U.N. Brief
Get your insider’s guide to the biggest diplomatic event of the year as world leaders convene at the annual United Nations General Assembly. FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer deliver a daily newsletter to your inbox for a week known as the “Super Bowl for diplomats.”

NGOs Frozen Out of U.N. Building

Civil society representatives are blocked over COVID-19 concerns, even as foreign diplomats and journalists pass freely through the headquarters.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
United Nations headquarters
United Nations headquarters
Security staff gathers outside the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 22, 2021. DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Welcome back to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s pop-up guide to this year’s United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Here’s what’s on tap for today: Civil society organizations are still blocked from U.N. headquarters due to COVID-19 concerns, U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to defuse tensions with France, Turkey steps up on climate change, and a brief history of the longest U.N. speech ever recorded.

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NGOs Iced Out of UNGA

World leaders, diplomats, and journalists are going about their meetings inside the U.N. headquarters for the first General Assembly debate since the coronavirus pandemic began. But one key U.N. constituency remains frozen out of the headquarters building: nongovernmental organizations.

Civil society representatives from accredited organizations have now been denied entry to the U.N. grounds for over 18 months. The decision to exclude private groups was made by the U.N.’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). A Chinese political appointee has led DESA for more than 14 years, and many observers view it as acting under the influence of the Chinese government.

Blocked at the door. DESA’s acting chief of the NGO branch, Marc-André Dorel, confirmed on Sept. 7 that passes would not be provided to civil society groups “until further notice.” In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Amnesty International head Agnès Callamard and Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, protested the ongoing exclusions.

“We are writing to express disappointment and concern regarding U.N. DESA’s decision to continue preventing accredited members of civil society organizations from having access to the U.N. headquarters in New York City,” they wrote in the letter, which was obtained by U.N. Brief.

Bafflement. Callamard and Roth said that the rule would impede the efforts of their organizations and others to participate in the work of the General Assembly session and beyond, despite the U.N. chief’s repeated assurances that civil society participate “as an integral part of the U.N. ecosystem.”

“As you may recall, accredited members of civil society organizations have been denied all access to the building for several months now while other stakeholders have been given daily access, including day passes granted to accredited non-resident journalists covering special events,” they wrote.

“Time and again, diplomats and U.N. staff with whom we interact expressed surprise and bafflement when we inform them that civil society groups remain barred from accessing U.N. headquarters.”

Safety first. The U.N.’s chief spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, told U.N. Brief that the “engagement of civil society in the world of the United Nations at all levels is important.” But he added that the U.N. has been “balancing the safety and security of personnel, member state representatives and others.”

“We are taking all measures to facilitate the continued engagement of civil society through digital platforms and all available tools,” Dujarric added. “We hope that the local situation will continue to improve and allow us to reopen more fully.”

Pop Quiz

The marathon of scripted speeches at UNGA can turn into a bit of a snoozefest after a while. Some speeches really take the cake. How long was the longest speech in the history of the United Nations? (Bonus points if you can name the country the speaker was from.)

A) 9 hours, 32 minutes
B) 4 hours, 11 minutes
C) 5 hours, 27 minutes
D) 7 hours, 48 minutes

Scroll down for the answer. 

New Lifeline to Afghanistan

Waived off. The Biden administration is preparing to issue general sanctions waivers to organizations that provide humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, a move aimed at providing legal protection for relief workers operating under the Taliban regime, which is subject to U.S. anti-terrorism sanctions, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

The move to issue a so-called general license comes several weeks after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and about a month after the United States issued a narrow license to exempt from sanctions organizations carrying out U.S.-funded operations in the country.

All-access pass? The two new licenses will focus on permitting greater scope for humanitarian and lifesaving development activities, sources said, and would exempt U.S. and foreign charities and relief organizations. Under the new policy, international financial institutions will also be exempt from sanctions for supporting such activities.

Looming crisis. The United States has faced intense lobbying from humanitarian relief organizations in recent weeks to ease the restrictions on aid workers in Afghanistan. They warn of a potential humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan as the economy, propped up for years by foreign assistance, faces collapse and the Taliban turn back the clock on basic civil rights.

The latest move comes as the United Nations looks to expand its own footprint in Afghanistan, even as it faces backlash within its own ranks for doing so given the potential security risks.

Prodding from Capitol Hill. U.S. lawmakers have also joined in, urging U.S. President Joe Biden to address the humanitarian crisis and allow humanitarian organizations to expand operations in Afghanistan without running up against sanctions. “Now that the ground operation to evacuate people from Afghanistan has come to a close, the United States must set our sights on the humanitarian catastrophe confronting those who have been tragically left behind,” Sen. Jeff Merkley and 33 other Democratic lawmakers wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

The Taliban have been designated a global terrorist organization since 2002, subjecting the militant group to a slate of travel and financial sanctions. The legal restrictions accompanying the designation have a “chilling effect on the humanitarian sector and may significantly impede the delivery of life-saving aid in Afghanistan in this critical time,” the lawmakers wrote.

Another group of Democratic lawmakers want Biden to extend visas to Afghan nationals who work for the U.N., fearing they could be targeted for reprisals by the Taliban.

Infographic: Hybrid UNGA

This year marked the first pandemic-era hybrid U.N. General Assembly, with some world leaders flocking to New York for in-person diplomacy and others sending virtual addresses from afar. Below is a breakdown of all the high-level UNGA addresses.

U.S. Scrubs AUKUS Flub After Sub Snub

Biden’s debut speech on the importance of alliances on Tuesday was overshadowed by a major feud with Paris over the nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the United Kingdom that cut France out of the equation. But it appears the Biden administration is now working to heal that wound.  

Biden had a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday to start to patch things up. The White House readout of the call was about as close as Washington got to a full public apology for not giving France more of a heads up about the new AUKUS framework and submarine deal

Aprés the call. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, are expected to sit down together on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday, another sign that trans-Atlantic tensions are beginning to simmer down.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that France needed to “prenez un grip” about the whole thing. It’s unclear whether his words or his French accent will offend officials in Paris more.

What We’re Reading

The U.N.’s sexual assault and harassment problem. The Cut has a disturbing new feature on U.N. employees facing sexual assault and harassment and a clear-cut pattern of the institution dismissing and covering up formal complaints.

What We’re Listening To

Global Dispatches. Mark Leon Goldberg, the executive editor of U.N. Dispatch, has a podcast series covering all things UNGA, including an episode on the White House COVID-19 summit and an interview with U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

Turkey Goes Green?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters/Pool

Ankara steps up on climate diplomacy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced at the U.N. General Assembly that his country would finally ratify the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. Turkey was the last holdout among the G-20 countries that represent most of the world’s most powerful economies. Turkey signed the agreement in 2016, but its parliament has yet to ratify it.

Green backlash. Erdogan said he will submit the agreement for parliamentary approval next month. The announcement comes after his government faced massive backlash for his handling of deadly wildfires and floods in Turkey over the summer—natural disasters that scientists say were fueled by climate change

Erdogan may be more sensitive to Turkey’s younger and more environmentally conscious population as he faces elections in 2023 to extend his rule into a third decade.

Mail Call

What are you curious about? Send us an email and let us know, and we’ll try to answer!

Today’s question comes from Aidan, who asks what diplomacy is happening at the U.N. Assembly related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

For those who aren’t tracking, the GERD is a massive dam on the Blue Nile River built by Ethiopia to bring a major new source of power to East Africa. Sudan and Egypt, downstream of Ethiopia, say it threatens their water security. It’s become a major sore spot in East African politics, one the Trump administration unsuccessfully tried to mediate.

Since U.N. leaders are trying to limit in-person summitry, there isn’t any high-level meeting on the GERD like those on COVID-19 or climate change. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has championed the dam, isn’t in New York this week, so there aren’t any opportunities for foreign leaders to meet with him in person. But that doesn’t mean the issue is being ignored.

This week, Blinken met with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, and a senior State Department official said the dam was one of the big topics of discussion. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar also mentioned he spoke about the GERD in his meeting with Shoukry, indicating that it’s a major discussion point for the Egyptians and other U.N. powers outside the region.

Earlier this month, the U.N. Security Council prodded Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resume talks after meeting about the dam dispute back in July. The mood among U.N. diplomats is that things have reached an impasse, so while it may not feature heavily at the General Assembly this week, it will be a major topic of conversation in New York in the months to come.

And the Answer Is…

D) 7 hours, 48 minutes

In 1957, India’s U.N. ambassador, V.K. Krishna Menon, set the record for the longest speech ever recorded at the United Nations. The speech centered on a favorite subject for Indian officials: neighboring Pakistan.

For five straight hours, Menon railed against Pakistan and defended India’s claims on the disputed Kashmir region, after which point he collapsed and was sent to the hospital. But he hadn’t said everything he needed to say, so he returned and continued for another 2 hours and 48 minutes.

The transcript of Menon’s speech comes in at 160 pages, and his record has yet to be broken. Here’s hoping it never is.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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