Editor’s Note: This is the latest in Just Security’s weekly series keeping readers up to date on developments at the United Nations at the intersection of national security, human rights, and the rule of law.
First Debate of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
The 74th General Debate of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) opened on September 17, 2019, and had its first day of debate on Tuesday, September 24. Prominent topics in this session include climate change, Iran, and trade.
Nearly 200 leaders are converging for five days of speeches and meetings. Notably absent are Presidents Xi Jingping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Also absent are Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently fighting to retain his status as prime minister of Israel, and Nicolas Maduro, who is regarded by the Trump administration and about 50 other governments as an illegitimate leader of Venezuela.
Climate Change Leads the UNGA Debate
Following a global day of climate protests on Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday. Guterres emphasized the importance and urgency of the climate change problem in his opening: “What was climate change, is now a climate emergency. What was global warming is now global heating.”
However, important countries at the summit were largely silent. China made no new promises to take stronger climate action, and the United States said nothing at all. Other countries promised only modest concrete measures. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, 16, took the convened leaders to task, saying that young people “will never forgive” them if they refuse to act.
President Trump made an unexpected appearance at the climate event for 14 minutes, but did not speak. Later, Trump was criticized for appearing to mock Thunberg on Twitter.
Trump and Rouhani are Unlikely to Meet as U.S.-Iran Tensions Rise
The Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Tehran on Friday, following the attacks last week on Saudi oil facilities, attributed to Iran by the United States, France, Germany, and Britain. French President Emmanuel Macron met separately with both Trump and Rouhani in an effort to negotiate a meeting at the UNGA. However, Rouhani ruled out negotiations with the United States so long as the sanctions remain in place. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, the possibility of a meeting between Rouhani and Trump is currently “zero.”
Rouhani and Trump each targeted the other in their speeches before the General Assembly on Tuesday. Trump referred to Iran’s “bloodlust” and accused its “ruling class” of “abandon[ing] its people and embark[ing] upon a crusade for personal power and riches.” In return, Rouhani characterized the U.S. sanctions as “the most merciless economic terrorism,” and accused the United States of being the main instigator of terrorism in the Middle East. Rouhani also pledged to unveil a regional peace plan, named the “Coalition of Hope” and “designed to exclude the U.S.”
The remaining parties to the Iranian nuclear deal met at the UN headquarters to discuss the pact’s future. “It is in the interests of all to remain committed to the deal, but it is becoming increasingly difficult,” said European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
Meanwhile, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson raised the possibility of creating a new nuclear deal with Iran, to which Trump has responded positively. During a separate meeting with Rouhani, Johnson called on Iran to release jailed British nationals.
Trump Espouses Nationalism and Engages Controversy with Venezuela and Ukraine at UNGA
In a speech in front of the UNGA, Trump celebrated nationalism. “The future does not belong to globalists … the future belongs to patriots,” said Trump, urging leaders to prioritize their own citizens over the global commons, or over international peace and prosperity.
Trump targeted Nicolas Maduro, the absent and contested leader of Venezuela, calling him a “dictator” and “Cuban puppet.” The Venezuelan delegate pointedly read a book during the speech.
In moments interspersed throughout the UNGA, Trump addressed swirling domestic controversy regarding his possibly improper interactions with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy. The U.S. House of Representatives has opened impeachment inquiries into Trump’s request that Zelenskyy investigate the family of Trump’s political opponent, Joseph Biden (see Just Security coverage here, here, and here). Trump used a moment during the climate event on Monday to attack Biden, telling the Polish president that were Biden a Republican, the news media would have him in “the electric chair by right now.” Following a meeting with Japan’s Shinzo Abe on Wednesday, Trump called the House impeachment inquiry a “manufactured crisis.”
Zelenskyy made no mention of Trump in his own speech before the UNGA. In a meeting with Trump on Wednesday afternoon, in what has been described as a “high-wire act” for both leaders, Zelenskyy made clear that he “does not want to be involved” in U.S. elections.
Saudi Arabia Condemned at Human Rights Council
Two dozen western countries slammed Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Britain, Germany, and Canada, among others, issued a joint statement before the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, condemning Saudi Arabia for alleged use of torture, unlawful detentions, and targeting of activists and journalists. This was the second time in six months that the Council has read out a statement condemning the Kingdom. The Saudi delegation did not immediately respond, and the Kingdom has regularly denied these types of allegations.
UNSG Announces Formation of Syrian Constitutional Committee
U.N. Secretary-General Guterres announced the formation of a constitutional committee for Syria. The committee will be “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led,” and will convene in Geneva in the coming weeks. The result of almost two years of negotiations, the committee will be comprised of 50 opposition members, 50 members representing the government, and 50 members representing civil society.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said that the announcement “gives back hope to the Syrians.” However, experts encourage caution regarding any hopes of ending the war.
Report Finds States Inflict “Serious Cruelty” on Rights Activists Cooperating with U.N.
U.N. Secretary-General Guterres reported on Thursday that one-quarter of U.N. member states have carried out suspected reprisals against activists who cooperate with the U.N. on human rights issues. “Acts of serious cruelty have continuously been reported against those who dare to come to the UN or share information with us—incommunicado detention, torture and ill-treatment, prolonged solitary confinement, and even deaths in custody,” said Andrew Gilmour, U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, while presenting the report. Gilmour also reported that family members, legal representatives, and witnesses were being targeted; that activists were filmed or secretly recorded at U.N. events; and that “retaliation is frequently reported against certain individuals when they return home.”
The report named, among others, China, Egypt, Iran, and Vietnam. These states rejected the report’s allegations.