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Day 1 of the General Assembly’s Big Week: Leaders Lay Out the World’s Brutal Realities


President Emmanuel Macron of France
President Emmanuel Macron of France entering the UN General Assembly building, Sept. 20, 2022. The war in Ukraine must not be a conflict that leaves anyone “indifferent,” he emphasized to world leaders. The war, he said, is “undermining world peace.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

On the first day of the “high-level” week of the United Nations General Assembly, attracting approximately 150 world leaders in person to the world body for the first time since 2019, Secretary-General António Guterres, facing criticism for acting too little, too late in trying to prevent or stop Russia’s war in Ukraine, dived into his speech by highlighting his work to help free up 22 million metric tons of grain stuck in Ukraine seaports for six months. As the first of Tuesday’s speakers, Guterres pointed to his hard-won diplomacy with Türkiye to broker the Black Sea grain deal, signed in July between the two parties and Ukraine and Russia. Finally, amid six months of destruction by Russia on its neighbor, Ukrainian grains have begun to flow from the blockaded seaports to global markets and easing the prices of food worldwide. Yet President Vladimir Putin has nothing but complaints about the deal, saying that the grain is not getting to the world’s poorest countries — a claim that the UN denies — and that Russian ammonia exports need more UN sway to sell them to the rest of the world.

“But as we come together in a world teeming with turmoil, an image of promise and hope comes to my mind,” Guterres said, focusing on the grain deal. “This ship is the Brave Commander. It sailed the Black Sea with the UN flag flying high and proud. On the one hand, what you see is a vessel like any other plying the seas. But look closer. At its essence, this ship is a symbol of what we can accomplish when we act together.”

It is loaded with Ukrainian grain destined for the people of the Horn of Africa, millions of whom are on the edge of famine, he added. “It navigated through a war zone — guided by the very parties to the conflict — as part of an unprecedented comprehensive initiative to get more food and fertilizer out of Ukraine and Russia. To bring desperately needed relief to those in need. . . . Ukraine and the Russian Federation — with the support of Türkiye — came together to make it happen, despite the enormous complexities, the naysayers, and even the hell of war.”

From there, Guterres segued into other “big trouble” crises, including food insecurity, climate change — the “defining issue of our time” — inequalities and the “undermining” of the work of the Security Council. Yet his recurring theme throughout his long remarks conveyed a message of “hope.” “Let’s work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations,” he concluded.

Csaba Korosi, a Hungarian diplomat and president of the General Assembly for the 77th session, followed Guterres in the lineup of speeches on Sept. 20, noting the war in Ukraine — avoiding the word “Russia” — citing problems of access to clean water worldwide, the value of science and advancing negotiations on Security Council reform, among other topics.

Then, starting with the list of national leaders speaking one by one, President Jair Bolsonaro began the tradition of Brazil going first. He was followed by Senegal President Macky Sall, who had swapped seats with the United States, at the request of President Joe Biden, who needed time to return to Washington after attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 19. (Biden is speaking on Sept. 21 in the morning.)

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Here is a roundup of three Latin American countries, Chile, Colombia and Honduras and their new leaders (and the region dominating Day 1); as well as Senegal, Türkiye and France, in order of appearance. — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Katrín Jakobsdóttir
At the delegates’ entrance to the UN, heads of state and government, coupled with their entourages, stream in throughout the day. But Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland strolled in virtually alone, Sept. 20, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Chileans reject a new constitution but the president is unfazed The social unrest of October 2019 in Chile that led to a referendum in which the population rejected the country’s constitution and demanded a new one — whose draft was defeated this month — could happen anywhere in the world because of people’s quest for more social justice and economic equality, said Gabriel Boric, Chile’s president. In his first appearance at the UN as Chile’s head of state, having took office in March, Boric, 36, said that many observers inside and outside his country were struck by Chile, despite its relatively high rates of economic growth and human development, facing the upheaval in 2019. The crisis, dubbed “el estallido” (“the explosion”) ended with deaths, injuries and more than 400 victims of ocular trauma from security officers shooting rubber bullets at protesters’ faces. “And it can happen in your countries too,” Boric, a former student protest leader, who delivered his speech wearing a dark blazer and no tie, added. “This is why I ask you to anticipate the demands for greater social justice. Better distribution of wealth and power must go hand in hand with sustainable growth. And it is possible.” Boric’s speech, No. 3 in the roster, behind Brazil and Senegal, expounded on the devastating defeat of 62 percent of Chileans rejecting the new draft constitution, created after the unrest two years ago. Yet the protests paved the way to Boric’s election victory in December 2021. The new charter, which would have replaced the constitution enacted during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (from 1973-1990), recognized the rights of Indigenous people for the first time in the country’s history, added environmental protections, increased gender parity and guaranteed rights to affordable education and health care. Despite the defeat, Boric may have another chance, based on a 2020 referendum in which 78 percent of voters favored rewriting the constitution. With all of the country’s political parties, Boric is creating a roadmap toward a second constitutional process, an effort that seems crucial for the survival of his administration, which is grappling with a 39 percent approval rating. “As President of Chile, I am convinced that, in the short term, Chile will have a constitution that fully satisfies its citizens, one built in democracy, that includes the contribution of all sectors of society,” he said. Boric also addressed global issues. He called on countries “to carry out the necessary actions to stop Russia’s unjust war on Ukraine and put an end to all abuses by the powerful anywhere in the world.” He urged violence against women to be stopped and singled out Iran, where Mahsa Amini died in police custody this week after being arrested for improperly wearing a hijab. He also railed against normalizing “the permanent violations of human rights against the Palestinian people” and called on Nicaragua to release its political prisoners. Domestically, Boric’s administration must also de-escalate tensions in southern Chile, where Mapuche Indigenous communities seek to reclaim ancestral territories. His government deployed the military in those regions despite his campaign promises that the military option was not the way to peace. “During the first six months of the administration, we have managed as a society to create a vision of the country we want to build,” Marco Antonio Ávila, the Chilean minister of education, said in a recent interview with PassBlue. “We know that it will be difficult because political perspectives are always different, but there is a lot of goodwill in the government, in the president himself, who extends a permanent invitation to dialogue to every sector of society.” — MAURIZIO GUERRERO

Kitlang Kabua, minister of foreign affairs and trade of the Marshall Islands, Sept. 20, 2022. “We join many others, and especially our Pacific island neighbors, in condemning Russia’s continued aggression and war crimes in Ukraine,” she said. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

• Colombia’s Petro demands an end to the “irrational war on drugs” The world must end “the irrational war on drugs” that has led to the death and imprisonment of millions of people in Latin America and the United States and the destruction of Colombia’s jungles amid global efforts to eradicate coca leaves that are the precursor to cocaine, demanded President Gustavo Petro. In his first appearance at the UN as a head of state, having taken office in August, Petro, 62, said that if the world did not change its strategy on drugs, the US may see another 2.8 million people die of overdoses and millions of Black Americans jailed. Meanwhile, “a million more Latin Americans will be murdered,” he said. His speech is most likely the most forceful criticism of the war on drugs delivered by a head of state during a General Assembly high-level session. “I demand from here, from my wounded Latin America, to put an end to the irrational war on drugs,” he said. He strived to clarify the link between the war on drugs in Colombia, which is the globe’s leading cocaine producer, and the destruction of the Amazon jungle in his country, where coca leaves are eradicated with glyphosate, a highly poisonous herbicide, as part of the strategy to fight drugs. “The jungle is not to blame,” he said. He also castigated what he called capitalism’s need for profits, which he said has fed the drug markets in developed countries as well as the climate crisis. “What is more poisonous for humanity: cocaine, coal or oil?” he asked. Petro’s focus on the war on drugs is part of his development strategy for Colombia, in which the main goal is eliminating violence fueled by drug-trafficking organizations and rebel groups. Earlier this month, he launched Total Peace, an ambitious plan to fully implement the peace accord that the Farc guerrilla rebels signed in 2016 with the Colombian government but was sabotaged by unfulfilled commitments by his predecessor, Iván Duque, and armed cells splintered from the Farc, other rebels groups and criminal networks. The plan would curb the violence that has plagued Colombia for decades by investing in conflict zones and imposing a sweeping reform in the police and the military, frequently linked to human-rights abuses. In his meeting with Petro on Sept. 18, Secretary-General Guterres discussed the Colombian government’s plans to expand peace and address the drug issue in “a holistic manner.” To implement his agenda, Petro plans to tax the rich to provide free public university education and money for welfare programs. If approved by Congress, the proposal would increase taxes on the 2 percent of the country’s highest earners, reduce tax benefits and fight tax evasion to raise more than $11.5 billion a year. On the global front, Petro called on “Ukraine and Russia to make peace. Only in peace can we save life in this land of ours.” — MAURIZIO GUERRERO

Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil
Jair Bolsonaro, president of Brazil, is up for re-election in early October. He spent most of his speech to the General Assembly detailing his country’s accomplishments under his leadership, including uprooting corruption. On global matters, he avoided using the word “Russia” in his fleeting reference to the “Ukraine conflict.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

• Leftist Honduran president condemns apparent attempts to destabilize her government Honduran President Xiomara Castro, 62, who in January became the first woman head of state in her country’s history, denounced in her speech that the groups that benefited after her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a coup d’état in 2009, are trying to destabilize her administration. “The efforts of undermining the will of the people comes at us from all directions, while conspiracies are fomented among the same sectors that looted the country and their coup allies, emboldened by a brazen anti-democratic attitude, sometimes disguised as diplomacy,” said Castro, a leftist who won the election in 2021 by the highest numbers of votes in Honduras’s history. (She is currently the only woman head of state in Latin America as well.) Without naming anyone involved in the alleged destabilizing efforts, Castro seemed to refer to actors beyond Honduras. “I take this platform to demand that we be respected. We want to live in peace. Do not continue trying to destabilize Honduras, dictate its policies or choose with whom we should establish relations,” she said. President Zelaya was overthrown in a coup that was eventually backed by the United States. The US then recognized Porfirio Lobo and, later, Juan Orlando Hernández, as legitimate heads of state. Hernández, who violated the Honduran constitution to win re-election in 2017, is facing three charges of drug trafficking and possession of weapons in a federal court in New York City. “The arrogance of capital and petty interests made many opt for deception, while organized crime led the country to the precipice,” Castro said at the UN. Castro also mentioned her administration’s plans to create, with financing and legal expertise from the UN, an International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH), similar to the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. The work of that body resulted in the indictment of three former presidents and the prosecution of dozens of prominent government officials. If the commission is established in Honduras, Castro’s presidency could offset the current politically autocratic tendencies elsewhere in Central America –Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and even Costa Rica — where justice systems are becoming increasingly subservient to the executive branch. On the global front, Castro referred to only Cuba and Venezuela. She criticized “the infamous and brutal blockade” against Cuba and called to end the “aggression against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” — MAURIZIO GUERRERO

Macky Sall
President Macky Sall of Senegal, Sept. 20, 2022. He is a rising star in the continent as the current chair of the African Union. He also barely mentioned the “war in Ukraine,” as he called it, despite its damaging effects on food prices. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Senegal wants an African seat in the G20 The chair of the African Union and president of Senegal, Macky Sall, called on the General Assembly to give Africa a seat in the Group of 20 as the continent can do more for the world if it is properly engaged, he suggested. “I reaffirm the request for the African Union to be granted a seat in the G20 so that Africa can finally be represented where decisions affecting 1 billion, 400 million Africans are being taken,” Sall said. “It is time for a fair and more inclusive global governance that is more adapted to the realities of our time, it is time to overcome the reticence and to deconstruct the narratives that persist in confining Africa to the margins of decision making circles, it is time to shift Africa’s just and legitimate demand for Security Council reform.” He suggested several proposals to the Assembly centered around making the continent more viable amid economic, security and electricity challenges. “I have come to convey the message of a continent determined to work with all of its partners in a relationship for a dialogue of confidence and trust and mutual respect; I have come to say that Africa has suffered enough of the burden of history that it does not want to be the place for the new Cold War but rather a place of stability and opportunity open to all of its partners on a mutually beneficial basis.” He berated the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report ratings by such UN organizations as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on African countries as the perception of risk being always higher than the reality, making it difficult for them to access better opportunities. He urged the UN to ease foreign sanctions on Zimbabwe as they continue to aggravate suffering in the country while he also called for the implementation of the debt service suspension program for the weakest economies in Africa to survive current realities. He also reiterated Africa’s commitment to the Paris Agreement ahead of the climate conference in Egypt in November, COP27. “It is legitimate, fair and equitable that Africa, the continent that pollutes the least and lags furthest behind in the industrialization process should exploit its available resources to provide basic energy so as to improve the competitiveness of its economy and achieve universal access to electricity.” Sall, whose name is being dropped as a possible candidate for UN secretary-general for the next term, barely mentioned the “war in Ukraine.” — DAMILOLA BANJO 

Türkiye, the world’s mediator in the Russia-Ukraine war President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “international cooperation” and “solidarity” as the globe tackles the “shock waves” caused by the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and positioned himself as an international leader ready to take on initiatives that enable his country to be part of the solution rather than the problem, as he put it. “War has no winners, and a just peace has no losers,” he said. “We need to find together a reasonable, just and viable diplomatic solution that will provide both sides the opportunity of an honourable exit.” He continued, “We will continue to increase our efforts to end the war, based on the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine.” Although Erdogan emphasized “the key role of dialogue and diplomacy in resolving the crisis,” he did not explicitly mention Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In July, alongside Secretary-General Guterres, Erdogan was pivotal in negotiating the Black Sea grain deal to bring much-needed Ukrainian grain and Russian fertilizer back to world markets. Exports from the Black Sea had ceased after the war in Ukraine began on Feb. 24. In his speech, Erdogan described the initiative as “one of the greatest achievements of the United Nations in years.” When addressing such large dominating crises, Erdogan struck a cooperative tone, but his statesmanlike manner suddenly turned dark when his speech shifted to closer regional problems, such as Türkiye’s tensions with Greece and his country’s continuing battle with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK. Without details, he said that Greece was “turning the Aegean Sea into a graveyard for refugees” with its “inhumane pushbacks of irregular migrants.” Erdogan added, “We hope that Greece will bring an end to all these wrongful practices and that the international organizations, starting with the European Union, will stop turning a blind eye to these inhumane and unlawful actions.” On the PKK, which is labeled a terrorist group by Türkiye and numerous other entities and countries, including the United States, Erdogan “strongly reiterated” that it’s within his country’s “power to take all kinds of measures against terrorism and that we will never hesitate to do what is necessary” to protect Türkiye’s security forces and civilians. As a lead negotiator with the UN on the Black Sea grain deal, Erdogan’s mediation between Ukraine and Russia has given him a unique advantage over other world leaders who’ve tried to take on a brokering role in the war, without success. Yet Türkiye is supplying Ukraine with drones and other weapons to fight Russia while it maintains deep economic and commercial ties with the country. Recently, Erdogan agreed to pay for some of the gas it buys from Russia in roubles, a move that President Putin welcomed, as it eases the strain of Western sanctions on his economy. Moreover, since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, Erdogan has accused the collective West of provoking Russia and has not supported sanctions aimed at Moscow. Circling back to his role as potential peacemaker, Erdogan said at the end of his speech: “I hope and pray that the 77th General Assembly of the United Nations will be able to . . . respond to the expectations and the aspirations of the entire human race. I hope and pray that you will stay in health and stay in peace. I would like to salute you all with love and respect . . . on behalf of my nation.” — DAWN CLANCY 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Jens Stoltenberg, the head of NATO, Sept. 20, 2022. Although he did not speak to the General Assembly, it was clear he was at the UN to discuss with member nations Russia’s violent invasion in Eastern Europe. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

• France reviles Russia’s war against Ukraine President Emmanuel Macron delivered a passionate speech, the major part of it denouncing Russia’s war against Ukraine in unambiguous, strong language. He hit the rostrum with his fist several times and energetically gestured with his hands throughout the speech for emphasis. “We need to make a simple choice,” he said. “That of war or that of peace.” Macron said that Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, “through an act of aggression broke the collective security” by invading Ukraine. He warned that this step by Russia could pave the way for other wars in Europe, Africa, Latin America or Asia. He unequivocally condemned the invasion of a sovereign state and called for an investigation into potential war crimes. “There is one sure and certain thing: While I am talking to you, there are Russian troops in Ukraine and as far as I know, there are no Ukrainian troops in Russia,” he said. He noted that Russia’s invasion was like a “return to the age of imperialism and colonialism,” something that France fundamentally rejects. He also expressed support for the efforts by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to prevent any damaging impact of war on the safety of nuclear power plants. (Macron convinced President Putin in several phone calls to allow the IAEA mission of experts to visit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant on Sept. 1.) He also defended his efforts to continue engaging in dialogue with Putin, adding that “only together” can peace be achieved. He made a strong plea for all UN member states to join France’s condemnation of the war and said that this was not about “choosing a camp” but about committing to the “common good” of peace. “Those who are keeping silent today are in a way complicit with the cause of a new imperialism and a new order,” Macron stressed. The war “must not leave anyone indifferent.” He also noted many other global crises, including the flooding in Pakistan and the food scarcity in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Afghanistan, with millions of children facing a famine. He proposed developing a “new contract” between the North and the South, to address all the crises. Work should be started at the Paris Peace Forum, to be held on Nov. 11 in the French capital, he suggested. As to the current food crisis, Macron announced that France had doubled its contribution to the World Food Program. He also said that along with the European Union, France had built “solidarity corridors” to help evacuate more than 10 million metric tons of grain overland from Ukraine since the spring. He added that this initiative enhanced the UN-Turkish initiative to help ensure the shipping of 24 million metric tons of grain through the Black Sea. Macron warned that coal needed to be eradicated, otherwise the 2-degree centigrade predictions would be exceeded further. He also said that rich countries must understand that poorer nations could not be asked to do the same. “This is why financial solidarity and technological solidarity must be bolstered,” he said. The G20, he said, should stick to its pledge to mobilize $100 billion through special drawing rights from the International Monetary Fund to help the poorest countries. — STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN

Maurizio Guerrero is an award-winning journalist who for 10 years was the bureau chief in New York City and the United Nations of the largest news-wire service in Latin America, the Mexican-based Notimex. He now covers immigration, social justice movements and multilateral negotiations for several media outlets in the United States, Europe and Mexico. A graduate journalist of the Escuela de Periodismo Carlos Septién in Mexico City, he holds an M.A. in Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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Day 1 of the General Assembly’s Big Week: Leaders Lay Out the World’s Brutal Realities
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Bill Buchanan
Bill Buchanan
1 year ago

Re Guterres, a statement like “Let’s work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations,” sounds a bit like the Pope. Full of wishful thinking while the disparate major powers carry on with propaganda and self-aggrandizement.

Mary Edel Guzman
Mary Edel Guzman
1 year ago

Where’s the report on the Philippines and that of other South East Asian countries?

1 year ago

Sorry, we couldn’t get to everything with such a small team! Latin America dominated Day 1, so that was our focus. Thanks for your close read.

Jeffrey Laurenti
Jeffrey Laurenti
1 year ago

This was a valuable recap of the first day of the high-level debate kicking off the UNGA session — reporting with a discerning eye for what is left unspoken. Thanks!!

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