Leaders From Around the World Gather for 77th United Nations General Debates
For the first time since the beginning of the pandemic, the United Nations General Assembly convened not on Zoom, but in person at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan. As per the United Nations website, the General Assembly has been conducted through predominantly virtual means since 2020, as a result of the novel Coronavirus- making this year’s meeting a first in more than two years. 35 countries in total were given the opportunity to speak on the opening day of the general debates, which was not without some last-minute changes to the schedule in the wake of the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
The primary purpose of the General Assembly is for the nation’s across the globe to come together on neutral ground in order to discuss issues that impact our world at large; thus, a theme for the year’s discussions is picked based on the most pressing matters facing the globe. The theme chosen for this year is, “A Watershed Moment: Transformative Solutions to Interlocking Challenges”. The theme broadly addresses a litany of issues that countries the world over are currently dealing with, which are not isolated to one place: pandemic recovery, food supply issues, the climate change crisis, among others.
Brazil, as per tradition, was the first nation to speak. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro began by focusing his speech on the theme of this year’s UNGA, and then moved onto discussing the importance of domestic action within an individual country as a means to prevent some of the larger global issues when they are more manageable. Bolsonaro also discussed the situation in Ukraine, as well as the state of affairs within Brazil, before turning the microphone over to the in the second speaking slot- a slot traditionally set for the United States as the host country, but instead given to Senegal this year as a result of President Biden’s absence to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in England.
Other key moments of the General Debates were when Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan teared up as he discussed the plight of refugee children, the Prime Minister of Ireland addressed rampant global hunger, Iran’s President emphatically focused on what he deemed a “double-standard” from western nations, and Denmark’s Minister of Foreign Affairs emphasized “climate solidarity” in the face of a global climate crisis. The predominant focus in many nations’ speeches, however, was on the situation in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the German Chancellor spoke of how the global stage “cannot stand idly by” while a principal country “seeks to shift borders through violence”, and Finland-a country which shares a not insignificant amount of its eastern border with Russia and has been under implicit threat for most of 2022- asserted that Ukraine is “asserting its right to defend itself.”
Unsurprisingly, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were not in attendance, opting instead to send their foreign ministers.
President Biden, taking the stage on the second day of the General Assembly, took aim at Putin’s unconscionable actions in Ukraine and even briefly criticized China’s nuclear actions. He underlined that to stand with the principles of liberty and sovereignty, is vital to ensure the “values of democracy.” Biden discussed steps that the United States is taking at home and on the global front to enact changes for the betterment of society. He ended on a hopeful note: looking to the future, where he put emphasis on the UN as an institution, along with the rules that govern it being “an act of dauntless hope.”
British Prime Minister Liz Truss, in a rather busy first month in office, made her first appearance in the United States as Prime Minister to address the United Nations. Her speech touchingly reflected on the late Queen’s speech to the UN 65 years ago, where she warned against lax political enforcement of ideals. Truss used this lens to condemn Russian actions, urge change on the global stage, and as means to encourage enforcement of progress, which she agreed started within the domestic front.
But perhaps the most poignant moment of the General Debates thus far was when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the United Nations via video, with his wife in the audience. Granted special permission by the UN to do so, Zelenskyy in a pre-recorded message made it clear that “[a] crime has been committed against Ukraine, and we demand just punishment.” Further, he underscored that Ukraine did not start the war, and in fact, did everything in their power to prevent it- holding 88 rounds of talks in an effort to prevent war. He noted that the world wants peace and stated that Ukraine has outlined a “formula for peace”, which is five-pronged: to punish the criminal act of aggression, protect life, restoring both security and territory, guaranteeing security, and determination. He closed his speech by accenting that Ukraine refuses to compromise to neutrality. Zelenskyy for the entirety of his speech made a point to not mention Putin’s name.
The UN General Debates are ongoing, and expected to conclude on Monday September 26th.
Photos by Bruce Cotler
Reporting by Emily Cotler