the end, written by Laura Kirkpatrick and designed by John Penney.
• Vera Songwe of Cameroon resigned as of Sept. 1 as the UN under secretary-general and executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca), nearly a year after her controversial decision to appoint Britain’s former health secretary, Matt Hancock, as an unpaid special envoy on financial innovation and climate change for Uneca, which is based in Addis Ababa. The Oct. 12, 2021 appointment of Hancock, a British parliamentarian, was resoundingly questioned as soon as he tweeted the news, given his lack of experience with African economies, Britain’s deeply flawed pandemic response under his watch and his resignation from his government post after being caught on camera kissing a colleague amid social-distancing rules. PassBlue broke the story on Oct. 15 that the UN was aborting the appointment of Hancock by Songwe, and our tweet about the news went viral. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
• UN Women and BlackRock update: An open letter signed by 700-plus feminist groups and activists sent on Aug. 8 to UN Women, protesting a recently announced partnership between the agency and BlackRock, a United States-based hedge fund, resulted in the cancellation of the arrangement. The letter pointed out that BlackRock personifies “crisis-prone speculation-based capitalism” and that the May 25 joint press releases announcing the partnership by both parties offered no useful or explicit details on what it would accomplish. Such vagueness, the letter writers contended, could give UN Women the appearance of “pinkwashing” BlackRock, since there was no clear benefit for gender equality stated in the partnership goals. According to the letter, the relationship between the UN agency and BlackRock “gives UN Women the job of sanitizing the reputation of an asset management institution whose investments have contributed to some degree to climate catastrophe, the economic immiseration of women and other groups marginalized because of sexuality, gender, race, and class, and the proliferation of weapons, and by association, the increased recourse to political violence in unstable politics.” UN Women’s executive director, Sima Bahous, responded on Aug. 10 to the petition and other outpouring of concern by saying the partnership was “paused,” pending an “internal review.” Within two weeks, the parnership was canceled, albeit with no public announcement. UN Women had organized several meetings in the latter half of August with civil society representatives to hear their concerns, and in an update issued by the petition’s authors to all 727 signatories, the organizers heralded their success. Yet they noted that the pattern of what they called repeated questionable partnerships with corporations and UN entities is “bigger than BlackRock.” They urged UN Women to apply “feminist standards” for such partnerships in the future and to make arrangements with the corporate sector public. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
Monday, Sept. 12
• Born Under Apartheid, Navi Pillay Has Climbed to Global Heights in Promoting Human-Rights Law: In an exclusive interview, Barbara Crossette held an extensive conversation with Pillay, a South African lawyer and women’s advocate who is a former UN high commissioner for human rights, in which Pillay revealed stories about her complicated personal life under apartheid and her brilliant career. The story was reposted by Ms. Magazine and featured in Politico’s Global Insider newsletter:
• Spokesperson’s briefing: UN Secretary-General António Guterres closed the 76th session of the General Assembly, saying that it faced deepening challenges. He thanked the outgoing president of UNGA, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, and congratulated the incoming president, Csaba Korosi, a Hungarian diplomat. He began his statement saying, “A world of widening geopolitical divides and protracted uncertainty” confronts the General Assembly and that the “conflict in Ukraine has been a turning point for all of us.” His full remarks.
Tuesday, Sept. 13
• The UN General Assembly Must Fix Myanmar’s Muddled Representation and Send a Profound Message to the Junta: In their op-ed essay, Chris Gunness and Damian Lilly write that as the 77th session of the Assembly opens, its highly secretive Credentials Committee must decide in the next few months who will represent Myanmar throughout the UN system: the current representative, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun (who is a member of the democratically elected National Unity Government), or an envoy installed by the Myanmar military junta? Besides the permanent members of China, Russia and the US, the new members of the Credentials Committee are Angola, Austria, Guyana, Maldives, Uruguay and Zambia.
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Stéphane Dujarric announced that because of events scheduled at UN headquarters in New York City in preparation for the General Assembly high-level week, Guterres will not attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London on Sept. 19. He will be represented at the service by his chef de cabinet, Courtenay Rattray. (Guterres is convening the UNGA77 Transforming Education Summit from Sept. 16-19.)
• As the Turkish-UN-led Black Sea grain deal is being criticized by President Putin, new negotiations have begun by Rebeca Grynspan, the head of the UN Conference on Trade and Development, with Russia and others to try to alleviate some of the perceived problems. Grynspan negotiated the side deal to the Black Sea agreement, which was signed by Russia, Ukraine, the UN and Türkiye on July 22 in Istanbul, to export Ukrainian grains from the country’s main seaports to the commercial market amid the war zone. The goal of the side deal, embedded in an until-now secret memorandum of understanding between Russia and the UN, was to enable Russian foodstuffs and fertilizers (including ammonia) get to global markets as well. (Western sanctions have not been imposed on these goods but insurance companies and other businesses have been reluctant to invest in this particular market for fear of running afoul of fines related to sanctions.) Putin has been complaining recently that these Russian products have not benefited from the Black Sea deal and that Russia may threaten to withdraw from it when it is up for renewal in November. (The separate UN-Russian deal’s term is three years.) Grynspan and Amir Abdulla, the UN coordinator of the Black Sea grain deal, spoke to media on Sept. 13 by videoconference about the latest efforts to help Russia’s goods “reintegrate” into markets. (See video below.) Grynspan reiterated that the overriding goal of the grain deal was to “bring the price of food down and avert a global food crisis.” Prices have come down “significantly,” Grynspan said, for the fifth month in a row, thus “easing the pain” for the 1.6 billion people worldwide who have faced exorbitant food prices. (But prices at domestic level have not dropped.) The “humanitarian part” of the deal, she said, was to allow Ukraine grain to be bought by such agencies as the World Food Program for its hunger-alleviation programs. (She conceded that more needs to be done to get the Ukraine grain to the world’s most-vulnerable countries.) Abdulla, based in Ankara, said that nearly three million metric tons of grains have been shipped by 129 vessels since late July without “serious incident.” But Putin has said that Russia’s ammonia exports (vital to fertilizer production) have not benefited from the grain initiative, so Grynspan’s current negotiations with Russia involves a plan whereby ammonia gas owned by a Russian producer, Uralchem, would be piped to the Ukrainian border, where it would change ownership to a large New York City-based company, Trammo, Reuters reported, and continue to be piped to Ukraine’s Pivdennyi port on the Black Sea. (The pipeline has been shut since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.) Grynspan declined to reveal more information in the media briefing, but given the wide array of Western sanctions against Russia, allowing an American company to buy Russian ammonia would most likely need approval by the US and possibly Europe. The plan would also need to be O.K.’d by Ukraine, given that the gas would flow through its territory. A former diplomat from the region called the plan “too complicated” to work; on Sept. 16, US envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield in a media briefing said regarding the new effort with Russian ammonia exports that it’s a “work in progress,” though she referred to “fertilizers” and not ammonia. On Sept. 16, President Zelensky of Ukraine said to Reuters: “I am against the supply of ammonia from the Russian Federation through our territory. I would only do this in exchange for our prisoners. That’s exactly what I proposed to the UN.” (See more on this story on Sept. 14.) — DULCIE LEIMBACH
Wednesday, Sept. 14
• PassBlue’s scoop in August on Russia’s violations of global aviation rules leaving the UN with huge logistical and possibly financial problems has been updated with news about the International Civil Aviation Authority’s issuing a bulletin regarding Russia’s breach and the reaction of the UN to the warning, known as a “significant safety concern.” The UN spokesperson also provided an extensive comment to PassBlue on the matter. On Sept. 14, the UN sent a “coded cable” asking UN peacekeeping missions to ground all Russian-owned aircraft that it leases. The World Food Program did not respond to an email from PassBlue on its reaction to the ICAO bulletin.
• Secretary-General press briefing: Guterres lamented the flood crisis in Pakistan and urged all countries, led by the G20 nations, to make drastic cuts to their carbon emissions to protect people and economies. During the question and answer session (see video below), he was asked when he last talked to President Putin of Russia. He responded that he spoke with him that morning and the discussion focused on the Black Sea grain deal and new efforts to improve the flow of Russian ammonia (for fertilizers) to international markets (see Sept. 13 item); Ukrainian prisoners of war; the UN-led fact-finding mission on the Olenivka prison massacre; and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which is under siege by Russian troops. On the latter, Guterres said that talks are being held among Ukraine, Russia and the International Atomic Energy Agency, whose presence at the plant “is a very important deterrent and that their contacts are a very important deterrent in relation to any kind of attack” against it. As to whether these talks will lead to something bigger, he said, “I have the feeling that we are still far away from peace.”
Thursday, Sept. 15
• Spokesperson’s briefing: Guterres paid tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, conveying his sincere condolences on behalf of the UN “to the family, Government and the People of the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth.” He concluded that the Queen’s legacy “is an inspiring example of leadership that serves.”
• Media briefing preview of the Transforming Education Summit during UNGA77
Friday, Sept. 16
• Spokesperson’s briefing: The General Assembly approved a draft resolution to make an exception to its in-person meeting of world leaders next week and allow President Zelensky of Ukraine to deliver a pre-recorded address, on Sept. 21. The vote on Resolution A/77/L.1 received 101 yes votes; 7 no (Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia and Syria) and 19 abstentions.
• Oxfam America’s new report on “extreme hunger”: Ten of the world’s worst climate hot spots — those with the highest number of UN appeals driven by extreme weather events — have suffered a 123% rise in acute hunger in just the past six years.
• The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented torture of POWs by Russia, among other possible war crimes and crimes against humanity.
• A new citizen survey covering 22 countries reveals a high level of agreement regarding the most significant challenges facing the world today and a common desire for effective global action in response. But the findings also highlight a lack of confidence in the international community’s ability to work together to manage global threats. Pessimism about the direction of the world is most pronounced in Western Europe and the US.
• The final report of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has “criticized the systemic and longstanding failure” of the US to comply “seriously” with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and “to develop mechanisms to integrate its goals into domestic policy,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.