5+1 moments to remember from UNGA 2019

We look at some of the most eye-catching meetings and notable speeches at the 74th session of UN General Assembly.

Greta Thunberg

World leaders gathered in New York over the last week for the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

After seven days of meetings and speeches, in which world leaders addressed global challenges and highlighted the issues that matter most to their countries, the general debate at UN headquarters concluded on Monday.

Here are 5+1 memorable moments from the debate and the sidelines of the 2019 UNGA.

1. ‘How dare you!’: Greta Thunberg condemns world leaders

Although not a head of state or a country representative, Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old climate activist, was one of the most talked-about figures this week in New York.

The Swedish teenager has inspired millions around the world to take to the streets, calling for urgent action against climate change after she started skipping school on Fridays to launch solitary weekly protests outside Sweden’s parliament.

In New York, during a fervent speech on Thursday at the UN Climate Action Summit, Thunberg denounced world leaders for not doing enough to tackle climate change and for endangering the lives of young people and future generations.

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Thunberg said at the summit, held a day before the General Assembly speeches given by world leaders that typically dominate international headlines.

“All you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”

2. Khan warns of ‘bloodbath’ in Kashmir

From the moment Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrived in New York, the former cricketer turned politician insisted he would do his best to bring attention to an almost two-month curfew and communications blackout imposed in Indian-administered Kashmir by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On Friday, by the time Khan finished his UNGA speech, the world had heard all about it.

Khan warned there would be a “bloodbath” once India ended the ongoing restrictions in the Muslim-majority state.

“What’s he [Modi] going to do when he lifts the curfew? Does he think the people of Kashmir are quietly going to accept the status quo?” Khan asked, urging the international community to act. 

Imran khan unga
Imran Khan addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly [Richard Drew/AP]

Khan’s speech touched a chord with Kashmiris reeling under the lockdown, many taking to the streets after his speech, shouting slogans and setting off firecrackers.

“I felt a solace in my heart when he [Khan] talked at the UN,” Abdul Majid, a retired government official in Srinagar, told Al Jazeera. “It felt like there is someone to watch our back. It felt that someone is talking for us, that we are not alone.”

Ather Zia, a Kashmiri professor at the University of Colorado, told Al Jazeera Kashmiris share a “deeply affective” relationship with Pakistan and to see Khan making the case for Kashmiris “so forcefully … especially when they are under siege, has been encouraging”.

For his part, Modi avoided any direct mention of his August 5 decision to scrap the special status of the Muslim-majority region during his UNGA speech.

3. Trump and Zelensky meet amid whistle-blower saga

The first-ever meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, turned out to be one of the most highly scrutinised encounters of the week.

Their talks on the sidelines of the UNGA came on Wednesday, a day after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launching of an impeachment inquiry against Trump following the filing of a complaint by a US intelligence whistle-blower.

Pelosi’s move followed reports that Trump may have abused his presidential powers and sought help from a foreign government to undermine former Vice President Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner, and help his own re-election. 

The whistle-blower’s complaint cited a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which the US president asked for help investigating Biden.

Volodymyr Zelensky, left, in a bilateral meeting with Donald Trump at the UN [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

When asked by a reporter at the UN about their call, Zelensky said: “We had, I think a good phone call. It was normal.”

He insisted nobody pushed him, to which Trump added that he put “no pressure” on his counterpart.

“I’m sorry but I don’t want to be involved in democratic open elections of USA,” Zelensky said.

4. Rouhani accuses US of ‘economic terrorism’

Months of escalating tensions between the US and Iran spilled over at the UNGA, with the leaders of the two countries making blistering attacks against one another.

During his speech on Tuesday, Trump said no country should support Iran’s “bloodlust”.


Last year, the US president withdrew Washington from the JCPOA, a deal agreed between Iran and world powers in 2015 that restricted Iran’s nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief, and reimposed punishing sanctions against Tehran.

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani took the podium on Wednesday, he did not hold back.

“Iran will never negotiate with an enemy that seeks to make Iran suffer with the weapons of poverty and sanctions,” he said.

Rouhani added that Iran had resisted “the most merciless economic terrorism”, telling the US if it was interested in a deal beyond the 2015 one, “you have to pay more”.

“Our response to talks under pressure is ‘no’,” he added.

5. Erdogan slams Israel’s occupation of Palestine

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a good chunk of his allotted speaking time to condemn Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

“Compared to the 1967 plan, Palestine nearly ceased to exist as Israel just can’t get enough of occupation,” Erdogan said on Tuesday, holding a cardboard map showing how Israel has taken over Palestinian lands over the decades.

World Leaders Address United Nations General Assembly
Erdogan holds up a map showing Israel’s expansion since 1947 to demonstrate the territorial changes [Drew Angerer/Getty/AFP]

“Where are the borders of the State of Israel? Is it the 1948 borders, the 1967 borders, or is there any other border?” he added.

Erdogan criticised the UN and questioned the legitimacy of the organisation if all of its resolutions against Israel “mean nothing”.

5+1. Johnson’s ‘limbless chickens’ and ‘pink-eyed terminators’

While the world was keenly expecting Boris Johnson to largely focus on Brexit during his inaugural UNGA speech, the embattled prime minister of the United Kingdom decided to take a different path.

In his address on Tuesday, Johnson spoke at length about the opportunities and challenges of technology, making references and using quotes from famous films and TV series.

“A future Alexa will pretend to take orders. But this Alexa will be watching you, clucking her tongue and stamping her foot,” he said, as laughter could be heard at the UNGA hall.

UN Boris Johnson
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson made his inaugural address at the UNGA [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]

He also addressed the topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI), pondering what an AI-led future would look like.

“AI, what will it mean? Helpful robots washing and caring for an ageing population, or pink-eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?”

In another part of his speech, he said: “What will synthetic biology stand for – restoring our livers and our eyes with miracle regeneration of the tissues, like some fantastic hangover cure? Or will it bring terrifying limbless chickens to our tables?”

Source: Al Jazeera