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Battles of the sexes: UNGA’s gender problem

Presented by Philip Morris International: Our must-read coverage of the world’s biggest diplomatic platform.
Sep 22, 2023 View in browser

By Suzanne Lynch

Presented by Philip Morris International

​​With Nahal Toosi and Mona Zhang

POLITICO’s Global Insider is morphing this week into UNGA Playbook, an exclusive seven-edition series spotlighting the world stage at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. But that's just the start! We're thrilled to announce the upcoming evolution of this newsletter into POLITICO’s Global Playbook. This premier pop-up newsletter, authored by Suzanne Lynch, is an insider's look at the pivotal gatherings and moments shaping global policy, politics, and power. Up next: The frontlines of COP28 from Dubai in November. Stay tuned!

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Good morning from New York! Suzanne Lynch here with Day 6 of POLITICO’s U.N. Playbook. We’re counting down to the finish line but will be coming to your inboxes right through till Saturday, so stay tuned.


A message from Philip Morris International:

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PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH: The United Nations loves to cast itself as the global champion for gender equality, but a quick scan of the high-level speakers this week in New York paints a very different picture.

Details: We did a quick calculation and of the 34 countries slated to speak at the General Assembly today, just 3 are represented by women.

Many men who have taken to the stage this week have touted their country’s woman-power credentials — even as they are painfully behind when it comes to female representation.

Wesley Simina, president of the Federated States of Micronesia, spoke about the “powerful role of women in our society,” noting the island nation is a “proud matrilineal society,” during his speech to the General Assembly. President of Sierra Leone Julius Maada Bio talked up his country's "unwavering commitment to dismantle the barriers of gender inequality." In reality, both countries have an abysmal record on female representation, even though improvements are being made.

Call for change: Amid the many calls for United Nations and Security Council reform this week has been a plea to address the gender imbalance. GWL Voices, which campaigns for better representation of women in multilateralism, says it’s time for the U.N. to have a female secretary general — there’s never been one in its nearly 80-year history.

“We have regional rotation, which is good, but why can’t we have another resolution mandating gender alternation. Let’s do the same,” Susana Malcorra, former foreign minister of Argentina, told us outside the SDG Media Tent Thursday. “The [U.N.] Charter says ‘we the peoples’ not ‘we the men.’ The charter was actually very forward-leaning. It also says: 'equal rights for men and women,' but we haven’t implemented this.”

Runners and riders: There’s been lots of chatter this week on the sidelines about who could replace António Guterres in the top job when his mandate ends in 2026. Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, has been something of a star in New York this week, participating in lots of off-diary events, including a private dinner convened by Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed, and also attended by former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, YouTuber Lilly Singh and philanthropist Melinda French Gates.

Mottley is viewed as a serious candidate for the top job, though Playbook also heard the names of former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Rebeca Grynspan, head of the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, floating around U.N. corridors and side events.

Step in the right direction: Organizers of other events throughout the week did their best to highlight the plight of women in various corners of the world, such as Tuesday’s “Global Solidarity with Afghan Women and Girls” event.

On Wednesday, the Feminist Foreign Policy Plus group, a caucus of 19 governments within the U.N. committed to pursuing gender equality, made its first multilateral political declaration on feminist foreign policy.

Lyric Thompson, founder and CEO of the Feminist Foreign Policy Collaborative, told us that reaching an agreement on a declaration among such a diverse group of countries — from Germany to Tunisia, Mongolia and Sweden — was hugely significant. But she added that the initiative needs to grow. “Is 19 countries enough? No, it’s not. We of course want more countries to join, and to grow strategically.”

Don’t forget the Gulf: I caught up with Princess Lamia of Saudi Arabia, secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies, the multi-billion-dollar Saudi philanthropic fund that works with U.N. agencies like UNICEF, UN-Habitat and UNESCO.

Saudi Arabia and women’s rights are not something you usually see in the same sentence … but Princess Lamia insists that change is underway. “Forty-eight hours after the king approved driving for women, we did an affiliation with Careem [Uber’s subsidiary in Saudi Arabia] to train women. Now we have almost 40 female captains, most of whom work these jobs for extra income,” she said.

Her own organization is run by 10 Saudi women.

Grab your U.N. merch: And to continue with the female theme, grab a U.N. T-shirt and tote bag at the Women’s Guild shop, which is open throughout this week in the main Secretariat General building — all profits go to helping children in need throughout the world.


Our own Nahal spent much of the week trying to convince diplomats to dish on the potential return of Donald Trump as U.S. president. A few takeaways from her first-person piece:

— There’s some longing for a certain former U.N. ambassador: “If diplomats had to choose among the Republicans, they’d pick [Nikki] Haley. But that’s hope over reality,” one European diplomat told her.

— World leaders haven’t forgotten how often Trump abandoned norms and deals. That means they are less apt to trust that Trump will come through for them. “You can only get away with such stunts for so long,” a Latin American official said.

— The biggest concern among America’s closest allies is what will happen to Ukraine. It is an “existential” matter, one European minister said. European leaders are acutely aware of the current Republican debates about continuing funding for Ukraine — so much so that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in New York this week from Kyiv via Texas to meet with Republican heavy-weight Governor Greg Abbott, with whom she discussed Ukraine and other matters.


AFRICA FOCUS: One of the big questions this week was how the U.N. would handle the recent wave of coups in Africa, and specifically who was going to speak for Gabon and Niger. On Thursday we got an answer — no one (at least for that day).

The heads of state of both countries were slated to speak on Thursday, but they were skipped over entirely. Gabon’s Interim Prime Minister Raymond Ndong Sima, who was appointed by the military junta following the recent coup, then later showed up on the General Assembly schedule for today. Let’s see …

Nothing to see here: Many African delegates at the gathering would rather not directly address the recent military takeovers in Niger or Gabon. POLITICO reached out to all 54 African U.N. missions and none were willing to discuss the coups with our reporter Mona.

It’s complicated: Also roaming the halls are leaders from the regional bloc of West African nations, ECOWAS, which is threatening military action against the Nigerien junta. Gabon, meanwhile, is sitting in a very prominent spot as one of the rotating members of the Security Council.

Read Mona’s full story here.


A message from Philip Morris International:

The Conversation


Nahal caught up with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak — a staunch critic of current leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to speak today (conversation edited for length and clarity):

Should Ukraine compromise in this war with Russia?

“Zelenskyy will become historic. He and the Ukrainians have performed beyond any expectation. On the other hand, you cannot expect Russia to disappear. It might end up in a year or so that we will feel there is a limit to how far the West can back Ukraine and Putin seems to be patient. ... But in my judgment, Zelenskyy is clearly the winner of this. Putin has lost a lot.”

Should Israel be doing more to help Ukraine? 

“For sure. We made a mistake from Day One. Bearing in mind the history of Israel, it really should be the last nation not to respond when the very existence of a nation is put in question. But will we give them, for example, Iron Dome? We probably cannot do it. We don't have enough batteries and enough interceptors. Secondly, we cannot afford the system itself falling into the hands of others, because part of its effectiveness has to do with the fact that no one else has it and can reverse-engineer it accurately.”

Should Biden trust Netanyahu on anything?

“In the world, there is no one that I know of who trusts him. It’s because of how he behaves. The other parties in his own government do not trust him. The same of course, for our opposition, and for neighboring countries — no one trusts him. The real risk for Biden is that he will help Netanyahu get out of these dire straits, maybe help him get certain achievements, and then find himself with Netanyahu enthusiastically supporting his 2024 opponent three months later.”



— Getting the band back together: Some big names on the international scene will gather today at the Baha'i International Community office at the U.N. to share ideas ahead of Club de Madrid’s Annual Policy Dialogue in Brazil in November.

Members of the relatively under-the-radar group, which brings together former presidents and prime ministers, have been popping up at events in New York throughout the week.

Among the names due at today’s event: former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark; former President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado; Moussa Mara, prime minister of Mali between 2014 and 2015; and Danilo Türk, former president of Slovenia.

— Stepping out: European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, owning the athleisure look as she exercised in Central Park with intrepid (and besuited) chief of staff Bjoern Seibert in tow.

— When the official Biden pic comes out … Social media was flooded with shots of various smiling heads of state and foreign ministers who rushed to get out photos of themselves with U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife Jill at the Met leaders' reception this week.

— Lavrov’s friends: Zelenskyy may have left New York for Washington, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was busy holding bilaterals with national reps throughout the day Thursday, including with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani.


— At Japan Society’s global health event on 47th Street: Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida; Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin; Co-Chair of the Gates Foundation Bill Gates; Ken Shibusawa; WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus; Doug Peterson of S&P Global; Executive Director of UNICEF Catherine Russell; and Joshua Walker.

— At Thursday’s Rockefeller Foundation event: Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre; CEO of GEAPP Simon Harford; President of The Rockefeller Foundation Raj Shah; Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala; and Executive Director of the International Energy Agency Fatih Birol.


— U.N. General Assembly continues with speakers including: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte; Pakistan’s Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar; Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel; Iraq’s Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani; Gabon’s Raymond Ndong Sima; Irish leader Leo Varadkar; and U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden.

— Club de Madrid hosts “Rethinking Social Development for People and Planet” event, Baha'i International Community office, 866 UN Plaza, 10:15 a.m. 

— 13th Conference on Facilitating Entry into Force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, 10 a.m. Listed speakers include: Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Scharning Huitfeldt; Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Mariya Gabriel; Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó; and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

— Ministerial meeting on the “Loss and Damage” Fund as part of ongoing climate negotiations, co-organized by Egypt, UAE and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Economic and Social Council Chamber, 10 a.m.  

— High-level meeting on the fight against tuberculosis, 10 a.m., Conference Room 1, U.N. HQ

— Meeting of the EU-Pacific Islanders, EU Delegation, 11:15 a.m. Co-chaired by the EU, represented by High Representative Josep Borrell, and Palau.

Thanks to Carmen Paun; Eric Bazail-Eimil; editors Emma Anderson and Heidi Vogt; and producer Kelsey Griffin.


A message from Philip Morris International:

What’s being done to end smoking? When you look around the world, the answer is not nearly enough. There’s no doubt that quitting is the best choice. But for adults who don’t quit, smoke-free products provide nicotine without burning and are a better choice for those who would otherwise continue to smoke. We already see significant health benefits in Sweden, a country that has actively embraced smoke-free alternatives. Look also at Japan. Smoking rates in both countries have rapidly declined because regulations allow adult smokers access to smoke-free products. Why aren’t other countries adopting this approach? Today’s political and cultural landscape deters many governments and regulators from following the evidence. This inaction prolongs the life of cigarettes and risks shortening the lives of smokers across the globe. Let’s change that. See how at


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Battles of the sexes: UNGA’s gender problem


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