September 24, 2022

After two years of discourse dominated by the corona virus pandemic, this year’s UN General Assembly has a new occupant at center stage: the war in Ukraine.

The pleas of leaders from all over the world for peace were both altruistic reinforcement of the plight of the besieged Ukrainians, but also born of their own interests. As several speeches made clear, the effects of the Russian invasion were felt even thousands of miles away.

“We feel not only the horror of seeing such deliberate destruction of cities and towns in Europe in 2022. We feel this war directly in our lives in Africa,” Ghanaian President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo said on Wednesday. “Every bullet, every bomb, every shell that hits a target in Ukraine hits our pockets and our economies in Africa.”

Speeches that omitted any direct mention of the conflict were few, but the war reverberated even without its direct reference. Kasim-Jomart Tokayev, the president of Kazakhstan, never let the words “Ukraine” or “Russia” slip from his lips, but he did make a few seemingly sharp allusions.

He opened his remarks by painting a bleak picture of a world catapulted into “a new, increasingly bitter period of geopolitical confrontation” that raised “the prospect of using nuclear weapons, and not even as a last resort.”

Just hours later, Russian President Vladimir Putin — who is not attending the UN General Assembly — said he would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons to defend his country’s territory.

Russia is a key ally of Kazakhstan, and the war in Ukraine has put the former Soviet country in an awkward spot. Tokayev performed a similar dance last week during Pope Francis’ visit, refusing to speak directly about Ukraine while generally condemning the morbid state of affairs.

On Tuesday, Tokaev presented “three primordial principles: sovereign equality of states, territorial integrity of states and peaceful coexistence among states.”

“These three principles are interdependent. Respecting one means respecting the other two. Undermining one means undermining the other two,” he said.

The theme of territorial sovereignty echoed in other speeches, as countries facing violations invoked their own traumas or cited the fate of Ukraine as a fear.

“We must not remain silent in Bosnia and Herzegovina either. We owe this to our living memories of the horrors of war and aggression,” said Šefik Džaferović, chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Wednesday. “The United Nations system was unable to prevent or stop the war in my country during that period between 1992 and 1995. Unfortunately , it happened again with Ukraine.”

Russia has long been accused of trying to re-destabilize the Balkans — including Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dzaferovic took the floor a day after Putin met with the Bosnian Serb separatist leader in Moscow.

Russian peacekeepers have been stationed in Transnistria, a breakaway region in Moldova, since the end of the separatist war in 1992. Sandwiched between descriptions of how the war in Ukraine — “our neighbor and friend” — has affected her country, Moldovan President Maia Sandu called for “complete and unconditional withdrawal of Russian troops” from Transnistria.

Poland is Ukraine’s ally that has received the most refugees, and President Andrzej Duda mentioned that country in his speech on Tuesday 34.

“We must not forget those who are suffering,” said Duda. “Let’s remember that six months of Russian aggression in Ukraine brought the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War.”

But Duda also emphasized how Ukraine has attracted global attention while many other important crises outside Europe have not.

“Were we equally determined during the tragedies in Syria, Libya, Yemen? Have we not returned to business as usual after the two great tragedies of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the wars in the Horn of Africa, and condemning the invasion of Ukraine, are we giving equal weight to the fight against the mercenaries who seek to destabilize the Sahel and threaten many other countries in Africa?” he said.

On the first day alone, Ukraine attracted more than 150 speeches by leaders, including the UN Secretary General. Antonio Guterres opened the General Assembly by praising the agreement between Ukraine and Russia – with the help of Turkey – on grain deliveries as an example of successful multilateral diplomacy. War ran through his speech as he turned to his darker offerings.

“The fighting took thousands of lives. Millions have been displaced. Billions around the world are affected,” he said.

In a lone video address to the General Assembly, for which he received special permission, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called out the seven countries that voted against the amendment: “Seven. Seven who are afraid of video addresses. Seven who respond to principles with a red button. Only seven.”

None of the seven have spoken yet. But even if those countries somehow prevailed, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova said that it is the duty of other countries to stand up for Ukraine.

“The democratic world and all of us must be the voice of Ukraine. A voice that will not be silent, a voice that will continue to bear witness to Russian crimes in Ukraine,” she said on Tuesday. “A voice that will remember and that will act – so that no one is allowed to commit such atrocities again.”


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