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What to expect at this week's U.N. General Assembly

The 77th session of U.N. General Assembly opened at the United Nations headquarters on Sept. 13 in New York City. The session's high-level debate begins on Tuesday.
Liao Pan
/
China News Service via Getty Images
The 77th session of U.N. General Assembly opened at the United Nations headquarters on Sept. 13 in New York City. The session's high-level debate begins on Tuesday.

NEW YORK — World leaders are gathering in Manhattan for the 77th United Nations General Assembly this week — the first entirely in-person General Assembly meeting since the start of the pandemic. Heads of state, heads of government and top diplomats are attending from around the globe.

Secretary-General António Guterres, who last week warned that it is a time of "great peril" and stressed that "geostrategic divides are the widest they have been since at least the Cold War," will open the debate Tuesday morning.

"You can expect the secretary-general to deliver a sober, substantive and solutions-focused report card on the state of our world where geopolitical divides are putting all of us at risk. There will be no sugar coating in his remarks, but he will outline reasons for hope," spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Monday.

Here are some things to watch as the annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate gets underway.

The war in Ukraine

Guterres told NPR last week that he doesn't think there is any chance of dialogue between the Russians and Ukrainians in New York, adding that they are "a long way" from the conditions for a peace agreement.

Early in the war, 141 of the 193 U.N. member states supported a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. While there is overwhelming support for Ukraine's sovereignty and criticism of Russia for violating the U.N. Charter by launching the war, some diplomats from Africa, Asia and Latin America have expressed frustration that they're being pressured to take sides on the war in Ukraine while the war is pulling attention away from their countries' problems.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield has heard these concerns. "We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world. There are conflicts taking place elsewhere. There are issues that impact us all," she told reporters last Friday.

The Security Council will hold a session on Ukraine on Thursday.

Ripple effects of the war

"The war in Ukraine is devastating a country — and dragging down the global economy," Guterres said in a briefing ahead of the General Assembly's high-level debate.

Along with Turkey, he negotiated a deal to get Ukrainian grain supplies and Russian food and fertilizers onto global markets. Still, he warns there is a real risk of "multiple famines" this year. That includes in the Horn of Africa, a situation made worse by renewed fighting in Ethiopia.

The war in Ukraine has also upended energy markets. Guterres says he's frustrated to see fossil fuel companies benefit from rising prices and has called on countries to impose taxes.

Iran

With talks at an impasse and Iran's nuclear program expanding rapidly, Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi is expected to make his in-person debut at the U.N.

The Biden administration, along with allies in Europe, has been trying to revive a nuclear deal with Iran but says Iran's latest proposal takes a step backward.

The Trump administration left the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, which is seeking guarantees that won't happen again. The Iranians also want the International Atomic Energy Agency to close an investigation into past nuclear activities. U.S. officials say Iran should simply answer the IAEA's questions.

Raisi delivered his U.N. speech last year via video. Critics point out that he has a long record of abuses, having played a key role in the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1998 and in the crackdown on the country's Green Movement in 2009. Raisi is also likely to face a backlash over the death in custody last week of a 22-year-old Iranian woman, who was beaten by morality police for not complying with rules on head coverings.

Guterres has said he will raise concerns about human rights and Iran's nuclear program, if, as expected, he meets with the Iranian leader.

Afghanistan

Taliban officials, who face an international travel ban, are not expected in New York.

In a prisoner exchange announced Monday, the U.S. released Afghan drug lord Bashir Noorzai for the freedom of U.S. engineer Mark Frerichs, who'd been held in captivity in Afghanistan for the past 2 1/2 years.

The Taliban have been seeking more international recognition and access to central bank funds, frozen in the U.S.

Washington announced last week that it has set up a special fund — one that will remain out of reach of the Taliban — to begin disbursing $3.5 billion to the Afghan people.

Former Afghan parliamentarian Naheed Farid wants U.N. member states to keep up the pressure on the Taliban to let girls go to school and restore other rights. She describes the situation in her country as "gender apartheid."

She told reporters at the U.N. recently that she's hearing more and more stories from Afghanistan women "choosing to take their life out of hopelessness and despair."

"This is the ultimate indicator on how bad the situation is for Afghan women and girls — that they are choosing death, and that this is preferred for them than living under the Taliban regime," she said.

Who speaks when?

The pandemic disrupted the past two years' UNGA meetings, but this year, diplomats are getting back to their normal routine of meeting in person, which some jokingly call "diplomatic speed-dating."

Planners had to do some last-minute rearranging to accommodate the schedules of President Biden and other world leaders attending Queen Elizabeth II's funeral in London on Monday.

Usually the host country's leader is among the first speakers, giving the U.S. a chance to set the agenda. But this year, President Biden will be giving his annual address a day later, on Wednesday.

One leader — Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — will address the gathering virtually, the only leader to do so this year.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken will chair the meetings that Biden can't attend, including one focused on food security, a major theme of the Biden administration's diplomacy at the U.N.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.