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Special Report: US and Ukraine; Türkiye and South Africa; Brazil and Cuba; UNGA Analysis


US President Joseph Biden and US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the UN on Sept 19, 2023
Walking through the diplomats’ entry to the General Assembly: President Joe Biden of the United States and his UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Sept. 19, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Biden Pushes Global Unity as Russia Keeps Demolishing Ukraine — 

President Joe Biden called for unity and partnership as world leaders gathered at what he described as an “inflection point in world history,” where nations must work together to “preserve peace, prevent conflict and alleviate human suffering” for everyone, everywhere. “Let’s bend the arc of history for the good of the world,” Biden said in his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly’s annual high-level week in New York City on Tuesday. “Let’s do this work together.”

Biden’s speech came amid persistent criticism directed at the UN in the last 18 months for its inability to rein in Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council, who through its illegal “war of conquest” in Ukraine, as Biden put it, violates the UN Charter.

According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a research and policy center based in Kiel, Germany, the US, which is one of Ukraine’s most ardent supporters in the war, has pledged over $70 billion in humanitarian, military and financial assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion of February 2022, delivering on Biden’s promise to support the war-torn country “as long as it takes.” Yet other countries, such as India, Brazil and South Africa, have remained neutral toward Russia’s assault, marking a sharp divide between the pro-Ukrainian positions of the collective West and the neutrality of many countries in the global South — especially in Africa. But in his remarks, Biden urged all nations not to grow “weary” and to stand up to Russia’s “naked aggression” and with the “brave people” of Ukraine.

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“I ask you this. If we abandon the core principles of the United Nations to appease an aggressor, can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected . . . is the independence of any nation secure?”

I respectfully suggest the answer is no,” he said.

Biden also called on the Security Council to authorize Kenya’s offer to lead a “UN backed security support mission” in Haiti, where ruthless gang violence has led to thousands of civilian deaths, kidnappings and rapes. “The people of Haiti cannot wait much longer,” he said.

In his speech, on Sept. 19, Biden straddled a range of foreign policy and global issues, including reducing the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, reforming global financial institutions to better serve developing countries and harnessing the power of artificial intelligence for the “good” of the world. He also rattled off a laundry list of his administration’s accomplishments and spoke generally about US progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

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“In the first few years [of] my administration, the United States has invested more than $100 billion to drive development progress and bolster food security, expanding access to education worldwide strengthening health care systems and fighting disease,” Biden said. “And we’ve helped mobilize billions more in the private sector investments to accelerate our forward progress on the sustainable development goals.”

He briefly touched on tensions with China, emphasizing that the US wanted to “responsibly manage” competition between the two powers but warned that the US would “push back on aggression and intimidation to defend . . . freedom of navigation, overflight” and to “level the economic playing field . . . to safeguard security and prosperity for decades.” — DAWN CLANCY

Volodymyr Zelenskyy President of Ukraine at the UN on Sept 19, 2023
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, dressed in his trademark combat style, at the UN. It was his first in-person appearance at the world body as his country’s leader, Sept 19, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Our War Is Your War: Ukraine’s President Warns His Fellow World Leaders

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged the globe’s most prominent leaders to unite against Russian aggression, warning that if not “restrained,” Russia’s war could spread far beyond Ukraine’s borders.

“Many seats in the General Assembly Hall may become empty if Russia succeeds with its treachery and aggression,” Zelensky said.

On Tuesday, in his first visit to the UN since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Zelensky, dressed in his trademark army green collared T-shirt, delivered remarks to the roomful of national leaders and their delegations amassed in New York City. But unlike his fiery, pre-recorded video address to the Assembly last year, where he repeatedly called for “the aggressor” to be punished, Zelensky instead emphasized the need for global unity, echoing Biden.

“Please hear me . . . while Russia is pushing the world [toward war], Ukraine is doing everything to ensure that after Russian aggression, no one in the world will dare to attack any nation,” Zelensky said. “We must be united to make it.”

“The goal of the present war against Ukraine is to turn our land, our people, our lives, our resources into a weapon against you [and the] international rules-based order,” Zelensky added. The 45-year-old Zelensky accused Russia of specifically weaponizing energy and food, referring to Russia’s decision to terminate the Black Sea Grain Initiative in July. “United, we will make weapons turn back into food again. The aggressor is weaponizing many things” — “not only against our country, but against all of yours as well.”

Turning to the global South, where Ukraine continues to run up against a wall of seeming ambivalence in its pursuit of creating a united front against Russia, despite numerous General Assembly condemnations of the country, Zelensky touched on such universal problems as the warming planet and natural disasters. He mentioned, for example, the recent biblical flooding in Libya before circling back to the damaging effects of the war in Ukraine. “What will happen with them, what will happen to them?” he asked, referring to the abductions of Ukrainian children by Russia.

On Wednesday, Zelensky is scheduled to speak at a “Ukraine summit” being held in the Security Council, where it’s rumored that Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, may also speak. In the Council, Zelensky said he would detail how he will revive the UN Charter and “guarantee the full power of the rules-based world order.”

“Look, for the first time in modern history, we have a real chance to end the aggression on the terms of the nation which was attacked,” Zelensky summed up. “This is a real chance for every nation to ensure that aggression against your state, if it happens, God forbid, will end not because your land will be divided and you will be forced to submit to military or political pressure, but because your territory and sovereignty will be fully restored.”

Referring to Putin, Zelensky ended with: “Evil cannot be trusted. Ask Prigozhin if one bets on Putin’s promises.” — DAWN CLANCY

Türkiye’s Erdogan Says His Country Is a Force for Peace in an Ever-Dangerous World

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan painted a dire picture of the current state of the globe during his speech at the General Assembly on Tuesday. At the same time, he argued that his own country was a force for peace and defender of the oppressed around the world. “The picture before us shows that we’re facing increasingly complex and dangerous challenges on a global scale. There are conflicts, wars, humanitarian crises. political strife and social tensions to the south, north, east and west of my own country,” Erdogan said.

In that vein, Türkiye, he added, was in a unique position to lead peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and that his country’s efforts had borne fruit in the form of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, before Russia ditched the agreement with Ukraine in July. The deal, brokered by the UN and Türkiye last year, endured barely 12 months but led to the export of 32 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain to the commercial market, helping to lower overall food prices worldwide.

“We have been endeavoring to keep both our Russian and Ukrainian friends around the table with a thesis that war will have no winners and peace will have no losers,” Erdogan said. “We will step up our efforts to the war through diplomacy and dialogue on the basis of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.”

Erdogan, who has been in office since 2014, spoke about a new grain deal that is in the works with Russia and Qatar (which PassBlue reported on in July). “We have a new plan, whereby another one million tons of grain will be released to the countries in dire need around the world,” Erdogan said. “Our aim is to make the greatest possible contribution to the world peace and prosperity in the face of the conflicts around us.”

He reserved harsh words for the UN Security Council, which he said “has ceased to be the guarantor of world security and has become a battleground for the political strategies of only five countries,” and he joined the loud calls to reform the body, though change is unlikely soon. One example of the Council’s outdatedness, he argued, was its criticism of Turkish Cypriots who clashed with UN peacekeepers recently. They had blocked the Turkish Cypriots from building a road inside the UN-controlled buffer zone of Cyprus. “We consider the recent events taking place in Cyprus as a manifestation of this hollowed out international institutional structure that doesn’t inspire justice interesting for as a country that has pioneered numerous initiatives to strengthen peace and stability,” Erdogan said.

His argument for reform focused mostly on the representation of countries in the Security Council. “Under the auspices of the United Nations, we must rapidly restructure the institutions charged with ensuring the security peace and prosperity of the world,” he said. “We must build a global governance architecture that is capable of representing all origins, beliefs, and cultures in the world with its geography and demography. In conclusion, we say once again, with all of our hearts, the world is bigger than five, and a fairer world is possible.” — JOE PENNEY

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva President of Brazil at the UN on Sept 19, 2023
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said in his General Assembly speech “that work needs to be done to create space for negotiations” to end the war in Ukraine. Here, he enters the UN, Sept 19, 2023. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Brazil’s Lula Pushes His Goal to Try to End Russia’s War in Ukraine 

In his first address since 2010, on the initial day of world leaders’ speeches at the General Assembly, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva reiterated that “work needs to be done to create space for negotiations” to end the war in Ukraine.

“We do not underestimate the difficulties of achieving peace, but no solution will be lasting if it is not based on dialogue,” he said in the inaugural speech by a head state at the 78th session of the Assembly, on Sept. 19; it is a roster spot that Brazil has held at the annual UNGAs since 1955. Lula, who was elected president of Brazil in January 2023, after serving two consecutive terms in the role from 2003 to 2013, stressed that “the war in Ukraine exposes our collective inability to enforce the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

As part of his global diplomatic push, Lula is scheduled to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, on Sept. 20 for the first time — most likely at the “Ukraine summit” scheduled for the Security Council. The meeting is highly anticipated as Brazil may have some diplomatic weight and enough neutrality to lure Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. But Kyiv wants more clarity on Brazil’s contention that the Western-supplied weapons to Ukraine escalate the war; what a cease-fire would entail; and what Brazil considers the “legitimate” security concerns of Russia.

Celso Amorim, a former foreign minister of Brazil, traveled to Kyiv earlier this year as Lula’s envoy to help start talks to try to overcome the war, yet such overtures haven’t moved the peace needle forward one inch. Lula has also reignited faith in multilateralism based on the terms of the global South as tries to keep cordial relations with all global powers, including the US, China and Russia.

The BRICS, the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, is part of this effort. In August, the informal collection of countries agreed to expand its membership by adding Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates. Indeed, the BRICS, Lula said to the General Assembly, is a result of the paralysis of multilateralism — or as some pundits call it, “minilateralism.”

During Lula’s two previous presidential terms, his government policies lifted 29 million people out of poverty, as inequality and hunger dropped significantly, according to the World Bank. He also oversaw a 67.6 percent reduction in deforestation of the Amazon, considered a key climate regulator for the planet. During the first eight months of this year, Lula told the General Assembly, deforestation in the Amazon has dropped 48 percent. In July 2017, Lula was convicted on charges of money laundering and corruption, but the trial was nullified in 2021 after the Supreme Court ruled that the federal judge presiding over the case, Sergio Moro, who was minister of justice and public security in the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, was biased against Lula.

Despite his recent striving as a world-class leader, Western powers remain skeptical of Lula. “Dialogue and engagement are Lula’s preferred methods, on issues ranging from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine to the long-running political crisis in Venezuela,” said Ivan Briscoe, director for Latin America of the global think tank the International Crisis Group. “Western leaders, including President Biden want to embrace Lula as a partner, but some believe that Brazil could do more to defend democracy, human rights and international law.” — MAURIZIO GUERRERO

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, arrives at the UN on Sept 19, 2023
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa at the UN, Sept. 19, 2023. He rocked the boat by saying in his speech that most of the people in the General Assembly Hall gathering were men. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE 

South Africa’s Ramaphosa Asks, ‘Where Are the Women of the World?’

In his speech on Tuesday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stood up for gender equality, called for more concerted peace efforts on the African continent and in Ukraine and demanded the richest nations of the world to live up to their promises to combat climate change.

“Women of the world need empowerment,” Ramaphosa said. “I am proud that in South Africa 50 percent of the members of the cabinet of South Africa are women. And today I’m accompanied by an all women delegation to this United Nations General Assembly. It should be a matter of concern to us all. But the majority of people who are sitting in this assembly are men. The question we have to ask is where are the women of the world? The women of the world have a right to be here to represent the views of women across the world.”

Ramaphosa emphasized the importance of regional African institutions in peacemaking on the continent. “The global community needs to work alongside the African Union to support peace efforts in the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], in Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Central African Republic, South Sudan, northern Mozambique, the Great Lakes region, the Sahel, Nigeria and the Horn of Africa,” he said.

Just two hours before his speech, Ramaphosa participated in a bilateral meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In Ramaphosa’s General Assembly speech later, on Sept. 19, he said that his earlier meet-up with Zelensky revealed some success from the African peace mission to Moscow and Kyiv in June. “I’ve just held a meeting with President Zelenskyy, who says that, in part, some of our efforts are bearing fruit, as there are children are now being returned,” Ramaphosa said. (The African mission of seven countries partly focused on the abducted issue of Ukrainian children by Russia.)

Ramaphosa also underlined the African continents’ vulnerability to climate change despite its lower-than-average carbon emissions. “Africa is least responsible for the climate damage that has been caused, and yet it bears the greatest burden,” he said. “Centuries after the end of the slave trade and decades after the end of the colonial exploitation of Africa’s resources, the people of our continent are once again bearing the cost of industrialization of the North and the development of the wealthy nations of the world.”

He argued for several other causes of the global South, voicing support for Western Sahara’s self-determination, freedom for Palestinians against Israeli occupation, lifting sanctions against Cuba and Zimbabwe and renewed efforts toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. — JOE PENNEY

Miguel Díaz-Canel, President of Cuba, arriving at the UN on Sept 19, 2023
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and his wife, Lis Cuesta, Sept. 19, 2023. He spoke on behalf of Cuba as well as the Group of 77-plus China. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Cuba’s Díaz-Canel Demands a New Global Financial Architecture 

On behalf of the Group of 77 plus China, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel demanded “a profound transformation of the current international financial architecture,” to push back on its design to “perpetuate a system of domination that increases underdevelopment and reproduces a model of modern colonialism.”

“We need and demand financial institutions in which our countries have real decision-making capacity and access to financing,” said Díaz-Canel, speaking to the General Assembly on Sept. 19. He is the current rotating president of the G77 plus China coalition, which was founded in 1964 as part of the nonaligned movement that now comprises 134 nations and 80 percent of the world’s population.

Díaz-Canel, who in April was given a second five-year term as president by Cuba’s National Assembly, said that it was imperative to “establish criteria beyond the Gross Domestic Product to define the access of developing countries to financing on favorable conditions.” His demand is consistent with efforts by other developing nations in the Southern Hemisphere to create institutions that respond to their needs rather than being dictated by Western entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

These efforts by the global South have been strengthened by the economic rise of China, India, Brazil, Russia and South Africa, even though China and Russia are not technically in the Southern Hemisphere. Díaz-Canel said that because of the current financial architecture, most of the G77 nations allocate more resources to debt service than to investments in health or education.

“What sustainable development can be reached with that noose around your neck?” he asked. Díaz-Canel also castigated the 60-year-old US economic embargo on his country. To discuss his country’s relations with the US, Díaz-Canel reportedly met on Monday, Sept. 18, with US Representative Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), a long-term supporter of normalizing relations with Cuba. The US embargo has caused severe damage to the Cuban economy and social development. However, it has also been used as an excuse by the Cuban government to repress and punish virtually all forms of dissent and public criticism, according to Human Rights Watch. The problem has forced Cubans to leave the country in record numbers in the last few years. — MAURIZIO GUERRERO 

What They Said: A Quick Analysis by Jeff Laurenti on the World Leaders’ Meet-Up 

What surprised you the most in the daylong speeches? Why? Most of the heads of state speaking on Day 1 hewed carefully to the positions and priorities that their governments have repeatedly expressed at international meetings and in the media throughout the year — no surprises there. I was, however, much taken by the unexpected opening of US president Joe Biden’s, in which he recalled his visit last week to Hanoi — which a half-century ago, when he was beginning his Senate career, was the “enemy capital” that the United States was bombing relentlessly. Biden hailed “50 years of hard work” to overcome the wounds of that war and talked about joining a gathering there of veterans of the war, both American and Vietnamese, who were sharing recollections and long-preserved mementos. “Adversaries can become partners,” he said, as if to remind both his own citizens and those of countries now in sharp opposition to Washington, that even the worst relationships can be reset: today’s hostility with Russia or China, or Iran for that matter, need not be tomorrow’s.

Biden, like most speakers, was addressing an international audience on an international agenda. This was not a speech aimed at the American public or the Washington political class, for whom reforming the World Bank and the Security Council seems as remote as a landing on Mars.

Some other speakers, by contrast, seemed to direct part of their remarks to their home-country audience. In his first appearance back at the General Assembly since narrowly wresting back his old job as Brazil’s president, “Lula” da Silva seemed intent on reminding voters back home, as much as the representatives of the world community seated before him, that thanks to the “victory won by democracy in my country,” overcoming disinformation and hate, “Brazil is back!” Lula took pains to rebut a “primitive authoritarian nationalism” whose return he is clearly hoping to forestall.

Similarly, El Salvador’s charismatic but controversial president Nayib Bukele contrasted his country’s reputation as “murder capital of the world” when he took office to now being “the safest country in Latin America.” He offered no recommendations for what other countries might learn from El Salvador in wrestling down homicide rates; it seemed simply a victory lap for the folks back home.

What disappointed you profoundly? Why? My one disappointment in Biden’s otherwise forward-looking and inclusive address lay in his punting on an issue he himself raised: the need for forward movement on arms control. He understandably faulted Russia’s “shredding” one arms control treaty after another, including its announced intention to abandon the New START treaty as well as limits on conventional forces in Europe. He reminded listeners that the United States has completed the destruction of its last chemical weapons. I thought that this was leading to a call for restarting a negotiation process on build-down and elimination of nuclear arsenals, as Barack Obama had done. Instead, the elimination of chemical weapons was left hanging there, not cited as a model for further arms reductions.

What did you want to hear more of and why? I was hoping to hear from the two most prominent exponents in the developing world of “dialogue” and “peaceful resolution of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine” — Lula and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa — about what they think the two sides have at stake in this war, and their sense of the international community’s stake in the precedents being set there. Their exhortation begs the question how they see outside actors like themselves playing a role rather than just jawboning.

But it was Zelensky of Ukraine who avoided diplomacy when he said: “Evil cannot be trusted — ask Prigozhin if one bets on Putin’s promises.”

Jeff Laurenti is a former fellow with the Century Foundation and a UN expert. Follow him on X.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the speeches of Biden and Zelensky?

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.

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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