A Week of U.N. Diplomacy Overshadowed by Impeachment Probe
The inquiry into Trump’s Ukraine call has sidelined some of the ongoing work at UNGA.
Welcome to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s special pop-up newsletter with reporting and analysis from the 74th U.N. General Assembly in New York. All week, we’re bringing you daily news, analysis, infographics, and profiles of some of the most influential attendees.
What’s on tap for today: Trump lashes out at whistleblower before departing UNGA; the U.N. chief makes a splash on the environment, but global commitments on climate change fall short; new efforts to bring peace to war-torn Yemen; and how the U.S.-backed side in Venezuela is navigating UNGA as they fight for international legitimacy.
A fond farewell. Thanks to all our readers who sent us tips and feedback during UNGA week. While U.N. Brief sadly comes to an end today, our coverage of the U.N. and pressing foreign-policy issues will continue.
Impeachment Saga Deepens
U.S. President Donald Trump lobbed rhetorical bombshells as he departed UNGA on Thursday, accusing a whistleblower at the center of his impeachment inquiry of being a spy, and suggesting what they did was treasonous—to an audience that included U.S. diplomats.
The Los Angeles Times obtained an audio excerpt of the president’s remarks about the whistleblower and the impeachment inquiry, which has appeared to overshadow other U.S. diplomatic work at the U.N. General Assembly—at least in the news cycle. As the impeachment probe gains momentum, it is pulling the State Department into the fierce political battle. Congress is likely to investigate the role some U.S. diplomats played in Ukraine after Trump sought support from the Ukrainian president to investigate a Democratic presidential rival and his son’s ties to a Ukrainian energy firm.
“To the best of my knowledge, so from what I’ve seen so far, each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Thursday.
U.N. Secretary-Generals can serve up to two five- year terms. Which Secretary-General pushed to serve for three terms?
A) Boutros Boutros-Ghali
B) Trygve Lie
D) Kurt Waldheim
E) Pérez de Cuellar
F) Ban Ki-moon
Scroll down for the answer.
What’s We’re Following
No end in sight for U.S.-Iran tensions. Once-high hopes for a U.S.-Iranian meeting at the UNGA have fallen through. Iranian government officials have now been boxed into a narrow part of New York City around the U.N. headquarters, after the United States announced new travel restrictions on Iranian officials and their family members. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tried to visit Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, who is currently in a hospital in New York City outside the area around U.N. headquarters. But the U.S. government rejected his request, U.S. and Iranian officials confirmed to Foreign Policy.
“Foreign Minister Zarif would like to visit a colleague who is in the hospital receiving world-class care,” said a State Department spokesperson. “Iran has wrongfully detained several U.S. citizens for years, to the pain of their families and friends they cannot freely visit. We have relayed to the Iranian mission that the travel request will be granted if Iran releases a U.S. citizen.”
UNGA speakers. Though some world leaders are already departing UNGA, others are just taking the stage. Among those giving addresses before the General Assembly on Friday are: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad; Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok; and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
[As usual, schedules can change so find the latest list of speakers here.]
North Korea news (or lack thereof). Amid all the UNGA headlines, news on one front has been conspicuously sparse: North Korea. Over a year of frenzied negotiations and summitry between the United States and North Korea hasn’t yet led to the diplomatic breakthrough Trump hoped for, and senior North Korean leaders skipped UNGA. Pompeo told reporters at a briefing that the Trump administration is keeping the door open to talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, however. “We hope the phone rings and that we get that call and we get that chance to find a place and a time that work for the North Koreans and that we can deliver on the commitments that Chairman Kim and President Trump made,” Pompeo said. “But I don’t have that in hand yet.”
Sudan’s post-coup future. The United Nations and African Union (AU) are holding a meeting with Sudan to map out the East African country’s fragile transition from decades of autocratic rule as the country’s new prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, makes his UNGA debut. With a shaky and uncertain shift to democracy underway, Hamdok brought a new tone to UNGA that contrasts sharply with the deposed leader he replaced; former President Omar al-Bashir, now jailed in Sudan after he was overthrown, ruled the country with an iron fist during his 30 years in power and has been accused of war crimes and widespread human rights abuses.
Hamdok attended a media freedom event and agreed to open access to his country with the U.N. Human Rights commissioner. The AU has taken the lead on managing Sudan’s attempt to transition to democracy, and that trend should continue, said Richard Gowan, U.N. Director of the International Crisis Group. “This is a case where the UN should aim to be ‘best supporting actor’ rather than the star, bringing economic expertise to back up the AU’s work on Sudan’s transition,” he said.
New push for peace in Libya. Though it largely flew under the radar at UNGA this week, major powers in the United Nations have engaged in a new push to resolve a conflict in Libya that has morphed into a proxy war between rivals in the Middle East and North Africa. France and Italy, which have clashed on their respective Libya policies a in the past, co-chaired a high-level meeting at UNGA this week to try and kickstart new efforts on peace talks.
Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj, in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, ruled out talks with Libyan Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who has been fighting to take control of Tripoli from Sarraj’s internationally recognized government.
After repeatedly rejecting calls for talks, Haftar on Thursday changed his tune, saying he was ready for dialogue. Sarraj blamed Haftar for plotting a coup and stoking further violence in the oil-rich North African country, calling the general a “war criminal” in his U.N. address. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have backed Haftar, while Turkey and Qatar have backed the internationally-recognized government.
“We’re talking about a proxy war in Libya, and every country is being involved one way or another in different levels,” said Taher el-Sonni, a political advisor to Sarraj who has been nominated to be Libya’s new U.N. ambassador. “In the end of the day, Libyans are dying from both sides.”
El-Sonni said he appreciated U.N. efforts to support dialogue and democracy in his country, but broad frustrations remained. “It’s very upsetting that we hear from time to time meetings around the world discussing what should happen for Libya, where nobody’s trying to have the Libyans engaged properly to decide on their future, because it’s their country,” he told Foreign Policy.
U.N. Peacekeeping Worldwide
The United Nations has 14 peacekeeping operations around the world. Here’s an overview of where its peacekeepers are deployed.
Guterres Goes All in on Climate Change
It’s been a bad week for the world’s climate, with a newly released U.N. report forecasting a dire future for overheating oceans and new but underwhelming international pledges to cut carbon emissions. But it’s been a good week for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, who rode his climate crusade to the cover of Time magazine.
For a U.N. chief who has made little traction in resolving conflicts from Syria to Libya and received public criticism for not speaking out forcefully enough on human rights, Guterres has effectively positioned himself as the avuncular face of the international effort to fight global warming. He has aligned himself with youth activists like Greta Thunberg, and publicly prodded governments to tax carbon, end fossil fuel subsidies, and pony up more money to help the world’s poorest countries grapple with the impact of the climate crisis.
“The fact that Guterres is pushing so hard on climate represents an evolution of his understanding of his role,” Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the International Crisis Group, told reporters last week.
When the former Portuguese prime minister arrived in New York nearly three years ago, Gowan said, he figured that his predecessor, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, had already done the heavy lifting on climate change. Ban prodded world leaders, notably U.S. President George W. Bush, to support climate action and spent his second term helping build political momentum for the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Guterres “has been looking for a success in the conflict field, first in Cyprus, and then this year in Libya,” Gowan said. “He hasn’t found one. He has found that in climate, he has a theme that works for him.”
Did climate change crowd out other issues? When climate change took center stage at this year’s UNGA, it pushed other humanitarian issues to the sidelines, frustrating some aid groups and humanitarian organizations, according to several humanitarian workers who spoke to Foreign Policy. This year, the U.N. Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stepped back on events to make room for the U.N.’s high-level Climate Action Summit.
“This year, OCHA did not organize their usual humanitarian events because of the focus on the Climate Action Summit,” Kathryn Achilles, senior humanitarian policy advisor at the humanitarian group Oxfam, told Foreign Policy. “This was a huge missed opportunity for us to keep the profile up on these crises and to make the important connections between the climate crisis and humanitarian disasters, like the drought in the Horn of Africa and the impact of cyclones in Mozambique.”
Guterres’ record on human rights. Guterres’ standing on climate change is far better than on human rights. Advocates have underscored their disappointment with his unwillingness to speak out about press freedom and violations of human rights in powerful member states like China, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.
In a withering April Washington Post op-ed, Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, argued that Guterres is “becoming defined by his silence on human rights—even as serious rights abuses proliferate.”
Rights advocates especially are upset with his failure to publicly challenge China’s detention of more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs in reeducation camps. On Sept. 15 a coalition of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the World Uyghur Congress, issued a joint statement criticizing Guterres’ unwillingness to confront China on Xinjiang.
“We recognize that your preferred approach with the Chinese government on Xinjiang has been to conduct quiet diplomacy. But to date, the Chinese government has been compelled to answer for its actions only after intense public pressure generated by concerned governments, human rights organizations, and the media.”
Guterres pushed back. “I don’t think anyone has been more persistent and more clear in talking to the Chinese authorities in relation to this issue than myself,” Guterres told reporters. “It is absolutely not true that I’ve only done discreet diplomacy… If there is an area where I believe I’ve been doing publicly much more than many other leaders around the world [it] is this.”
Guterres did win props from the human rights crowd for backing a decision by his peacekeeping department to impose a partial ban on Sri Lankan army troops in U.N. peacekeeping mission in response to Colombo’s appointment of a suspected war criminal as army chief.
Profile: An Underdog Venezuelan Team Comes to New York
There were two delegations of Venezuelan diplomats circling each other at UNGA this year, and which one is legitimate depends on who you ask.
At the beginning of the year, opposition leader Juan Guaidó declared that he was acting president of Venezuela, and that embattled Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was illegitimate. The United States and over 50 other countries recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president. But Maduro remains in place in Venezuela, with a contested government backed by about a dozen countries, including China, Iran, Russia, and Cuba.
Guaidó dispatched a small team to the U.N. General Assembly this year to try to marshal international support for his cause and raise awareness of the plight of suffering Venezuelans. The team is led by his foreign-policy chief Julio Borges, who spent the week rushing between high-level ministerial meetings and public events on the sidelines of UNGA. Accompanying him are his deputy, Isadora Zubillaga, and members of the opposition-controlled National Assembly.
They came to New York despite the fact that the U.N. has not recognized their government and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres did not meet with Guaidó’s team.
Borges and his delegation were based out of the Venezuelan consulate close to the United Nations with hastily arranged furniture, chipped white walls, and barebones decor. When the United States recognized Guaidó, Maduro’s diplomats trashed and looted the consulate on their way out of the country.
Despite the austere setting, and lack of a formal U.N. recognition, they remain upbeat. “I think that every day that passes we’re in a better position. And every day that passes [Maduro] is weaker,” said Zubillaga in an interview with Foreign Policy at the consulate. “I have no doubt about that.”
While Guaidó didn’t attend UNGA himself, he scored some key diplomatic victories from afar. Invoking a little-used mutual defense pact called the Rio Treaty, many Latin American countries voted to crack down on members of Maduro’s government involved in human rights violations or crimes. The United States also rolled out new sanctions on Venezuelan entities and pledged $52 million in new development assistance for Guaidó’s provisional government.
The United States has also directed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid funding for the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, where political and economic crisis have prompted millions to flee. Another 3.7 million Venezuelans are food insecure. Those who have backed Guaidó blame Maduro’s government for the crisis and have accused Maduro and his cronies of widespread human rights violations, drug trafficking, and corruption. Maduro in turn blames Washington for fomenting the crisis and attempting a coup by backing Guaidó.
Maduro also skipped UNGA, opting instead to travel to Moscow for a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
So far at UNGA, no new countries have recognized Guaidó as the legitimate president. Zubillaga says they will keep pushing for wider international recognition. “Even the countries that don’t recognize us yet, they do recognize that Maduro is a dictator,” she said. “And they do recognize that Venezuela under Maduro is… a failed state.”
In Case You Missed It
Trump makes China pay—for postage. The Trump administration on Wednesday scored an important victory in an arcane battle over postal rates that threatened to paralyze international mail delivery—even if it may mean consumers everywhere will pay higher prices to send and receive goods around the world.
After two days of marathon diplomacy, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) in Geneva reached an unexpected compromise that will keep the United States in the 145-year-old organization that was the original keystone of globalization. The Trump administration had vowed to leave the postal union if its demands for a more level playing field weren’t met—which would have thrown international mail service into turmoil. Read the full story here.
Fear of wider Yemen war fuels U.N. peace push. The alleged Iranian attack this month on Saudi Arabian oil facilities rocked oil markets and raised the prospect of wider regional conflict involving the United States and Iran.
But Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s special envoy for Yemen, believes the attack created a potential opening for the resumption of U.N. brokered peace talks. Direct political talks have been largely frozen since December, when the warring parties in Yemen signed the Stockholm Agreement, which was aimed at demilitarizing the vital Red Sea port of Hodeidah, held by Iran-backed Houthi militants fighting the internationally-recognized government.
The Saudi-backed Yemeni government has refused to resume the talks until the Houthis comply with their obligations under the Stockholm Agreement to withdraw troops from Hodeidah. Over the past few days, Griffiths has been shuttling around Manhattan hotels and diplomatic missions, trying to get Yemeni officials back to the peace table with Houthis, who claimed responsibility for the drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia.
The U.N. negotiator is betting that the attack, which briefly cut Saudi oil production nearly in half, has heightened pressure on the Houthis, whose relations with the Iranians has come under a brighter spotlight, diplomats say. On Friday, the Houthis agreed to halt drone and missile attacks against Saudi Arabia.
Griffiths has been pressing the Saudis to offer some sort of concession, like halting airstrikes. On Tuesday, the Saudi-led coalition reportedly killed 15 civilians, including children, in an air strike in the town of Qatabah in southern Yemen.
On Thursday, Griffiths met with the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, Kuwait, and Sweden, to breathe new life into the peace process. The group issued a statement condemning the “increased intensity” of Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia, but welcoming the cessation of strikes against Riyadh as an important first step towards de-escalation.
U.S. sends forces to Saudi Arabia. Nearly two weeks after the attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure, the Pentagon disclosed it was deploying a Patriot missile battery, radar systems, and approximately 200 support personnel to Saudi Arabia. And the United States called for others to help defend Saudi Arabia from any Iranian aggression.
“Other countries have called out Iranian misadventures in the region, and we look for them to contribute assets in an international effort to reinforce Saudi Arabia’s defense,” said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.
The real climate march. Warming temperatures could leave 30 to 100 million people living in inhospitable regions, according to António Vitorino, the Portuguese director general of the International Organization for Migration. So what are they to do? The United States is building walls, and Europeans are deploying their navies to keep waves of climate refugees from crossing their borders.
Vitorino wrote that states need to consider the impact of climate change when they fashion development and migration policies. “On top of aid and better migration management, this means supporting communities to adapt and build resilience to deep changes in their local environment,” he wrote.
Amal Clooney defends the press. On a week in which Trump paraded his disdain for the American media on the world stage, Amal Clooney warned “that abuses of media freedom around the world are stifling speech and shredding the very fabric of democracies.”
Clooney, who has provided legal support for journalists around the world, highlighted the case of her client Maria Ressa, a Filipino reporter who has been attacked by her own government. Ressa is a little over five feet tall, but “stands taller than so many of us in her courage and personal sacrifice for the cause of telling the truth,” Clooney told a gathering of international dignitaries on the sidelines of the General Assembly.
“The authorities have responded to this single reporter with the full weight of the State,” targeting her with libel suits, scouring her tax returns, and pursuing a legal campaign to criminalize alleged foreign ownership of her publication’s stock.
Clooney’s foundation has been working with leading legal experts to advise governments on legal protections for the press and to produce “model laws” designed to uphold press freedom. “Our research targets laws being used every day to punish journalists for their work, such as criminal libel laws, vague or overbroad hate speech, and ‘fake news’ laws,” she said.
Odds and Ends
A bit of photoshop. Guinea’s government appears to have been caught editing footage of their president’s address to the U.N. General Assembly to make it seem like he had a much bigger audience than he did. The official video posted by the president’s office on Facebook shows a packed house. The official U.N. footage, however, appears to show a considerably smaller audience. Hat tip to Twitter user @SidyYansane and another loyal reader for flagging this.
And the Answer Is…
D) Kurt Waldheim
Kurt Waldheim, an Austrian diplomat, was first elected U.N. Secretary-General in 1971, after having lost the Austrian presidential election. He was reelected in 1976. Waldheim sought an unprecedented third term in 1981, but he faced stiff competition from Tanzania’s Foreign Minister, Salim Ahmed Salim, and the race remained deadlocked after several weeks of voting, opening the door to a little known compromise candidate, Peru’s U.N. Ambassador Javier Pérez de Cuéllar.
Salim would go on to become Prime Minister of Tanzania in 1984, and Waldheim finally won the Austrian presidency in 1986. But his presidential campaign reopened a dark chapter in Waldheim’s personal history, revealing his time as an intelligence officer with the Wehrmacht under Nazi Germany.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch