Remarks by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield during a UN Press Briefing Previewing the United States’ Participation and Priorities for UNGA76

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
September 17, 2021


AMBASSADOR LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: So let me start by saying good morning to all of you, all of you who are on the screen, in here in the room.

Eight decades ago, great nations came together, in the words of the UN Charter, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war … [and] reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights.” Beginning with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and building from there, we exchanged “might makes right” for a new set of self-binding principles – principles that steered us to prevent conflict, alleviate human suffering, defend human rights, and engage in an ongoing dialogue to improve the lives of people.

Today, these are the same principles with which the Biden-Harris administration has approached our commitment to multilateralism and the work of the United Nations. Next week, President Biden, Secretary of State Blinken, Special Envoy Kerry, and other senior officials from the State Department will join us here in New York for the 76th UN General Assembly High-Level Week. President Biden will speak to our top priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic; combating climate change – climate – the climate crisis; and defending human rights, democracy, and the international rules-based order. All three are challenges that stretch across borders. They involve every single country on Earth.

First, President Biden is committed to leading in concert with our allies and partners across the globe to stop the COVID-19 pandemic. We are building a coalition of governments, businesses, international institutions, and civil society to expand vaccine production, accelerate access to vaccines and life-saving treatment, and strengthen health systems around the globe. In terms of next week, we’ve worked with the UN, the CDC, and the City of New York to stress to all UN delegations the importance of COVID protocols as they determine their participation at UNGA this year. On Monday, I will get my COVID test at the COVID testing and vaccination van that will be set up outside the UN before I engage in meetings with UN – at UN Headquarters. Stopping the spread of COVID – stopping the spread of COVID is our top priority, both here next week and everywhere going forward.

Second, climate change impacts every person in every nation on every continent, and it is a particularly significant threat to many of the world’s developing countries. President Biden knows we must lead the way. He and Special Envoy Kerry are reinvigorating our global commitments and building on the Leaders Summit on Climate to raise ambitions at COP 26. To that end, the President is reconvening the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate today to bring together the major emitting economies and ratchet up our actions. And we will be participating in a wide variety of meetings focused on combating the climate crisis during High-Level Week and throughout UNGA 76, including the UN Security Council debate on climate and security next Thursday.

Third and finally, democracy, human rights, and the international rules-based order are under attack. Authoritarians have used the pandemic as a pretext to violate human rights and tighten their grips. Increasingly, they threaten and silence their dissidents in other countries, committing acts of transnational repression. Large, wealthy autocracies have developed corrosive and coercive relationships with smaller, poorer countries. The Security Council must weight in on terrible atrocities wherever they occur. There is no tension between sovereign rights and human rights.

President Biden believes we must demonstrate that democracy can deliver. The United States is hosting the Summit for Democracy in December to set an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal, the promotion of human rights, and the fight against corruption, and we are running for a seat on the Human Rights Council next month because human rights are at the center of our foreign policy just as they are at the core of the United Nations project. We believe our priorities are not just American priorities, they are global priorities, and next week must be a moment to strengthen alliances and partnerships, to come together where we have a common interest in solving big challenges, to promote and defend human rights at every turn, and to demonstrate this body can and will uphold the international rules-based order that we all worked so hard to build.

Of course, as we have throughout the year, our diplomacy next week will also focus on addressing threats to peace and security, active conflicts and crises around the world, from Afghanistan to Syria to Yemen to Burma. The President and his team will have a full agenda next week.

And before I conclude, I also want to address the executive order President Biden signed this morning to increase the pressure on the parties fueling the conflict in Ethiopia. For far too long, the parties have ignored international calls, including from the Security Council, to engage in discussions for a negotiated ceasefire and initiate an inclusive political dialogue to resolve Ethiopia’s crises and save lives. Human rights continue to be violated in disturbing ways. Women and girls are being raped and tortured. And the humanitarian situation has grown even more dire: the threat of mass famine looms large. If the Government of Ethiopia and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front take meaningful steps to enter into talks without preconditions and allow unhindered humanitarian assistance, the United States is prepared to mobilize assistance for Ethiopia to recover and revitalize its economy and build a future for its people. Otherwise we will impose targeted sanctions against a range of responsible individuals and entities. These sanctions are not directed at the people of Ethiopia or Eritrea; they are deliberately calibrated to mitigate undue harm. Instead, they will target those responsible for the conflict and, hopefully, they will – hopefully – help bring an end to the suffering of the Ethiopian people.

Thank you, and I look forward to taking questions.

MODERATOR: Valeria, do you want to kick us off?

QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you so much, Madam Ambassador, to find time –


QUESTION: — to come here with us. My question is on Afghanistan. So what do you expect on the G20 meeting on Afghanistan organized by Italy during the UNGA, and which progress can be made? And if China, Russia will be on board, do you see this step – of a step in the right direction? Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: I expect next week that there will be numerous discussions on Afghanistan. These discussions will reaffirm our commitment to the Afghan people, and particularly to women and girls. And we will stress our concerns about the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and urge the Taliban to listen to the international community, to take measures that will assure the international community, but, more importantly, assure the Afghan people, that they will show respect for their rights. Some of those commitments, as you know, have been given to the UN in writing, and we will hold the Taliban accountable not for what they say or what they have written in these written commitments, but for their actions. And the international community is unified in that position across the board.


QUESTION: James Bays, Al Jazeera. It’s also a question on Afghanistan. On UNAMA, you’re about to vote on the renewal. The draft, the original draft was watered down and some references to women – one reference to women and girls was removed. Can you tell us why? And second part of the question: How is the U.S. now going to support Afghan women and girls given that you now have very little leverage over the Taliban?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, the UNAMA resolution was rolled over and the only changes, significant changes made in the resolution was to ensure that we didn’t give undue recognition to the Taliban. But our commitment to women and girls in Afghanistan is not diminished at all in the resolution. In fact, we are resolute that we will focus on ensuring that women and girls’ rights are respected.

And I – your second question? I’m sorry.

QUESTION: Well, it was the same thing, really. How are you going to try and support women and girls? Because you do now – now you don’t have troops there, you’ve lost your main leverage over the Taliban.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: No, I would argue exactly the opposite: that our leverage remains there. We are one of the largest contributors to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, and that gives us tremendous leverage. But also, the leverage is increased by the unity of the international community, and that unity has been consistent.


QUESTION: Thank you, Olivia, and thank you, Ambassador. We appreciate the briefing –


QUESTION: — before a busy week. It’s Pamela Falk from CBS News.


QUESTION: The USUN sent a letter, a note, saying that – or urging ambassadors to not – to send videos to UNGA in order to not have a super-spreader. And yet, alas, we have many world leaders coming. The Brazilian president has said he will come. He says he’s unvaccinated. But he is in fact – says he is attending. Are you worried about the UN being a petri dish for the spread of COVID-19? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Well, that’s exactly what our letter said, that we are concerned about the UN event being a super-spreader event, and that we need to take all measures to ensure that it does not become a super-spreader event. Every single visitor coming into the United States, they’re all required to show proof that they’ve had a negative COVID test. We’re also putting mitigation efforts around the city, including, as I mentioned, a truck outside the United Nations building that will provide COVID testing and provide the COVID vaccine.

But, look, leaders have to be responsible and they have to take responsibility for their actions and ensure that their actions do not lead to jeopardizing the health and safety of the people of New York, of all of the participants here at the United Nations, and that they don’t take COVID back to their home countries. So we are urging that all countries take the necessary measures to follow all of the procedures that CDC and that the City of New York has put in place to keep them safe and to keep all of us safe over the course of this week.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MODERATOR: Just a note for the folks who are joining us virtually. Please raise your hands or use the chat function to indicate if you’d like to ask a question.


QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador. Sherwin Bryce-Pease, South African Broadcasting. I want to give you some figures that the WHO released today: 5.7 billion doses of vaccines have been administered globally; 73 percent of those doses administered in just 10 countries, including the United States. COVAX, comparatively, has shipped 260 million doses to 141 countries; 382 million doses administered in the USA alone. What can you say about those numbers given concerns that there is a vast oversupply in the United States while so many countries are still without vaccines?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, what I can say is that this pandemic is going to require – those numbers show that it’s going to require the actions and the commitments of the entire world, and it’s going to require leadership. And President Biden has shown that leadership in no uncertain terms. We have donated over 500 million doses of COVID vaccines across the world. We’ve given $4 billion to the – to COVAX. And we’re hosting a summit where we will be bringing all the nations together, bringing businesses, bringing NGOs together to see how we can work in unity to provide vaccines across the world. So we recognize that this is a pandemic and we recognize that it’s going to require leadership and it’s going to require every single country to be a part of trying to alleviate the misery that we see happening around the globe.

So the numbers that you shared with us is just one more reminder that we have to up our game.

MODERATOR: Okay, let’s go to those joining us virtually. Ibtisam, do you want to – I think I see your hand raised.

QUESTION: Yes, thank you. Thank you, Olivia. Thank you, Ambassador. I have two follow-ups, one on Libya and the meetings and the fact that the mandate for the UN was renewed until the end of the month for further negotiation. My question is whether you are worried that the Libya negotiation around the UN mandate there will become something similar to what we are seeing with Syria and the humanitarian resolution there, or issue.

And the second question, regarding human rights: There are a lot or many human rights prisoners in Egypt for political reasons. Is this subject going to be included? One of them is – one of the prisoners, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who in a letter to his mother has expressed for the first time thoughts of suicide, according to his family. So is this subject, the subject of human rights in Egypt, going to be also on the table when U.S. officials meet Egyptian officials? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. On your first question, on Libya, the – within the Security Council we continue to remain committed to seeing the Libyans have an election on December 24th, and we’re putting tremendous effort in trying to get a resolution that will support those efforts. So we did get a two-week extension and we will continue to work to ensure that we put everything in place so that there is a successful election on the 24th of December.

And on human rights, human rights across the board are on our agenda. Human rights across the board is a value that the United States puts in all of our discussions with all of our partners across the globe. It is an issue that for us is a reflection of our values, and I can assure you that human rights in Egypt and in any country in the world is on the table for discussions. And again, the story of this young man you just described is heart-wrenching. I can’t imagine being his mother receiving that letter, and I know that she wants everything to be done for her son, and I can assure you we are doing just that.

MODERATOR: Ali, I think I saw your hand raised as well, if you’d like to go next.

QUESTION: Thank you, Olivia. Thank you, Madam Ambassador. I’m Ali Barada from France 24 and Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. My question is most recent tension between the U.S. and France. The French foreign minister said that France was stabbed in the back because of the AUKUS deal or pact between the U.S., UK, and Australia. And also, they compared President Joe Biden with President Trump, as opposed to the “America first.” Tell me, please, how is your cooperating – cooperation with the French colleagues and whether you agree with those statements or not, and whether you’re surprised or not? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Look, I have a very, very close working relationship and personal relationship with my counterpart from the French mission, Nicolas. As members of the P3, we are regularly in close contact and coordination, and in fact I saw him yesterday evening. But as it relates to this situation, senior administration officials were in touch with their French counterparts to discuss AUKUS, including before the announcement, and I have heard from Australian partners that they, too, were in touch with the French and – but I will leave it to them to describe why they sought a new technology. But as the President said, we cooperate closely with France on shared priorities both in the Indo-Pacific region and we’ll continue to do so here in the Security Council.

Good friends have disagreements, but that’s the nature of friendship and that’s – because you’re friends, you can have disagreement and continue to work on those areas of cooperation, and we will continue to work with our French colleagues on areas of cooperation and address any tensions in our relationship, but we don’t see those tensions changing the nature of our friendship.

MODERATOR: Let’s go back to the room. Michelle, do you want to go next?

QUESTION: Thanks, Ambassador. Thanks for the briefing. I just wanted to follow up specifically on whether the President will have any bilaterals while he’s here next week. I believe it’s a very quick trip for him. Is he doing any bilaterals in New York? And given Secretary Blinken is here for I think three days, the new Iranian foreign minister is also here in town; does the U.S. see any value in the two of them trying to have a meeting?

And just on North Korea, there was ballistic missile tests the other day. Will the U.S. attempt to sort of do anything here at the UN regarding that? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Okay. First question, on President Biden. Right now what I understand is the President will arrive, he will give his speech, and he will go back to Washington and continue to have virtual events related to the United Nations. So, in keeping with our concerns about COVID and encouraging delegations, one, not to come with too large a delegation – so we actually have a much smaller delegation than what we would normally have here in New York and the President is staying for a much shorter time than he would ordinarily stay.

And then on Secretary Blinken’s – I can’t preview what plans the Secretary will have for bilateral meetings, but we will have a whole slew of bilateral meetings, as you can imagine, across the board.

And I’ve forgotten your third question.

QUESTION: And just on that note, does the U.S. see value in meeting with Iran next week?

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Again, we have not made any decisions. We have been engaged with the Iranians in Vienna, and those discussions will continue. We have not made any direct plans for bilateral meetings while they are here, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see value in having discussions with the Iranians, because we do want to move forward on issues related to the JCPOA.

And then on North Korea, I mean, I’ve made the point we are very concerned by the missile test that the DPRK carried out a few days ago. We’ve engaged with partners in the region on that as recently as yesterday. We discussed it in the Security Council and we’ll be discussing it in the 1718 Committee.

MODERATOR: Thank you. Let’s go to Wainer for the last one. The Ambassador is going to have to get to the Security Council after this, so I apologize.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this. David Wainer from Bloomberg. You mentioned a variety of issues that are important to the U.S., such as climate, COVID, democracy. On all those issues, obviously, working with China, especially on climate, will be very important. Can you talk about what sort of steps the U.S. is taking to work with China? What kind of conversations have the U.S. held with China leading up to UNGA and during UNGA that would really enable progress on all of those fronts? Thanks.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Being on the Security Council and in the P5 with the Chinese, we have regular engagements with them, almost on a daily basis, and the Chinese PR and I have regular bilateral discussions on a range of issues. Our relationship is complex, and it goes without saying that there are tensions, but there are areas where we are able to cooperate. And we look to work on those areas, such as on climate change and encouraging the Chinese to up their commitments on emissions, and in working together with them sometimes on more difficult issues, but occasionally coming to some kind of agreement.

So if the Security Council is going to work, the members of the Security Council, and particularly the P5, have to be able to communicate with each other and look for areas that we can cooperate, and we do look for those areas and we amplify those areas. But it does not mean that we ignore the areas where we have contentions, such as issues of human rights.

MODERATOR: Thank you all, and look forward to seeing you throughout UNGA week.

QUESTION: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Good. Thank you, everybody.