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Here’s what’s on tap for today: The Taliban make a play for U.N. recognition, a look back at Biden and Guterres’s big speeches , and a profile of Afghanistan’s envoy to the U.N.
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: The Taliban make a play for U.N. recognition, a look back at Biden and Guterres’s big speeches, and a profile of Afghanistan’s envoy to the U.N.
If you would like to receive U.N. Brief in your inbox this week, please sign up here.
Taliban to U.N.: It’s Our Turn to Talk
The Taliban have ended weeks of speculation over their plans to seek diplomatic recognition at the United Nations, asking U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres for a speaking slot at the U.N. General Assembly and requesting the world body boot the current Afghan U.N. ambassador out.
The development injected a new dose of diplomatic drama at the General Assembly on a day when U.S. President Joe Biden made his case for world leadership and Guterres delivered a gloomy address about how the world was standing at an “abyss” with the coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian crises, and looming climate catastrophes.
Showdown coming. On Monday, Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s self-styled foreign minister, wrote to Guterres asking to participate in the U.N. General Assembly debate this week, according to Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N.’s chief spokesperson.
The move sets the stage for a political battle between the Taliban and the United States and its Western partners, who are reluctant to recognize the Taliban before they demonstrate a willingness to form an inclusive government and respect the human rights of the Afghan people, particularly women and girls.
It has also put Afghanistan’s current U.N. ambassador, Ghulam Isaczai, on the spot. Isaczai kept his seat even after the Taliban toppled his government last month. (For more on Isaczai’s unique predicament, scroll down.)
One major player in this drama will be the nine-member U.N. Credentials Committee, which reviews cases of competing requests to represent a country at the United Nations. The United States is on that committee. It doesn’t usually meet until November, so don’t expect an immediate answer on the issue.
The case of Afghanistan’s seat mirrors another diplomatic dispute with the Credentials Committee in regard to Myanmar, where the military, which took power in a coup this year, is urging the United Nations to install its ambassador in New York.
A Taliban UNGA speech is unlikely. Former officials said it’s not likely the United Nations will grant the Taliban their request for a speaking slot at the last minute. It would be a diplomatic coup for the Taliban when most countries, first and foremost the United States, are loath to hand the group any more wins.
U.S. and U.N. officials see granting international legitimacy to the Taliban as one of the last points of leverage they have left with the extremist militant group to protect civil rights in Afghanistan and tamp down violent reprisals against Afghans who helped the U.S. and coalition war efforts for 20 years.
The United States isn’t telegraphing its stance on the matter. Keep in mind, it still relies on the Taliban’s goodwill to allow a small number of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies to freely leave the country after the chaotic withdrawal.
“The United States is following this issue closely and will work with the other members of the Credentials Committee in due course,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said.
What’s on Today’s Agenda?
Speeches, speeches, and more speeches. Twenty-six foreign leaders are expected to speak at the U.N. General Assembly today—most in person, some pre-recorded. Among those speaking in person: Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Among those giving pre-recorded addresses: Jordanian King Abdullah II, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
Brazil Health Minister Tests Positive for COVID-19 at UNGA
It’s the exact headline U.S. and U.N. officials were trying to avoid as hundreds of foreign dignitaries descended on New York this week: Brazil’s health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, has tested positive for COVID-19 while attending the General Assembly. He was in the U.N. General Assembly Hall with other diplomats on Tuesday, a U.N. official confirmed to U.N. Brief. His boss, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, has refused vaccination, but Queiroga received a Chinese-made vaccine. He told CNN Brazil he would quarantine in New York for 14 days. Other Brazilian delegation members have tested negative, but some have canceled their meetings on the UNGA sidelines as a precaution.
Mini Profile: The Ambassador Without a Country
In late June, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appointed Ghulam Isaczai to be Afghanistan’s next ambassador to the United Nations. The appointment made sense to some seasoned diplomats and officials. Isaczai spent nearly three decades working in the humanitarian space and the U.N. system, including a stint as the U.N. representative in North Korea. There were few senior diplomats from Afghanistan who knew U.N. institutions better.
Just over two months after appointing Isaczai, Ghani fled Afghanistan as the Taliban completed a sweeping offensive to take control. The last U.S. troops left the country amid a chaotic and bloody withdrawal. At the U.N. headquarters in New York, Isaczai suddenly found himself representing a government that no longer existed.
That hasn’t stopped Isaczai from showing up for the job. Earlier this month, Isaczai sent a formal request to Guterres to keep his post. He has used the bully pulpit in New York to speak out against Taliban crackdowns on civilians, the rollback of women’s rights, and other human rights violations. On Tuesday, Isaczai watched world leaders speak from Afghanistan’s seat in the U.N. assembly hall—all as the Taliban challenged his very right to continue holding the seat.
The Taliban victors in Kabul want Isaczai gone. In Muttaqi’s letter to Guterres, he asserts Isaczai’s mission is “considered over and that he no longer represents Afghanistan,” according to Dujarric, Guterres’s chief spokesperson. Dujarric told U.N. Brief the Taliban also nominated their Qatar-based spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, as their new U.N. ambassador in the letter.
Isaczai is now in the spotlight as U.S. and Western officials weigh how to engage the new Taliban government—and more importantly, whether to lend them any international legitimacy.
Some U.N. diplomats expressed sympathy for his plight. He is an envoy in exile, and it’s unlikely he could safely return to his home country under Taliban rule. “It must be very hard. Where is he getting his instructions?” one U.N. diplomat said.
The Afghan mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for an interview with Isaczai or a request for comment on the matter.
How he got here. Isaczai’s ascension to one of Afghanistan’s top diplomatic posts came after more than 25 years of work in U.N. diplomacy and humanitarian response. The U.S.-educated diplomat worked for nongovernmental organizations, including Save the Children and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan.
After joining the United Nations, he climbed the ranks of the international body, bouncing around U.N. jobs in 10 countries, including his home country of Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Germany, Tajikistan, Yemen, Nepal, and even North Korea. His newest post, however, puts him in a largely unprecedented position for a diplomat.
What can an ambassador without a government do? “The government has collapsed. The U.S. has been frank. The Taliban are the de facto authorities,” said Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group. “The ambassador can pretty much only keep pressing the international community not to forget his country, which effectively means sending more aid, which the Taliban can manipulate as necessary.”
Regional leaders are vexed by Isaczai’s situation. “It’s a fairly complicated situation,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters Tuesday evening. “The question is: Who is he representing? You know, the people that he was nominated by or he was representing have left.”
Other experts said Isaczai keeping his seat at the United Nations is important for both practical and symbolic reasons. “Keeping somebody in place who is [in] contact with people in Afghanistan and who can help report what’s happening on the ground until things are more settled, it makes sense,” said Lisa Curtis, a former top National Security Council official on South Asia who is now at the Center for a New American Security.
“It also sends a signal to the Taliban that it’s not just going to be a walkover for them, that they can just say, ‘we’re the leaders now,’ and the rest of the world will accept that at face value,” she said.
Incumbent advantage. The matter of who gets to keep Afghanistan’s U.N. seat in the future is now kicked over to the U.N. Credentials Committee, which consults with the General Assembly. Until the debate is settled, the incumbent gets to keep the seat. That means, at least for now, Isaczai still has a job—if not an employer.
Biden’s Speech, by the Numbers
Biden’s debut presidential UNGA speech on Tuesday sought to project confidence in the United States’ capacity to lead the world through a maze of political, environmental, and financial crises. He sought to turn the page on 20 years of war and kick-start a new era of “relentless diplomacy” by engaging allies and “competing vigorously” with adversaries—although he didn’t mention China explicitly. Below is a rundown.
How long Biden’s speech lasted: 34 minutes
Mentions of COVID-19 or the pandemic: 17
Mentions of climate: 16
Mentions of allies: 8
Mentions of democracy: 5
Mentions of nuclear proliferation: 3
Mentions of Afghanistan: 3
Mentions of China: 0
Mentions of Russia: 0
Time for Some Doom and Gloom
Biden put on a brave face during his address to world leaders. But beneath the upbeat rhetoric, the mood inside the U.N bubble reflected a deepening sense of pessimism among attendees about the ability of leaders to avert a series of escalating catastrophes, from growing economic inequality and fraying alliances to rising sea levels and the emergence of autocratic governments through force or by law.
Guterres opened the session with perhaps the most pessimistic assessment of world affairs by a U.N. leader since the end of the Cold War, scolding world leaders for failing to live up to the challenges. “We are on the edge of an abyss and moving in the wrong direction,” he said. “Our world has never been more threatened.”
The Portuguese diplomat outlined a laundry list of international ills, including widening economic gaps, climate change, warfare, humanitarian crises, the pandemic, the demise of digital privacy, and cyber insecurity. “We face the greatest cascade of crises in our lifetimes,” he said. “Human rights are under fire. Science is under assault.”
About this whole U.S.-China rivalry. Guterres also took some pot shots at souring relations between the two world superpowers. He said the emerging competition between Washington and Beijing is creating a “recipe for trouble,” describing a polarized world with “two different sets of economic, trade, financial, and technology rules; two different approaches in the development of artificial intelligence; and ultimately, two different military and geopolitical strategies.”
One bright spot? Hours after criticizing the two major powers, Guterres issued a far more conciliatory statement praising Chinese President Xi Jinping for his pledge to end all financing of coal-fired power plants abroad. He also applauded Biden for increasing U.S. financing of international climate efforts to approximately $11.4 billion a year, bringing the world closer to meeting a U.N. target of raising more than $100 billion a year in climate financing.
What are you curious about? Let us know, and we’ll try to answer!
This message comes from one of our readers, Daniel:
Have you heard anything from the Biden administration or outside observers about the United States paying down the millions of dollars in U.N. dues that have piled up in recent years, especially toward the peacekeeping budget? It seems rather hard to make a convincing argument that you’re fully supportive of the U.N. and “relentless diplomacy” while sitting on a mountain of unpaid bills.
Daniel tapped into a really complicated and sore spot for the United States regarding U.N. diplomacy. It’s true the United States has racked up some serious unpaid debt to the United Nations—to the tune of $1 billion.
So let’s put on our accounting hats and dive into the numbers: The Biden administration agreed in its budget plan for fiscal year 2022 to pay down around $300 million in debt to the United Nations. It’s not set in stone if it will make good on that promise; that’s still up to Congress.
The plan now is to pay off the remaining $600 to $700 million in fiscal year 2023, according to Peter Yeo, an expert on the United Nations and president of the Better World Campaign. The U.S. House of Representatives has approved the $300 million in funds, which the Senate is likely to consider later this month.
Why is the debt so high? The debt swelled rapidly under the Trump administration, which put a 25 percent cap on U.S. contributions to U.N. peacekeeping operations, while the United Nations assessed the United States as much as 28 percent of the multibillion-dollar annual peacekeeping budget. The difference added hundreds of millions of dollars to U.S. debt each year.
The House has agreed to pay the full 28 percent of its assessed peacekeeping dues to the United Nations, and the Senate will take that up as early as late October.
Update, Sept. 22, 2021: This article has been updated to include news that the Brazilian health minister tested positive for COVID-19.