On the next-to-last day of the globe’s largest talkfest by world leaders, Sept. 24, the United Nations may have been quiet and most of the police barricades may have been dismantled outside, but inside the Assembly Hall, two powerful, stern foreign ministers — Wang Yi of China and Sergey Lavrov of Russia — dispelled any sense of normalcy. Their hard-nosed rhetoric, with China barely mentioning Russia’s war in Ukraine and Russia trying to justify the assault, capped nearly a week of speeches that captured the jarring decline of people’s standard of living and the instability of countries across continents. (The final day of the “high-level” week is Sept. 26, with Sunday off.) Preceding Wang and Lavrov on Saturday morning was Mali’s interim prime minister, Col. Abdoulaye Maïga, standing at the Assembly rostrum to represent the transitional government ruled by a junta. His speech left few stones unturned in castigating key political players in West Africa, the UN secretary-general and Mali’s current nemesis in Europe, France. In order of appearance, here is our final roundup of UNGA77. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
• Mali lashes out Interim Prime Minister Col. Abdoulaye Maïga attacked foreign political forces in a 30-minute speech on Sept. 24. He began his remarks by saying that recent comments by Secretary-General António Guterres urging Mali to free 46 Ivorian soldiers held in Mali are “without effect.” He then accused the president of Guinea-Bissau, Umaro Sissoco Embaló, who also currently heads the regional bloc Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States), of “overreaching” his mandate and “blindly following” the UN. Referring to Embaló, Maïga warned that “the West African people will judge him on the efforts he has made to improve the living conditions of our peoples rather than media circuses for foreign agendas.” Colonel Maïga proclaimed, recklessly and without evidence, that the president of Niger, Mohamed Bazoum, “is a not a Nigerien,” adding that “his behavior reaffirms us in this belief.” Bazoum’s ethnic Arab heritage has led some people in Niger to say he is actually from Libya and not from Niger, but his candidacy for the country’s presidency was validated by Niger’s legal system. Similar claims in the past, about “foreign” origins of Côte d’Ivoire’s current president, Alassane Ouattara, helped spark a decade-long war in that country. Mali’s interim prime minister asked for “a paradigm shift” from the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, Minusma, “and a better interlinking between this mission and the Malian authorities.” He said that “almost 10 years after its establishment, the objective for which Minusma was deployed in Mali has not been achieved.” Colonel Maïga, who leads a government composed largely of military men who seized power after a coup d’état in 2020 against the elected president at the time, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, then rebuked Ouattara, saying that “he chases out political opponents, some are arrested, others are exiled. Allegiances are obtained through the power of money, clientelism and intimidation.” Ouattara has been a vocal critic of the Malian transitional government, which has missed several deadlines to reinstate democracy. (Recently, it agreed to hold elections in early 2024.) Colonel Maïga’s angriest words, however, were reserved for France, which he qualified as “an obscurant junta who is nostalgic for neo-colonialist, condescending, paternalistic and vengeful practices.” He quoted the writer Victor Hugo before describing French Defense Minister Florence Parly as “hideously sui generis.” Colonel Maïga also said that France “stabbed us in the back,” and he reiterated a claim that Mali made in August to the UN Security Council that “the French junta provided intelligence and arms to terrorist groups,” an allegation that France vehemently denies. (The government of France is a civilian elected government, not a junta.) The Malian government has stated many times that it will provide evidence of such activity, but so far has not done so publicly. Colonel Maïga’s main expressions of positivity in the UN domain were directed toward what he called an “exemplary and fruitful cooperation” with Russia. Mali is now employing roughly 1,000 mercenaries from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group after Mali severed ties with France earlier this year. Colonel Maïga said that major gains have been made on the security front in his country, even though Islamic State forces have taken multiple villages and towns in the Ménaka region, in the northeast, in past weeks. The growing hostility between Mali and its closest neighbors makes it even harder for the region to form a unified front to fight the terrorist groups wreaking havoc in the western Sahel. — JOE PENNEY
• A “one-China” policy China said it would meet anyone who comes in between it and the unification of Taiwan with force. Wang Yi, the country’s foreign minister, talked at length to the sparse Saturday crowd in the Assembly Hall. This threat contrasted with Wang’s more measured call for a two-state solution in the deadlocked conflict between Israel and Palestine. Yet he softened again on further remarks regarding Taiwan, as if trying out a statesmanlike tone, saying: “China will continue to work for the peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and greatest efforts. To realize this goal, we must combat ‘Taiwan separatist’ independence activities with the firmest resolve and take the most forceful steps to repulse interference by external groups.” Unifying China and Taiwan is the sole solution to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait, he said. The United States, however, has fully supported Taiwan’s drive for independence and diplomatic recognition. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, visited Taiwan in August, enraging Beijing. The insistence of China that separatists in Taiwan be combated is also deemed to be a direct attack on the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Tsai Ing-wen. (Taiwan has pushed for dual recognition since it first held a presidential election in 1996.) At the UN, Wang said that General Assembly Resolution 2758 ended the concept of two Chinas or one China and one Taiwan. “The one-China principle has become a basic norm in international relations and a general consensus of the international community,” he said. “When entering into diplomatic relations with China, 181 countries all recognized and accepted that there is but one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China. . . . ” Wang took care not to mention “Russia” or “invasion” in his speech as well. Referring to the “Ukraine crisis,” he asked all parties involved to ensure no spillover. In his almost-30 minute speech, he also extolled the achievements of China as the world’s “largest” developing country, saying it has helped other developing economies to find peace and fight poverty. In the quest for peace, Wang said that democracy and human rights should not be used as “tools or weapons to achieve political ends.” That statement comes on the heels of a long-awaited UN report, released in August, accusing President Xi Jinping’s government of seriously violating the human rights of Uighur and other predominantly Muslim communities in China. — DAMILOLA BANJO
• Russia’s state of denial On the same day that Ukraine marked seven months of war with Russia, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blamed the conflict and the “deteriorating” state of international security on the United States and its allies. He said their “arrogant rejection” of peace continues to undermine the creation of a multipolar, democratic world. “The United States and allies want to stop the march of history. . . . they’ve erected themselves into an almost envoy of God on earth without any obligations but only the sacred right to act with impunity wherever they want,” Lavrov said in his remarks to the General Assembly on Sept. 24, devoting much of his attention to the US. This can happen, he continued, to any sovereign state, especially if the “self-proclaimed masters of the world” are “somehow displeased.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began in full tilt on Feb. 24, has left thousands of people dead, generated more than seven million refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and aggravated the threat of nuclear annihilation and famine across the world. Recently, as Ukraine’s military said it had recaptured over 2,000 square miles of occupied territory in the east, President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial military mobilization of 300,000 reservists. His announcement this week resulted in eruptions of antiwar protests in many Russian cities and sent those eligible for the draft fleeing, en masse, to Türkiye, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Since February, Russia has refused to refer to its invasion as anything but a “special military operation,” but at a press conference he held after his speech, on Sept. 24, Lavrov accused Western allies of “flooding” Ukraine with weapons in “this war.” According to Lavrov, it was the “bloody coup” of 2014 — when Russia accused the US of orchestrating the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president — as well as the threat of NATO expansion and the “grotesque” spread of Russophobia by the “Kyiv regime,” that gave Russia “no choice” but to send troops into Ukraine. Three days before the incursion, Putin approved a bill that recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed, pro-Russian Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republic in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. “I’m convinced that any sovereign self-respecting state would do the same . . . as they would understand his responsibility to his own people,” Lavrov said at the briefing, the same day that Russia forced illegal referendums in some areas it occupies in Ukraine. The move was expected. On Sept. 21, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke by pre-recorded video to the Assembly, he described the referendums as a “sham.” US President Joe Biden, delivering his speech to the Assembly on the same day, said: “Putin claims he had to [invade] because Russia was threatened. But no one threatened Russia and no one other than Russia sought conflict.” Lavrov was unrepentant about the voting. “The West is now throwing a fit because of the referenda which are being conducted in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkov, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts,” he said in his Sept. 24 remarks. The people of these regions, he added, are taking back the land that “their [Russian] ancestors had been living on for hundreds of years.” Reverting to Washington, Lavrov accused it of “trying to turn the entire world into its own backyard.” He also blasted the US for “playing with fire in Taiwan” and for waging wars of aggression “far from American shores” in the Middle East. Lavrov noted that Russia wanted to make the UN Security Council more “democratic” by broadening representation to include Africa, Asia and Latin America. He referred to India and Brazil as being “worthy candidates” for permanent membership. (He repeated those candidacies in his media briefing afterward.) When asked by a reporter at the briefing to clarify Russia’s position on the use of nuclear weapons, Lavrov referred to the Kremlin’s “doctrine for nuclear security.” In another tense exchange, where Lavrov was asked about Russia’s endgame in Ukraine, he replied: “You should read Putin more often and carefully. He announced everything on the 24th of February. Read it and you will get it.” — DAWN CLANCY
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Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in New York City. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded Sahelien.com, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.