Strongmen to Kick Off the UN General Assembly Session in September

by Stephanie Fillion. This article originally appeared on PassBlue.

Donald Trump will shake hands with Emmanuel Macron, Jair Bolsonaro and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. But will Benjamin Netanyahu; Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel be there, too?

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil with President Donald Trump of the United States, March 19, 2019, in the White House. Both men are scheduled to attend the annual opening session of the UN General Assembly, which will feature not only the parade of leaders but also a climate-change conference. ALAN SANTOS/PR

The 74th opening debate of the United Nations General Assembly, which lasts a few weeks, starts on Sept.17; the general debate begins on Sept. 24. With most member states signed up right now, the Assembly gives world leaders and their representatives a chance to make their points in front of the international community. Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, will preside over the 74th session.

It coincides with other important UN gatherings, including a climate change summit on the 23d and other “high-level” meetings, focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals and universal health coverage.

Trump will be showing up just as his administration announced a plan to freeze foreign aid, including contributions to international institutions and peacekeeping — the UN. The timing of the freeze, as the US Congress recessed in August, means any response could happen in September, when national politicians reconvene in Washington.

So as of now, three highly visible strongmen — Bolsonaro, Trump and el-Sisi- will kick things off at the UN among national leaders, with an unknown number of others following in their wake and, it appears, not many of them women.

Vladimir Putin has declined, though Russia will be assuming the rotating presidency of the Security Council in September. Although Putin last attended the General Assembly in 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov normally represents his country at the yearly assembly. Last year, no contact was made by the American delegation to the Russians to meet or talk, but this time it could be different.

PassBlue will be filing regular updates. Here’s what we know so far.

Attending António Guterres

O.K., the UN secretary-general’s attendance can be taken for granted. But not the content of his speech. Last year, Guterres talked about the importance of multilateralism and the rise of populism around the world. He also addressed the question of UN reform and how he intends to get that done. As these problems and various conflicts persisted throughout this year — Syria, Yemen, Libya, Palestine-Israel and Ukraine, to name a few — it will be interesting to hear what he has to say about them and what other issues he will address.

United States’ Donald Trump

Trump will be the second speaker on Sept. 24, after Bolsonaro of Brazil, by tradition. Given the pressing foreign policy matters before Trump — and his sheer unpredictability — what he will choose to say is a gamble. Last year, Trump arrived late to the dais and immediately boasted of his political achievements, drawing laughs, a highly unusual response to which he paused before nervously joining the laughter, too. One thing is certain: This will be a chance for Trump to set the tone for his 2020 presidential re-election run and to imprint it on his new UN ambassador, Kelly Knight Craft.

It’s unclear whether Trump or any US representative, for that matter, will participate in the UN climate change conference, given the US’ decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. (The UN has no information yet on the participation of the US.)

France’s Emmanuel Macron

If other countries are reluctant to confirm their leaders’ attendance for security and other reasons, France seemed only too eager, saying yes in mid-July. Macron’s focus will be on climate change, sustainable development and women’s rights — France will host a Beijing+25 conference in June 2020, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the meeting on improving women’s rights.

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro

It has been a tradition since 1955 that Brazil speaks first at the GA, as it is known, and Bolsonaro will have all eyes on him as the precursor to Trump. Bolsonaro, a Trump fan, will likely tackle environmental issues — keep in mind that a sharp rise in the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest is taking place under his unapologetic leadership.

Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Turkish mission to the UN has not confirmed Erdogan’s attendance yet, but he has attended every GA session in the past as president, and he is high up on the preliminary schedule (fourth, on Sept. 24), so there’s a good chance he will be there. With Erdogan growing closer to Russia militarily and the US becoming more critical of this NATO ally, Erdogan will have a core geopolitical role at the GA this year, as he does every time.

It will also be important to also hear what he intends to do about criticism over his country’s natural-gas drilling off Cyprus, whose northern half is governed by Turkish Cypriots and the rest by Greek Cypriots. The US, Israel, Greece and Cyprus are partnering on “energy cooperation” in Cyprus, leaving Turkey out of the loop.

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Nigeria’s ambassador to the UN, was elected president of the General Assembly’s 74th session on June 4, 2019. It is unclear if his country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, will attend the annual conference in September.

Poland’s Andrzej Duda

This Assembly will be Poland’s last chance to show off its status as an elected member of the Security Council, probably for decades. Duda is scheduled to attend the annual gathering. In his Assembly speech last year, he pushed for Security Council reforms and European Union reforms as well; as a nationalist, he is highly skeptical of the EU.

Cyprus’ President Nikos Anastasiadis

Greek Cypriot President Anastasiadis is scheduled to attend the meeting. With peace talks between the two sides in Cyprus stalled for more than a year but hints of a thaw, he may want to further momentum during the Assembly by meeting with his Turkish Cypriot counterpart. Resolution of the conflict that has affected the Mediterranean island for decades could end one of the longest UN peacekeeping missions.

Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg

This will be the last Assembly opening session during which UN members can decide how to fill the two open seats in the Security Council’s Western European and Others regional group for the 2021–22 term: Canada, Ireland or Norway? So Norway is all in. Solberg and other Norwegian top officials will attend, aiming to strengthen the country’s bid.

Iran’s Hassan Rouhani

Iranian sources say he is probably coming, so the president’s attendance will be one to observe closely, considering the heat in the Strait of Hormuz. Furthermore, US sanctions against Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, could affect his attendance to the General Assembly. Earlier in July, a US State Department spokesperson told CNN, “The State Department will evaluate specific circumstances related to this designated on a case-by-case basis consistent with existing laws.”

India’s Narendra Modi

Heightened strife between India and Pakistan regarding Indian Prime Minister Modi’s sudden move this month to totally control Kashmir will surely be reflected at the Assembly session, and Modi is confirmed as attending (on the 28th). Earlier in August, India revoked article 370 of the Indian constitution, giving a special independent status to the region of Kashmir and stoking a potential conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations. As of Aug. 14, the UN Security Council was mulling over whether to let Pakistan brief the Council on India’s highly disputed act.

Pakistan’s Imran Khan

Since India revoked Article 370 recently, Pakistani diplomats have so far been meeting at the UN bilaterally with the president of the Security Council, who in August is Joanna Wronecka, ambassador for Poland.[Update: The Council will hold a meeting on Aug. 17 on Kashmir, a meeting backed by China.] Khan, Pakistan’s head of government, is on the GA’s schedule (for the 27th), and is confirmed as coming. This would be an opportunity for him to rally support for Pakistan in defending against Modi’s moves on Kashmir. Khan is a relatively new political player in South Asia, however, and he will be tested as he wasn’t last year because of Kashmir.

Ireland’s Michael Higgins

Ireland is another candidate for the Security Council seat that checked “attending” the GA. President Higgins is scheduled to address the Assembly and will probably try to get as many pledges as possible for a Council seat next year from Africa, Asia and Latin America. (Presumably, Ireland has Europe’s backing, being a member of the European Union, whereas Norway is not.) Higgins, who has been in office since 2011, attends the Assembly regularly. (For Canada’s plans, see below.)

Italy’s Giuseppe Conte

The fact that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will talk to the General Assembly matters, of course, but the burning question is whether his minister of interior and possibly to-be prime minister, Matteo Salvini, will be there. Italy just passed a controversial law that was criticized by the UN Refugee Agency because it would slap a fine of one million euros on any nonprofit group with a rescuing boat carrying migrants across the Mediterranean.


Germany’s Angela Merkel

The tentative schedule says Germany will be represented by a minister this year, surely to be Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who has traveled to the UN several times this year already. A four-year interval suggests Merkel is due to return to New York, however, and the concurrent climate change summit and other important meetings may give her an incentive to show up.

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, last appeared at the United Nations in New York in September 2015, to attend the prominent meeting adopting the Sustainable Development Goals. She may show up for the new General Assembly session. MARK GARTEN/UN PHOTO

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to attend, according to the Israeli mission at the UN. He is scheduled to speak on Sept. 27, the day after the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, is tentatively planned to speak. But Israel is holding its legislative election on Sept. 17, and some political parties are uniting to defeat Netanyahu, so he may not make it to New York.

Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman

Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is on the list of attending heads of state, and his behavior will be examined closely. For the media and many other sectors of society around the world, Saudi Arabia is still not absolved of the 2018 murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an American resident and a columnist for The Washington Post. MBS, as he’s known, will be watched for his response to a UN report that concluded the Saudi government was responsible for what amounted to a premeditated execution. In June, a French human-rights expert and UN special rapporteur, Agnès Callamard, called on the UN in her report to launch an international criminal investigation to determine individual liability. Nothing has been done so far, at least publicly known.

Palestinian National Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas

As issues touching Palestine remain at the top of the UN’s agenda, the attendance of Mahmoud Abbas is inevitably scrutinized. Abbas may address controversies within the leadership of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (Unrwa), as well as expanding illegal settlements in the West Bank by Israel. The Palestinian Authority’s blatant rebuttal of Trump’s still-secret “peace plan” for the region could also come up in his speech.

Britain’s Boris Johnson

Stable is not how British politics can be described right now, and Johnson is still settling in as prime minister. The UN schedule says Britain’s head of government will speak (and Johnson last visited the UN when he was foreign minister, in 2017), but whether he actually shows up will probably not be known until the last minute. If he does, any interaction he has with Trump will be duly noted.

Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari

Nigerian President Buhari is scheduled to speak early on, after Turkey on Sept. 24. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, Nigeria’s UN permanent representative, will also serve as president of the Assembly for the year. The latter’s priorities are said to be “peace and security, poverty eradication, zero hunger, quality education, climate action and inclusion.”

Not coming, so far China’s Xi Jinping

With crumbling relations between the US and China over trade, Xi Jinping will probably not meet with his American counterpart in New York City. That’s what the schedule indicates for now — the Chinese mission to the UN says it’s too early to tell. Although China is scheduled to speak at the end of the first high-level week, off the record, officials indicate that Jinping will not attend. The riots in Hong Kong could keep him grounded in China as well.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin

Russia will be the rotating president of the Security Council in September, yet Moscow has said it will entrust Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to speak at the Assembly. As Russia’s ambassador to the UN from 1994 to 2004, Lavrov usually handles all UN-related business for his government. He is scheduled to speak on Sept. 28 but is apparently jockeying to have his date moved up.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau

Canada’s situation is tricky. During the Assembly session, Prime Minister Trudeau will be in the middle of the last month of his re-election campaign, and thus unlikely to take off for New York. The tentative schedule says Canada will be represented by its head of state, which could mean either the Queen of England or the Governor General, who rarely attends high-level international events.

Originally published at on August 14, 2019.

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

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