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Day 2, UN General Assembly’s Big Week: Russia’s War on Ukraine Dominates

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Joseph Biden, President of the United States
President Biden of the United States arriving at the UN, Sept. 21, 2022, moments before he spoke to the General Assembly in the morning. He wasted no time in his speech, delivered without fanfare, concentrating on Putin’s “brutal and needless war in Ukraine.” He also spoke about reforming the UN Security Council and his administration’s actions to mitigate climate change. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

On Day 2 of the “high-level” week, featuring many of the world’s heads of state and government, President Joe Biden shared the forum with a diverse roster of speakers, who stood at the rostrum, one by one, stretching from the early morning to late evening on the cusp of the fall equinox, in New York City. The leaders included President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran, a dozen African statespeople (starting with President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria) and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who delivered his remarks by pre-recorded video. The overriding themes of speeches — many of them going far beyond the allotted 15 minutes each (Iran, Mongolia, for starters) — centered on Russia’s violence in Ukraine, upholding the UN Charter and climate change. The latter crisis “continues to ravage our planet,” as Zambia President Hakainde Hichilema put it. (He was one of the few speakers who mentioned gender equality, especially ending child marriage.)

Unlike Day 1, when Latin American leaders dominated the lineup, inequalities in all their permutations did not take up much space on Day 2. Nor did the pandemic get lots of air time. (We have added the Sept. 20 speeches of Brazil and Germany to today’s roundup.) The Biden administration had little interaction with media based at the UN, except for granting interviews to large media companies. A day of “spray pools” held by the White House was restricted to out-of-town media (reporters traveling with Biden from Washington). So far this week, only a few countries have held public media briefings at the UN, including Bolivia, Netherlands, Japan and Canada. Otherwise, most national media briefings have been held offsite.  — DULCIE LEIMBACH 

Biden’s dedication to helping Ukraine fight Russia In a speech affirming American support to Ukraine’s territorial and sovereign defense, Biden exhorted world leaders to “join in the fight” in combating global food insecurity, modernizing the UN and ending President Putin’s “brutal and needless war” in Ukraine. The “war is about extinguishing Ukraine’s right to exist as a state, plain and simple,” Biden said early into his remarks. “Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever you believe, that should make your blood run cold.” Biden’s speech — originally, he was slotted to deliver his remarks on Sept. 20 but switched to Wednesday — comes as Russia’s “special military operation,” as Putin calls it, in Eastern Europe nears seven months. Biden’s administration has provided approximately $15.8 billion in military aid to Ukraine in the fight, and it appears that US dollars will keep flowing as long as Russia’s aggression persists. “Our pledge to defend [Ukraine] must be clear, firm and unwavering in our resolve,” Biden said. “We will stand in solidarity with Ukraine.” Biden compartmentalized his speech, touching separately on Ukraine and Russia, food insecurity, the state of democracy, climate change, Covid-19 and inflation. His speech was pre-empted in a way by Putin’s announcement on Wednesday, by television in Russia, ordering a partial mobilization of military reservists, aiming for 300,000 conscripts and signaling a major escalation in the war that Russia, by some accounts, is losing. He also threatened the West with a nuclear response if the “territorial integrity” of Russia is “threatened.” The warning, Putin added, was “not a bluff.” (Putin is not participating in the General Assembly gathering, but his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, arrived at the UN today, co-opting space in the Economic and Social Council office, near the Security Council, stocking it with Parliament cigarettes, vodka, wine and beer as well as hanging a portrait of Putin on a wall.) Over the last seven months, the Council has been criticized globally for its seeming inability to rein in Russia as permanent member of the body, as Russia violates the UN Charter through its illegal occupation of Ukraine. Biden said it was time for the UN to become more “inclusive” to “better respond to the needs of today’s world,” suggesting Security Council reform. He encouraged its permanent members (besides Russia and the US, they are Britain, China and France) to refrain from using the veto, except in “rare and “extraordinary” situations to ensure that the Council remains “credible” and “effective.” He also said that he supported increasing the number of both “permanent and non-permanent representatives of the Council.” (There are 10 elected members.) This includes, he specified, “permanent seats for those nations we’ve long supported and permanent seats for countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.” He didn’t say how the US would approach such a plan. On the pressing matter of global food insecurity, Biden announced an additional $2.9 billion in US funds for humanitarian aid. Aggravated by Russia’s war in Ukraine, the world’s supply of grains and fertilizers has dropped dramatically, leaving millions across the globe, who were already facing near famine in some regions, hungrier than ever. Russia has blamed the food scarcity on sanctions imposed by the West, but in his speech, Biden pinned the blame on Putin’s war. “Our sanctions explicitly allow Russia the ability to export food and fertilizer,” he said. “It’s Russia’s war that is worsening food insecurity and only Russia.” As for climate change, he praised his administration’s work in the last year “tackling the climate crisis.” “From the day I came to office, we’ve led with a bold climate agenda,” he said. “We rejoined the Paris Agreement, convened major climate summits, helped deliver critical agreements on COP26. And we helped get two thirds of the world GDP on track to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.” Even though Biden repeatedly emphasized the need for global cooperation, the delivery of his speech, whether addressing peace and stability in the Taiwan strait, political violence in Haiti, massacres in Ukraine or the rights of Palestinians, lacked the urgency that could convince all countries, and not just the West, that Biden could lead the charge “toward a freer and more just world.” “We are the authors of history,” he said in his closing remarks. “We can do this.” — DAWN CLANCY 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the UN General Assembly
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was the only leader to speak by pre-recorded video to the Assembly. He presented a “formula for peace” that “punishes crime, protects life, restores security and territorial integrity, guarantees security and provides determination.”

Ukraine never says his name In a fiery pre-recorded speech that elicited a standing ovation, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky demanded “just punishment” for Russia’s crimes of aggression against Ukraine and, indirectly, the rest of the world. “There is only one entity among all UN member states who would say now if he could interrupt my speech, that he’s happy with this war, with his war,” Zelensky began his remarks, referring to Putin without uttering his name. It wasn’t easy for Zelensky to even deliver his speech remotely. The General Assembly had to vote on making an exception to allow it. That process occurred on Sept. 16, resulting in 101 in favor; 7 no ballots (Belarus, Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia and Syria) and 19 abstentions. On Sept. 21, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, both in New York City for the General Assembly session, presented Zelensky’s remarks. The day before, Zelenska met with Secretary-General António Guterres to discuss the importance of protecting women and children affected by the war. In his speech, which Zelensky delivered in English, he laid out Ukraine’s “formula for peace,” referring to five preconditions that included “punishment for the crime of aggression” — and the creation of a special tribunal — as well as “the protection of life, restoring security and territorial integrity, security guarantees and determination to defend oneself.” He also said that Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, should be stripped of its veto power. “Ukraine wants peace. Europe wants peace. The world wants peace,” Zelensky added. “And we have seen who is the only one who wants war.” A recent study by the Kyiv School of Economics estimates that the damage to Ukraine’s economy from the destruction of residential and nonresidential buildings and other infrastructure has reached at least $108.3 billion. “Russia should pay for this war with its assets,” Zelensky said in his speech. “This is one of the most terrible punishments for Russian officials who value money above everything else.” Additionally, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, since the start of Russia’s full-blown war on Feb. 24, there have been 14,532 civilian casualties in Ukraine. And as the Ukrainian military recaptures territory once occupied by Russian forces, mass graves are being discovered. Recently, in the newly liberated town of Izium, located in the Kharkiv region, a grave with 445 bodies was found. Some of the bodies revealed traces of torture, including a civilian with a rope tied around her neck. A similar mass grave was found earlier in the war, when the city of Bucha was liberated. These are crimes that Zelensky says Russia must be punished for “until the aggression stops.” “Russia wants to spend the winter on the occupied territory of Ukraine and prepare forces to attempt a new offensive. New Buchas, new Izyums,” he added. “We must protect life. The world must protect life.” The president also stressed his country’s need for more military equipment, including long-range missiles (which can reach Russian territory) and financial support “to liberate” Ukraine and restore its “territorial integrity.” Without naming them individually, he called out UN member states who “speak of neutrality” when “human values and peace are under attack.” “They pretend to be interested in each other’s problems,” he added. “They take care of each other formally. They sympathize only for protocol. And that is why they pretend to protect someone, but in reality, they protect only their vested interests. This is what creates the conditions for war.” In his closing remarks, Zelensky shot down the idea of peace talks with Russia, implying that Moscow was not ready for them. “They talk about the talks but announce military mobilization” and “announce pseudo referendums,” he said. But “Russia wants war.” — DAWN CLANCY

Muhammadu Buhari, President of Nigeria
President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria spoke first in the Sept. 21 lineup. His eight-year term ends early next year, and he can’t run again because of constitutional limits. He praised his country’s adherence to democracy and free speech, but he didn’t mention that he blocked Twitter in Nigeria for seven months in 2021. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Nigeria’s president says social media is fueling disinformation Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari decried the rising influence of nonstate actors through social media, as he said that it makes the job of governance more difficult. “There was a time when the most important event at this Assembly was the speech by the world’s most powerful leaders,” he said. “Now a Tweet or Instagram post by an influencer on social or environmental issues may have greater impact.” He banned Twitter in Nigeria for seven months in 2021, which signified his attitude toward freedom of speech, but he has defended his position by saying it was to help douse the tension caused by hate speech and disinformation. “Nigeria has had many unsavory  experiences with hate speech and divisive disinformation,” he said on Sept. 21 to the General Assembly. “Increasingly, we also  see that many countries face the same challenge. Clearly, data also knows no borders.” Buhari said that his country had strengthened its democracy by submitting to credible practices and has promoted its model elsewhere in West Africa (where several countries have undergone coups in the last two years). “We believe in the sanctity of constitutional term limits, and we have steadfastly adhered to it in Nigeria,” he said. “We have seen the corrosive impact on values when leaders elsewhere seek to change the rules to stay on in power. Indeed, we are now preparing for general elections in Nigeria next February. At the 78th UNGA, there will be a new face at this podium speaking for Nigeria.” As the country gears toward the general elections in 2023, Buhari stated that one legacy he would like to leave is entrenching a process of free, fair, transparent and credible elections through which Nigerians elect leaders of their choice. “Ours is a vast country strengthened by its diversity and its common values  of hard work, enduring faith and a sense of community,” he said. “We have invested heavily  to strengthen our framework for free and fair elections. I thank our partners for all the support that they have provided our election institutions.” — DAMILOLA BANJO 

Ebrahim Raisi, President of Iran
The Iranian delegation arriving at the UN, with President Ebrahim Raisi, center, speaking for the first time in person to the General Assembly, Sept. 21, 2022. He focused heavily on human rights as protests range across his country in reaction to the death of a young woman who was reportedly beaten by the country’s morality police. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Iran’s paradoxical focus on human rights President Ebrahim Raisi addressed the General Assembly for the first time in person. Raisi, who was sanctioned by the US in 2019 for his involvement in human-rights violations in Iran, including the execution of thousands of political prisoners in 1988, stood at the rostrum, dressed in a traditional black robe and turban, dedicating most of his speech to “injustice” in the world. “All of the hopes and aspirations of humankind are built on justice. . . .Which means elimination of injustice. We are the defenders of a fight against injustice in all of its forms,” said Raisi, speaking second on Sept. 21, five slots before Biden. Paradoxically, Raisi is facing mass riots back home in reaction to a civilian, Mahsa Amini, 22, dying after being arrested by the morality police for allegedly violating the country’s dress code, which includes women having to wear a hijab headscarf. Indeed, Raisi said that Iran “rejects the double standards of some governments vis-à-vis human rights.” He mentioned Canada’s treatment of Indigenous children and the rights of the Palestinians. He slammed the US several times. “America cannot accept that certain countries have the right to stand on their own two feet,” he said. “They keep equivocating militarism with security. America has pursued its own interests at the expense of many other countries.” He heavily criticized Donald Trump, the former US president, for ordering the killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in a drone strike near Bagdad airport in 2020. “We will pursue through a fair tribunal to bring to justice those who martyred our beloved General Qasem Soleimani,” he said while holding up a picture of the general. In another example of a “lack of justice and fairness,” Raisi noted the “double standard” over Iran’s nuclear program. “We all know that it is only for peaceful endeavors, but some countries are keen on portraying this as a threat,” he said. He reiterated that “Iran is not seeking to build or obtain nuclear weapons.” (Iran has enriched uranium to 60 percent, which nonproliferation experts say is one small technical step from weapons grade.) As to the stalled negotiations to revive the Iran nuclear deal, Raisi said that Iran had accepted the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and lived up to all the commitments, without exception. “But the result of that was the trampling upon by America on that agreement,” he said, referring to ex-President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018. “Our wish is only one thing: observance of commitments,” Raisi added. He asked whether Iran can “truly trust without guarantees and assurances” that the US will live up to its commitments this time. In fact, the issue of Iran demanding a guarantee that the US will not leave the deal again has been a major sticking point in the 16 months of talks to revive the pact. — STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN

Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, entering the UN on Sept. 21, 2022. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

German leader’s first UN appearance Chancellor Olaf Scholz spent much of his speech highlighting the need to uphold the international order based on the UN Charter. In his speech, which was delivered partly in English, partly in German, he harshly criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and called it an act of “imperialism,” using identical words to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron. “We mustn’t stand idly by when a major nuclear power armed to the teeth — a founding member of the United Nations and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, no less — seeks to shift borders through the use of violence,” Scholz said. He called upon all UN member states to join Germany in condemning “Russia’s war of occupation.” Furthermore, he condemned the Russian plan to hold referendums in parts of eastern Ukraine. “Putin will only give up his war and his imperialist ambitions if he realizes that he cannot win. This is why we will not accept a peace dictated by Russia. This is why we will not accept any pretentious referendum. And this is why Ukraine must be able to defend itself against Russia’s invasion,” he said. He added that industrialized countries and major emitters of greenhouse gases had a “very special responsibility” to fight the climate crisis, noting that Germany intended to “forge ahead to achieve the 1.5-degree target.” He pledged that Germany would continue to support developing countries to reduce their emissions. Referring to human rights as the “deepest need of each and every one of us,” Scholz denounced several countries where human rights are being undermined, including North Korea, Syria, Iran and Belarus. He also singled out the Taliban regime in Afghanistan for depriving women and girls of their “most basic rights” and called on China to follow the recommendations of the UN Commission on Human Rights regarding the treatment of the Uighur ethnic minority. He added that the international community should “pay heed and take action” to Russia’s alleged atrocities in Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin in Ukraine. “We will bring the murderers to justice.” Scholz also called for reform of the Security Council and said that Germany was ready to “assume a greater responsibility.” He said that the Council should grow to include countries from the Global South and promised to cooperate with those countries within the G7 (Germany is holding this year’s G7 presidency). Yet details on expansion in the Council were left unsaid. — STEPHANIE LIECHTENSTEIN

Rafael Grossi, Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told journalists on Sept. 21, 2022, about his negotiations with Ukraine and Russia to create a safety and security zone around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is under siege by Russian troops. He said, “We have to move fast, given the gravity of the situation.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

Brazil’s Bolsonaro pitches achievements before elections President Jair Bolsonaro led the parade of foreign visitors at the Assembly session on Sept. 20, in an anticipated speech to see if some of his far-out assertions would be repeated. But he was calm, taking only one dig at his political opponent in the October presidential race, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; defending the right to life from conception onward, saying people had the right to earn a living in the Amazon forest; and maintaining Brazil’s neutrality on Ukraine. (He never mentioned the word “Russia.”) Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician who leads South America’s largest country, has spent part of his re-election campaign questioning the nation’s election system. In July, he summoned dozens of foreign diplomats to cast doubt on the Oc. 2 vote, Donald Trump style. But he did not repeat his dubious claim this week, to the apparent relief of dignitaries in the audience. Why is Brazil always first in the “high-level” week? It has been the case since 1955, and the reason is simple: no one else wanted to speak first, Brazil offered to do so and the tradition has remained. Bolsonaro spent most of his address defending economic gains under his administration, including an increase in food production, measures to combat inflation, a reduction in gas prices, investment in science and technology and a new social welfare program that is expected to run until December. In his one dig at da Silva, his opponent, Bolsonaro said that da Silva had to clean up a debt of $170 billion amassed between 2003 and 2015. “The person who was responsible for all of that was convicted,” Bolsonaro said, referring to da Silva’s sentence on money laundering and corruption, without mentioning him by name. On the war in Ukraine, which Bolsonaro called a “conflict,” he maintained his country’s neutrality and called for an immediate cease-fire. Brazil, which buys fertilizer and gas from Russia, opposed “unilateral sanctions” and said a solution could only be reached “through dialogue and negotiations.” He also urged the international community to further the humanitarian impact of the fighting. (Da Silva is expected to take a similar position.) As guardian of the Amazon rainforest, Bolsonaro said that his administration protected more land than other nations, despite worldwide criticism of soaring deforestation. But he warned not to “overlook people”: the 20 million inhabitants “whose livelihood depends on some economic use of the forest.” The Amazon basin encompasses 2,700,000 square miles, including territory belonging to nine nations. Some 60 percent of the forest is in Brazil. Data from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research shows that more than 2,473 square miles of the Amazon — an area five times the size of New York City — were cleared in the first six months of 2022, the highest figure in at least six years. Early in his address, Bolsonaro praised his government’s health program during Covid-19, ensuring financial assistance to most people in need. And he said more than 80 percent of the population was “vaccinated voluntarily, respecting individual freedom.” Yet Bolsonaro has boasted of refusing a Covid jab for himself. On human rights, Bolsonaro said he was proud of bringing the right to freedom of religion to the international agenda and is proud to welcome Catholic priests and nuns persecuted in Nicaragua. Recounting “fundamental values,” Bolsonaro listed defense of the family, the right to life since conception and the repudiation of gender ideology, which he does not spell out. He described Brazilians as a “people that believes in God, the Nation, the family and freedom.” — EVELYN LEOPOLD


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Biden's speech and Zelensky's?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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