These Stories Will Drive the Agenda at UNGA During UN Week

The United Nations General Assembly, better known as UNGA, kicks in New York this week.  Hundreds of heads of state, business and civil society leaders and dignitaries of all stripes will descend on the UN for a week of events, meetings, and of course speeches.

UNGA is the single most important and action-packed week on the diplomatic calendar — a behemoth of diplomatic events.

On the line with me to preview the big stories that will drive the agenda at UNGA this year is Margaret Besheer, the UN correspondent for Voice of America, and Richard Gowan, the UN director of the International Crisis Group.  We discuss a key youth summit on climate, the UN Climate Action Summit, how tensions between the United States and Iran may shape events at UNGA, and many other key moments, events, and ideas to watch during UNGA.

If you have 25 minutes and want to learn the storylines that will drive the agenda at UNGA this year, have a listen.


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READ: Richard Gowan’s briefing on 7 opportunities for the UN in 2020; Margaret Besheer’s reporting from the United Nations  


Transcript lightly edited for clarity

On the political significance of the youth climate summit and UN Climate Action Summit

Goldberg:  One observation I’d want to make is that I think what might distinguish or make UNGA a little more interesting this year is a dynamic that will unfold because of the presence of some of the world’s leading climate activists at the UN and around New York more broadly this year. In addition to some of the world’s, you know, great climate villains like Jair Bolsonaro. And you know, Donald Trump just earlier this week announced an intention to roll back California’s emission standards.

Margaret, to kick off with you, what are some of the climate events that are happening this week and what are the opportunities for potential conflict between the climate activists at UNGA and some heads of state  who might not be as bold on climate change as the activists might like?

Besheer: 00:54 So I, I see it a little differently. I sort of see this youth summit that’s happening Saturday into Sunday as being like this great injection of momentum, hopefully, and vigor and fresh blood. And, you know, we, every year we get all these stuffy world leaders who come here and for a change we are going to to kick off with this youth injection. And I hope that it will sort of bleed over into Monday into the adult summit and maybe it won’t be so stuffy and maybe because the young people will sort of bring their voices to it and a fresh perspective.

I don’t know about conflict between the activist the way you mentioned it, but I would say maybe not conflict, but maybe they’re bringing their, their view and their fears for the future, their future, and hopefully the leaders will hear them and maybe something can actually come out of it. That’s positive for change. You know, I think it’s kind of exciting that the kids are coming

Goldberg: 01:58 And it’s kind of an interesting decision, I think of the Secretary General to have this youth climate meeting ahead of the UNGA kickoff and the heads of state speeches. And of course, the climate action summit, which is happening on, on Monday. It’s sort of, I think a reflection of his intention to have civil society have an increased voice in these kinds of conversations in inside the UN. 

Besheer: 02:26 I think also maybe the kids can name and shame the leaders who aren’t doing anything where the Secretary General, being the world’s top diplomat, can’t necessarily do that, right?

Goldberg: Yeah, he’s outsourcing his naming and shaming, letting the kids do the dirty work for him.

Besheer: It’s a good cop, bad cop thing.

Goldberg: Richard in general, what sort of do, what do you see as some of the broader geopolitics at play around this climate summit and what will you be looking for in terms of how these geopolitics might play out in the coming week?

Gowan: 03:00 Well, I think what the summit really does is shift attention away from Donald Trump. And that’s important because for the last two years, Trump has completely dominated the General Assembly. And neither Guterres nor other leaders have really tabled any substantive initiatives around the General Assembly because there’s been a fear of creating friction.

And what strikes me with the climate summit is Guterres and a lot of leaders a lot of European leaders, Latin Americans and others are saying, “okay, we can’t just wait for Trump to lead. We’ve got to get on with the business of multi-lateralism whether or not Donald is in the White House.”

So, you know, the whole focus of the General Assembly, I think for a global audience is going to be climate discussions. There’ll be photos of Greta Thunberg and other young climate activists — and yes  Trump will come here next week, he will speak on the 24th, but that will be a strong sense that the world is pulling itself together and isn’t just allowing the US to set the agenda. And I think that’s, that’s the political message coming out of all these meetings.

On How an Escalating Crisis Between the United States and Iran May Impact Diplomacy at UNGA

Goldberg: 04:20 So speaking of, of the US setting the agenda or not, there is some really interesting news today  — and we don’t know how this will play out — but the Iranians are saying that their efforts to secure visas to attend the General Assembly are not forthcoming from the United States.

Now we should back up a little bit. The US has a treaty obligation with United Nations as the host country to provide visas and allow entry for dignitaries and diplomats to come to the UN to address it. Of course, the US can restrict their movements outside the UN, but in general they have to let them come to the UN. And it was expected that Rouhani himself and perhaps even a Javad Zarif would be at the United Nations. But as of now, their attendance seems to be a little up in the air.

Margaret can, can you talk a little bit about what we know about this unfolding situation with the visas and the Iranians?

Besheer: 05:20 So the whole Iranian story has been so fluid for the last week now. We have the attacks over the weekend in Saudi Arabia and it’s up for debate who carried them out. And now we have this issue with the visa. Pompeo is traveling in the Middle East. He’s on his way to Saudi or he’s arrived, I’m not sure which, but he said that at some point in his travels that he doesn’t think that they should come. But the US does have a host country obligation to let in people that they don’t like for you at meetings. And they’ve certainly done it in the past and they do it regularly. And Zarif was here just a few weeks ago, in fact.

So the Secretary General was actually about that this afternoon at his pre-UNGA news conference and he said that the UN has been in contact with the host state in order to solve all the outstanding visa problems. And he said he hoped that this would allow the problem to be solved. So he didn’t seem particularly nervous when he was asked about it or worried or concerned. So I think he thinks it’ll go through perhaps it’s just a bit of you know, how powers play with each other; like maybe the Americans are just being difficult and then they’re gonna relent at the last minute or something.

They’ve complained repeatedly, the administration, that Zarif comes here on a visa and he does a lot of TV interviews and things like that. And you know, he gets to spread his propaganda, which they don’t like. So maybe they’re just going to try and limit how long he can be here. Maybe wait till the last minute to give him a visa so he can’t do so many interviews or something.

Goldberg: 06:52 And Richard, what do you see as the kind of broader dynamics of Iranian participation at UNGA this year?

Gowan: 07:01 Well, as Margaret says, it’s, it’s been insanely fluid. And you know, just 10 days ago or a week ago, it did look like there was a good chance that president Trump would meet president Rouhani. That’s something which the French and Emmanuel Macron have been working on setting up since the G7 summit. The Americans, Pompeo and, and Trump have both been indicating that they would quite like to see that meeting happen. And it, there was a feeling that maybe we were coming to a moment where with John Bolton out of the White House Trump would come to New York meet, meet the Iranians, have a photo op and, you know, start reducing tensions.

Now that whole scenario was fallen apart pretty decisively since the Saudi Aramco attacks. The Iranians already said they don’t want to meet Trump unless there are concessions on sanctions, but with the, the Saudi Aramco attacks, I think that meeting is now almost totally out of the question. And instead of seeing, seeing this as a moment for potential rapprochement, we’re approaching a moment where Trump is going to stand in front of other leaders and you know, probably talk about slapping more sanctions on Iran and no even threatening worse coercive measures against the Iranians.

So, rather than being a peacemaking General Assembly, this could be a a peace undermining General Assembly.

What UNGA Says About Antonio Guterres’ Priorities as Secretary General

Goldberg: 08:40 I guess that depends to a degree on what is contained in Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations. Two years ago his first speech at UNGA was a very bellicose speech directed against North Korea. And of course that led to talks with North Korea and you know, decline in bellicosity at least coming from the mouth or the Twitter feed of the president of the United States. So it’s sort of an interesting dynamic. I agree to, to watch and, and to see a might unfold.

Richard staying with you, what role might Antonio Guterres have in perhaps doing some behind the scene diplomacy to try to smooth over tensions that have stemmed from this attack on the Saudi oil infrastructure?

Gowan: 09:33 I’m sure Guterres will, you know, urge Trump and urge other relevant leaders to show restraint. And what we’re hearing is also that other significant players like the Europeans the UK, the French and so forth, are really emphasizing the need for restraint in the Gulf. The Russians apparently also made this point in our closed Security Council meeting. But the reality is that while, while US allies may have some influence over US thinking, Guterres doesn’t. 

I would pivot here to I think to an interesting shift in Guterres as secretary general. For the first couple of years of his leadership here in New York his real focus was conflict prevention. It was crisis management. He’s been trying to mediate in situations like Libya, but this year he seems to have changed direction and rather than majoring on crisis issues, he’s majoring on climate change. And this links to the climate summit, which is very much his his production here in New York. He, he really seems to think that his highest chance of impact now is by pulling people together around implementing the Paris Climate agreement rather than attempting to mediate in fast moving crises such as that we’re currently witnessing in the Persian Gulf.

Goldberg: 11:12 Margaret, have you seen that trend in Antonio Guterres and then the UN Secretariat more broadly over the last year as well?

Besheer: 11:21 Yeah, I agree with Richard, because I think, you know, climate mitigation is an easy win for the secretary general and he doesn’t have a too many wins on the political side of the house. And, you know, Richard brings up Libya. Well, Libya was a disaster. I mean the secretary general went there to try and contain the conflict and as he’s getting on his plane and flying out, General Haftar starts advancing towards Tripoli and, you know, the war escalated. So, you know, that was just a disaster. And I think he’s not getting any traction on Syria; Yemen now is in the cross hairs of this whole other issue going on with the attacks on the Saudi oil installations. So, you know, progress, any progress that’s been made there could have setbacks from that. So it’s tough and you know, okay.

So, you know, the Trump administration may be not on board about climate change. Maybe some other governments like Brazil and Nicaragua and Syria since they didn’t sign on to Paris, but you know, he’s got citizens on his side and he has local governments on his side and business people and this general international feeling that there has to be something done about climate and unbound at soon.

So I think for him it’s an easy win.  He’s picked up from ban Ki Moon who started this push and it’s turning into a legacy issue for Antonio Guterres as well.

What Stories May Fly Under the Radar at UNGA This Year?

Goldberg: 12:48 So Margaret, when I emailed you to ask you if you’d want to do an UNGA preview episode you immediately wrote back and you said: “climate change and Iran —  those are the big stories.” But as in every year there are a plethora of events and meetings and other issues that are important but don’t necessarily get the same kind of attention either through media or, or other general high level attention. But there’s like a lot of important and interesting things happening that sometimes get overlooked.! What are some of the stories that may potentially get overlooked that you’ll be kind of keeping an eye on during UNGA this year?

Besheer: 13:29 Well, I think some of the ones that aren’t getting the spotlight, so to speak, are these other summits that are going on during the week. There’s not just the climate, but there’s a high level meeting on the sustainable development goals. There’s a meeting on financing for development. There’s a push for universal healthcare. There’s another meeting on eliminating nuclear weapons. So I mean, there’s some serious subjects that are out there, but really the climate and the Iranians have overshadowed.

Then there’s things we’re not seeing too much on like Syria and Yemen. The Rohingya for instance, that was big two years ago. There are smaller meetings on these things. You have your groups of friends and your small groups and you have your foreign ministers getting together for dinner and discussing things. But I really don’t know if we’re going to see much come out on those fronts. I don’t know. What do you think, Richard, do you think any of these little meetings, outside meetings or site events can push any breakthroughs on any of the stalled files?

Gowan: 14:28 No, not really. I mean it’s, it’s interesting. Apparently Guterres himself told his advisors that given the focus on climate change and the other big side events on the SDGs that he wanted fewer small side events on specific conflicts. He thought that they would be a distraction for on these, you know, big ticket items. Now there is still a loss of events. We have a list of site events around 360.

Besheer: 15:06 Right. Was that, was that mark falling off his chair?

Goldberg: Yeah, I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m loading up on red bull right now. Just thinking about it…

Gowan: 15:14  360 meetings, starting this Friday, running through to that, the, the following Friday now only fewer than 30 of those are on specific conflicts like Yemen or Syria. Venezuela is the there’s a, there’s a few, there’s a few of them. But they’re not very high level and there’s a sense that they’re all a little, a little pro forma. So you know, sitting at the International Crisis Group where we focus on crises we’re not, we’re not foreseeing a particularly transformative a few days at the general assembly.

Goldberg: 15:59 I’d give a shout out, on the potentially transformative side of the ledger, to that big meeting on universal health coverage. This is the, one of those kind of high level meetings in which heads of state will come to address and put out what is expected to be some concrete plans to improve health coverage among their populations. And this is an issue that the World Health Organization and UN member states more broadly have begun to tackle in recent years. There’s something like 100 million people around the world are pushed into extreme poverty because of health coverage costs.  Another stat I saw ahead of this conversation was that about 800 million people spend at least 10% of their income on healthcare and this high level meeting on universal health coverage will have an actual political declaration and outcome document to which you know, against which progress might be measured in, in the coming year.

So I think that is one of those kind of substantive issues that often gets overlooked among the big political issues that dominate coverage of UNGA. It’s always like one of my kind of frustrations there’s actually like really important stuff happening that’s world, you know, that has like world historic importance, but, you know, it’s not it doesn’t receive the same kind of coverage as like, you know Donald Trump’s speech

Besheer: 17:31 As a journalist trying to cover this behemoth, I think that they do way too many events and that there are really coverage worthy stories to be told out there. But it’s just impossible to do it because you have the major stories like the Irans and the North Korea’s and the Trump speeches and things like that, you know, sucking up all the oxygen and all the attention out of the week and it’s just, it becomes impossible for us to have enough hours in a day to write about everything.  I mean, for me, I’ve been, this is my 13th general assembly and I spend so much of my time change my desk actually just watching everything and trying to listen to it, to then report it or, you know, you know, it’s so hard to, you can’t just digest, you have no time to digest anything and you can’t really get to as many places as you want to be because there’s, there’s so much going on, you just can’t do it. You just can’t do it. So they really need to limit how much they do. If they want real concrete outcomes, I think, I mean, it needs to be a little less crazy. 360 side events come on in seven days. It’s kinda nuts!

UNGA and US-UN Relations

Goldberg: 18:42 So Richard, going back to you on this question, you mentioned earlier about about the Trump’s presence at the UN and, and Margaret, you mentioned earlier how it always kind of dominates coverage. This year is the first time that the US has a new ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft.

You know, it seems to me that in, in previous years in Trump’s previous two visits to the UN, he actually adopted a somewhat of a conciliatory tone towards the United Nations. This was even last year when John Bolton was the National Security Advisor during Unga. So it’s sort of, is interesting to me to watch to see if that same sort of conciliatory tone is adopted this time around. One gets the sense that Donald Trump seems to like the kind of pomp and circumstance around being fetted by international leaders at UNGA specifically. As opposed we should say to the G sevens of the world he hasn’t yet blown up an UNGA in the same way that he’s blown up other international meetings. 

Gowan: 19:40 I think that’s true. I think that the staging of the General Assembly suits  Trump’s style, because in essence it’s a rally style format. He gets to stand on a podium. Everyone else is watching him. He knows he’s getting a lot of TV coverage chips. It’s what he likes doing. And the G7  format or the NATO summit format, which he doesn’t like is where he has to sit around the table and engage in a give-and-take with other leaders. So the UN does I think it does play to his his ego. He’s back in his city, which is New York, he can look over first avenue and see a great big Trump Tower looming up over the UN, which probably makes them happy. So I don’t, I don’t think we will see the president really attacking the UN on this occasion.

I think that he’s much more likely to focus his his invective on Iran maybe on Venezuela, you know, countries that that are currently causing the, the US trouble. There’s been a tiny bit of reporting that he may also talk about religious persecution and I think implicitly persecution, persecution of Christian communities abroad. And I think that would be an interesting choice for him because it’s, it’s not really aimed at the the other leaders in the whole, it’s aimed at the evangelical domestic audience in the US which will be watching the president and we’ll be excited if he sort of stands up with the religious freedom.

Besheer: 21:36  That event has actually been announced from the White House now formally last night, and it’s going to happen on Monday.  But Mike Pence will also be at that session and we’ll introduce the president. But so, and that’s very much sort of a Mike Pence issue religious freedom. So it will, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of turnout he gets when much of the other leaders are attending the climate summit. [inaudible]

Gowan: 22:13 And that’s it. Actually, that’s a really interesting point about Pence being here because we’ve been watching, you know, we’ve been watching and trying to analyze Trump’s relations with the UN since 2017 and, you know, the standard lines always been, why is it, you know, Bolton was the member of the administration who was really fascinated with the UN and weakening the UN.

But something that we’ve seen quite clearly over the last 18 months or so is that both Pence and Pompeo who are very, very conscious of what the religious space wants in the US really liked coming to the UN and undermining, for example, language on reproductive health. Because some, some people associate that with abortion. I think Pompeo and pence you know, see the UN as a good place to be fighting culture wars. And even though Bolton has now gone, that’s gonna continue to be a feature of this administration’s behavior towards the institution.

Who Will Be the Breakout Star of UNGA This Year?

Goldberg: 23:19 So every year there is a breakout star of UNGA, someone who unexpectedly captures the world’s attention in some meaningful way. Last year I think indisputably it was New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden who brought her three month old baby to the floor of the UN General Assembly and became something of a media star during the week. This really was, I think, a breakout moment for her in world politics. So Margaret, to you, who do you suspect will be the breakout star of UNGA this year?

Besheer: 23:50 All right, I’m going to go for what do they call it? A sleeper. The one you don’t expect. I’m going to say if he comes, cause there’s reporting that he’s going to come I’m going to say Juan Guiado from Venezuela, the opposition leader, only because I sort of feel like it’s make or break time for him. So he needs to come and he supposed to be speaking at some Concordia event and you know, is he going to be in the Dag Hammarskjold Plaza across the street leading a big protest maybe when, when Venezuela speaks?  Maduro was on the schedule, but I’m not holding my breath for him to come, so I’m not sure who’s going to do the speech for Venezuela right now. But I feel like he’s got to, you know, make a splash or his days are numbered. So I’m wondering if he might be some sort of breakout star

Goldberg: 24:44 Richard to you breakout star of Unga 2019.

Gowan: 24:50 That’s, I think that’s a really great point about Guaido. I mean, obviously I think Greta Thunburg.  That’s, that’s guaranteed and well-deserved. Other than that you know, I, as a Brit, I’ll be watching with a certain ironic curiosity what Boris Johnson will say as his first general assembly appearance. I think he’s speaking on Tuesday afternoon and you know, he’s having a very, very rough time back in Europe, but this will be his chance to pitch post-Brexit Britain to the wider world. And he’s an entertaining speaker when he’s in his, when he’s in his prime. So that will be fun to watch.

One person who I think is fading away the opposite of a breakout star, but who will be fondly remembered at the UN is Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who’s coming for the climate summit and the development summit. This is probably her last trip to a General Assembly. She doesn’t come every year. She’s approaching the end of her tenure and  German elections will happen next year. And I think that you will see quite a lot of affection from other leaders for Merkel because she has been a very, very solid friend of multilateral cooperation during a very rough time. 

Goldberg: 26:25 Good. Well, thank you both. This is a very helpful preview of what to expect and some of the stories that’ll drive the agenda at UNGA  this year. Stay hydrated. You two.

Besheer: 26:35 Yeah. Take your vitamins, eat your Wheaties, all that stuff. Yeah. thank you.