Press conference by Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, at the 77th United Nations General Assembly (New York, Sept. 19, 2022)


Good day to you all,

Thank you for being here, including those who are participating remotely.
I am honoured to be taking part in this High-Level Week at the United Nations General Assembly, for the first time of course as Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. As you know, the President of the Republic is in London today to attend the funeral of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. He will travel to New York this evening. He will therefore be present and take part in the General Assembly on Tuesday, that is, tomorrow, and until mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

For the first time since 2019, the General Assembly is back in its usual format. The world needs diplomacy to make a comeback. We lacked direct contact during the pandemic, there has been a lack of contact between us, as I have often said, and while that alone does not of course explain the disorder and fragmentation of the world, I am convinced it has been a negative factor. It is therefore positive that the General Assembly has returned to its usual format. And here we are: the 77th session of the United Nations General is opening. Let us take the best advantage of it.

The context is particularly serious, marked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a cruel war there that has been unfolding for more than six months now. This crisis is exacerbating tendencies of confrontation and it is particularly serious, as we have often underlined, because it undermines the most fundamental principles of the international order: those of the Charter of the United Nations, like refraining from the use of force, respect for the territorial integrity of States, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. These fundamental principles are particularly meaningful here in New York, as it is they that guarantee our ability, as Member States of the international community, to live together thanks to a body of rules, and to ensure peace and stability as far as possible. That is why this undermining of the principles cannot be accepted.

So we are here to help curb the fragmentation of the world, a fragmentation that some clearly desire, while others look on and many, most even, suffer. Here in New York, here and nowhere else. And I will not mention the name of any other city that has been in the news recently. It is here in New York that the whole world is present, all humankind is present. It is here that we must act to defend effective multilateralism.

And now we come to the presentation of our programme this week, and I must ask for a little patience: I am going to try to set out exactly what we are doing, and above all, to explain what is behind the composition of this programme. I forgot to say that, in the coming days, this month, France has particular responsibility as it will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council. France’s diplomacy aims to take action on three key areas:

  • Firstly, we must act in response to the risks to global stability caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. I had to mention it here, but I will come back to it later.
  • Secondly, there are new global challenges that have also been exacerbated by this war, and that we can only overcome if we avoid the emergence of bloc geopolitics and confrontations. We have willing partners in this, and we need to take initiatives to avoid this risk of fragmentation.
  • And lastly, we will work to strengthen the resilience of our democracies and the vitality of our civil societies everywhere. Both are, as we know, threatened by shrinking spaces of freedom just about everywhere.
    I will come back to each of these points and present the French delegation’s programme this week.

Firstly, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

As I have said, in attacking Ukraine, Russia is attacking the very foundations of the United Nations. Yet Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and bears the particular responsibility attached to that status. It is therefore particularly serious that we are seeing one of the permanent members attack the very foundations of our organization. It is important to underline that here at the United Nations in New York. It is a war of aggression, chosen by Russia without any justification, that Russia is conducting with particular brutality, ignoring all laws of war and committing atrocities, with bombardment of civilian targets, rape, murder, torture and forced deportation. All these crimes are war crimes.
I have already had the opportunity to say this, but I want to say it again here in New York: the fact that Russia, which is, I repeat, a permanent member of the Security Council and which should therefore be a guarantor of the Charter, has discarded this responsibility should arouse our concern. We need to be clear-sighted and call things by their name. I am going to repeat something I have already had cause to say recently: it is particularly concerning to see Russia breach three thresholds in this war: a legal threshold, violating the norms that are the foundation of relations between States; a moral threshold, through the scale of the crimes committed in Ukraine, including those discovered in Irpin, and in Bucha, just now in Izium, and no doubt elsewhere; and a political threshold, bearing the responsibility for food security blackmail, for global energy security blackmail, and, by militarily occupying a nuclear power plant in Ukrainian territory, as it is doing in Zaporizhzhia, representing a major threat to the plant’s safety and security.

Concerning the fight against impunity for crimes committed in Ukraine, I will be chairing a Security Council meeting on the subject on Thursday. The Secretary-General of the United Nations will attend, as will the International Criminal Court’s Prosecutor, Mr Karim Khan. I will prepare the meeting shortly before, that very morning, with my Ukrainian counterpart, Mr Kuleba, whose country and its people are victims of Russia’s actions. And I am keen to say that we will ensure at the Council that the perpetrators of atrocities committed in Ukraine will have to answer for their actions before the courts. I will recall France’s constant support for Ukraine’s investigations including, as you may remember, through the deployment of French experts and the delivery of technical equipment to collect evidence and document the cases referred to the courts. And I will also underline France’s constant support to the ICC and its Prosecutor since March. The situation was referred to the International Criminal Court in March by 43 States, including France. And ever since, we have provided the ICC, among other things, with an exceptional financial contribution, as well as human resources to help the Court carry out its work in Ukraine.

This work to hold the perpetrators of crimes to account is essential and will demand determination. France’s will be total. As the President repeated a few days ago, on Saturday I believe, there can be no peace without justice.
I mentioned the situation at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is also a subject of concern. It a subject of mobilization for our diplomacy. The President has spoken with his counterparts President Zelenskyy and President Putin, in August and again recently, as well as with the Director General of the IAEA, Mr Rafael Grossi, with whom we and many of our partners are in regular contact.
So on Wednesday morning, at 11:30, we will come back to this at a working meeting organized by France with the Director General of the IAEA in order to support his initiatives with regard to Ukraine and Russia, following his visit to the site and with a view to securing the plant and its premises. The meeting will be opened by President Macron and the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mr Chmyhal, and will then continue at ministerial level.

I said this to Sergey Lavrov just this morning, when I spoke with him earlier. The situation at and around the Zaporizhzhia plant is critical. Russia, which occupies the area around the plant, must not make itself responsible for a nuclear accident linked to its presence. Time is short to set up protection zones and move forward on the basis of the IAEA Director General’s proposals in this regard.

The second point is that this war is a matter for everyone. It affects us collectively and threatens the rules-based international order.

That means we must work with everyone, not only within our traditional partnerships, but also build new partnerships, design new formats and find new means of dialoguing with our partners.

In this context, coordination between Europeans and allies is of course essential.
This very afternoon, the Foreign Ministers of the 27 EU Member States will meet to coordinate their actions during this High-Level Week. We will have two hours this afternoon, from 4 until 6 o’clock. I would once again like to highlight the unity of the European Union in this crisis. For those who doubted the EU’s ability to become a geopolitical actor, I believe it has now been proven that it is indeed doing so.

Later this week, Germany will convene the G7 Ministers, as it holds the Presidency, on Wednesday afternoon. And lastly, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will bring together a number of colleagues on Thursday evening in a “Transatlantic” format.

So, our allies and friends from Europe and beyond. But of course, we must also go beyond this framework. We have partners everywhere and we are also all affected, at all latitudes, by the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine, be it when it comes to energy security or to food security. These negative effects affect everyone and are, need I repeat, the direct consequences of Russia’s war of choice in Ukraine.

We have just redoubled efforts to shrink the gap between North and South, redoubled efforts collectively. And that is also one of the main messages the President will bring to New York, both during the General Debate and on the sidelines of the General Assembly in his contacts and the meetings he organizes. The President will meet a number of his counterparts from what is sometimes called, in the absence of a better term, and I am not certain the expression is perfect, the “Global South”. Because we need to demonstrate that “bloc” geopolitics will not win the day, and must not, of course, when it comes to cooperation, and so we are holding discussions in a broadened format. We need to prove that the United Nations is the bearer of universality and that it remains our guide, because we are convinced that it is the only way to find solutions to situations that affect us all and situations in which the notions of North and South have no more importance, as all countries, at all latitudes, as I was saying, are affected.

Moreover, the President will hold a specific working meeting on food security, a subject we have been very involved in from the outset, as shown by our work on the European “Solidarity Lanes” initiative, for example, for the export of Ukrainian grain, which achieved very good results, and on the FARM initiative, which I must mention, which is progressing.

Personally, I will have many bilateral meetings. I was in India last week, and today I will continue my discussions with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Mr Wang Yi, with my Egyptian counterpart, and many others. We will of course keep you up to speed as bilateral meetings go on.

But above and beyond these bilateral meetings, we are renewing how we do diplomacy, and I would like to take two examples, as I believe you will notice this at the General Assembly. And my two examples are the Indo-Pacific region and Africa.

The Indo-Pacific, firstly, will be very important in our diplomatic action this week. It is a region of major divisions, a region where influence is being exercised more assertively than in the past, and a region that is crucial for global security and prosperity.

This week, we want a particular emphasis to be placed on what we can do together, as you will see in the various formats.

I mentioned India. We already have intense dialogue with India. The strategic partnership we forged some 25 years ago – we will celebrate the anniversary in January next year – is something we want to use to foster international stability and the seeking of solutions to global challenges. We will do that here in New York, working with new partners. Just today, we will hold a trilateral dialogue, and this is new, between Indian, Emirati and French Ministers to discuss what we can do together and possible partnerships, including in the fight against climate change and in the Indian Ocean region. And speaking of trilateral diplomacy, there will also be another one, illustrating these new formats and the emphasis we are placing on the Indo-Pacific: a meeting will be held on Friday between Australia, India and France. We will meet in the afternoon to discuss our regional security initiatives, this time.

And as I mention Australia, I would like to highlight the resumption of a more trusting dialogue with Australia that will be confirmed shortly before the trilateral dialogue at a bilateral working meeting I will hold with my Australian counterpart, Ms Penny Wong, which will be dedicated to fine-tuning and finalizing a bilateral road map that was agreed in principle during Australian Prime Minister Albanese’s visit to Paris this summer. The road map should be ambitious and made up of tangible projects. I hope we will be able to discuss this again soon.
So, that was it for the Indo-Pacific, and I had another example: Africa, and the partnership we want to continue deploying.

It was defined, as you may member, by the President, right back at the very start of his first term, in his 2017 Ouagadougou speech. We will continue this work with the support of the European Union Member States too, and that of the African Union, in line with the shared desire expressed during the summit held in February between the European Union and the African Union under the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union, which was the first of its kind.
What does renewal of our partnership mean? It means continuing to work with the continent’s States with the closest possible focus on what they want and what they need. I will speak with several West African leaders on Wednesday at a meeting organized jointly with Guinea-Bissau, which currently holds the Chairmanship of ECOWAS. The meeting will be dedicated to security in the Sahel and in the Gulf of Guinea. As you know, a certain number of concerns are emerging there. Our redeployment in the Sahel following the withdrawal of Operation Barkhane also requires us to find new means of contributing to our partners’ security. As you know, France wishes to remain present and will remain present alongside the African States that so wish, in order to support their efforts and address the needs they express. So it is this approach of a partnership between equals, as defined by the President, that we are deploying. That is what best represents our new approach.

Another aspect of this action is our fight against the lies that target our operations, in Mali in particular, but elsewhere too. France paid a heavy price in Mali to prevent a State dominated by jihadists from taking over. France did this, I might add, at the request of the country’s legitimate authorities, and it did so in liaison with many partners and with their support. It cannot accept the false and outrageous accusations made by the Malian junta, a junta that is the product of two coups. We also condemn the atrocities perpetrated by the Wagner Group mercenaries. These atrocities have been widely documented by the United Nations, and we must also emphasize and condemn all the crude attempts at spreading misinformation that this militia is regularly guilty of doing, in the image of its backer. I would like you to pay close attention to what is unfolding there.
I will have the opportunity to mention this again at the meeting on Thursday afternoon organized by the United Nations Secretary-General, with the High-level Panel directed by former President of Niger, Mr Issoufou, who is responsible for this mission.

I also wish to recall our desire to renew our partnership, which involves a new dialogue, in addition to State-to-State, government-to-government dialogue: we want to speak directly with African young people and civil societies, including here in New York. And so this evening I will have the pleasure of receiving African artists and directors of cultural institutions at Villa Albertine New York – Villa Albertine is the name for our artists’ residences in New York and other places in the United States. These artists come from a variety of backgrounds and are a testament to the vitality, creativity and energy of African youth. So I am particularly happy that they could attend the residence, and I have great hopes for our dialogue because these discussions are essential, and I reiterate, in addition to relationships between States, to help us overcome challenges together, and better than we do alone, and also to help us change and refresh the image that we sometimes have of each other. So it is truly in our interest to develop these relationships with artists, young people, athletes, and creators, and I think everyone remembers the progress President Macron made on this issue during his African tour in July.

Third, and to finish structuring our programme, this week France will confirm its desire to work determinedly on a democratic resilience programme.
We know about the repeated attacks on democracy and freedoms, and attempts to promote an “alternative order”. So we will use this 77th session to advocate for a democratic agenda, which must obviously take into account the development of new media and what that implies for the functioning of our institutions and societies. In particular we will take action on two fronts: regulating the digital sector and access to information.

On digital technology, our philosophy is clear: digital technology stakeholders play a huge role in our lives, and so that means they have responsibilities towards our fellow citizens, wherever they are. That is another example where there is no North or South, where we must all find the right answers together.

That is the meaning of the 2019 Christchurch Call which aims to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online, and the second Christchurch Call summit will take place on Tuesday, chaired by President Macron and the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ms Ardern. In liaison with the giants of the digital sector, with civil society and States, we are taking tangible steps to better regulate digital content, and to fight misinformation that is destabilizing and false. We are also working on it in Europe, as you are aware, in the framework of the new European Digital Services Act (DSA), legislation that will fight against illegal content online and incitement to hatred and violence. These two actions go hand in hand. The fight against disinformation, along with misinformation, of which we saw plenty during the pandemic, means that more than ever we need to support freedom of information and access to pluralistic, independent, free and reliable information. That is why, in liaison with the 45 other partner States of this initiative, and with Reporters Without Borders, I will chair the second Summit for Information and Democracy on Thursday, alongside Christophe Deloire.

On Friday, I will attend a ministerial meeting on cyber security, with my German counterpart Ms Baerbock. This meeting will be an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to cyber space that is open, safe, stable, accessible to all and peaceful. So we will reiterate our commitment to responsible use by States of information and communication technologies in the field of international security, by promoting a United Nations programme of action in this area.

And lastly, on Friday I will take part in the follow-up meeting for the Generation Equality Forum, a year after it was held in Paris, France, and co-chaired by Mexico, so that we can continue to engage the international community on the Forum and on its implementation, overseen by UN Women. On that occasion I will also recall France’s commitment to promoting and defending women’s rights and gender equality, and I would also like to recall that this has been the grand cause of both terms of President Macron’s presidency, and a cause that I am of course particularly committed to. As you know, in any society, the backsliding of women’s rights is always a sign of deep crisis. We can see it happening, including in countries close to us, and in the country we are currently in: women’s rights and bodily autonomy are being undermined, and that is why we must keep going and make progress.

These are our ambitions for this week. I was a bit long, but I wanted to present you with the programme and its structure, and the deep reasons underlying this programme. And so, to summarize, we must simultaneously:

  • Work to respect the fundamental principles of the Charter: they are seriously threatened today, and we must curb the effects of the Russian war in Ukraine;
  • Maintain a spirit of dialogue and compromise within the international community, which is showing obvious signs of fragmentation, and even try to find better avenues for cooperation, and build new multilateral solutions, including by reforming institutions that need reforming;
  • And finally, we must come together to stand up for the principles of freedom and defence of rights, principles that have always guided us.
    That is the end of my presentation. Thank you for listening and I am now ready for questions.

Q (Anadolu) - Thank you, Minister. My question will be on Ukraine. We are hearing from the Russian authorities that they can’t take their food and fertilizer off to the market but at the same time we are hearing that there are no sanctions on Russian food, Russian grain and Russian fertilizer, and also the UN Secretary General says that we badly need the Russian fertilizer and there are talks negotiation going on to take it to the markets.
What is the obstacle, are there any sanctions? What is keeping Russian grain or fertilizer out?

A - On this subject, I believe it would be wise not to listen to what Russian propaganda sometimes says, and instead to look at the facts and the law. There are no sanctions on Russian food or fertilizers. There are none; that is easy to check. There are financial sanctions on Russia, but there are none on food and fertilizers. So the difficulty that the United Nations Secretary-General pointed out is related to the financial mechanism, but financial mechanisms allow us to find ways to export, in full compliance with the international measures, I stress.
But back to the facts – because these are the facts, and they are verifiable, and I think it has now been two or three months that we have been repeating that there are no sanctions on these goods for Russia.

Q ( Reuters) - Are you of the opinion of Ms von der Leyen that Vladimir Putin should be brought before the ICC?
Second question on Iran: Do you think that a compromise is possible on the matters of IAEA safeguards? Is the US position as strong as the British and French position on this?
And another question about the working group on Zaporizhzhia on Wednesday: Will Russia be taking part in the working group?
Q (Nikkei of Japan) - You will be meeting with the Foreign Minister of China, shortly. There is growing tension around Taiwan. What message will you be telling the Chinese Foreign Minister? Just to get some clarity, what is France’s position on Taiwan?

A - As for the fight against impunity, I reiterated earlier that it is important, even extremely important, that the perpetrators of the crimes committed answer for their actions. Because these crimes are abominable, and there can be no peace without justice. The instruments at our disposal are national and international justice systems.

The Ukrainian justice system is the national justice system in question, which we are helping to do its work, like others. I would like to mention that we have already sent teams of specialized investigators and a DNA lab to help document the evidence and we will continue to help the Ukrainian authorities with more actions such as this. I will come back to it later in the week. Other national justice systems have also been referred to; there are proceedings initiated in other States, and particularly in France.

Then there is the international criminal justice system, at the forefront of which is the International Criminal Court, which we assist through financial contribution and the provision of personnel. We are currently finalizing the provision of judges and investigators. It is the responsibility of the International Criminal Court to document events, which will enable it to document the crimes committed under the open investigation. We will soon hear from Prosecutor Karim Khan, who has opened an investigation for war crimes and crimes against humanity. So we will see what the conclusions of this investigation will be, but I must point out that the International Criminal Court can issue a decision not only on the final executants, but also on those responsible. So that’s where we are, and we will see what the Prosecutor has to tell us.

On Iran and the positions of the various States, I can confirm that the European position and the position of the United States of America are identical, and we coordinate very often – at ministerial level we were in contact just 8 or 9 days ago. Lengthy talks took place, and a text was tabled, which reflected the point of equilibrium and a possible agreement as of March; since then, it has gone back and forth and final adjustments were made. Unfortunately, Iran has not yet responded positively to this proposal for agreement, and it even went back on another aspect of its obligations: those which stem from the NPT. So I think that the window of opportunity, which was still open a crack at the end of August, is about to close again. And, as you saw last week, all of us, speaking as a country or together, continue to repeat that there won’t be a better offer on the table for Iran, and now it has to make a decision.

In response to your question on Zaporizhzhia, I think I’ve said all I can say: the situation remains extremely dangerous, despite the success of Mr Grossi’s mission, which enabled the facts of the situation to be observed. So, following this first mission, the IAEA is working, with our support and the support of many other partners, to find ways to avoid a nuclear incident or a nuclear accident. I want to point out that the Russian forces are occupying the area around the power station with military means; it is an occupation in a foreign country that obviously provokes reactions from that country’s authorities. Mr Grossi made proposals; he envisages those, as you know, through mechanisms that can only be based on the reciprocity of obligations of both parties to lower the tension. We will hear from him during this meeting on Wednesday. I don’t want to say more or speak for him. This morning as I spoke to my Russian counterpart, I drew his attention to the importance for all States concerned, and also for all States in the world, of avoiding a nuclear incident in Ukraine that would be caused by the occupation by Russian forces of the power station.

My interlocutor seemed open to the idea of hearing specific details from Mr Grossi, and you are aware of the two-level proposals.

Concerning China, there is nothing really new that I can tell you.

The situation concerns us greatly and the rising tensions are a source of worry for the international community because China is showing an aggressive attitude that does not correspond to the stable relations that we would like for this area and elsewhere, nor does it correspond to the stability that China is traditionally committed to.

In the past, we have shared our concern in response to actions that are likely to heighten tension: there have been several. And in the context of our policy which has not budged, we all have relationships with Taiwan. And the status quo, which is the current situation, must not be undermined by China or any other country, and certainly not through means that are not peaceful, as we have seen the temptation. On that, clarity remains but there are no new recent elements.

Q - Forgive me if I didn’t hear before the audio was quite spotty. The meeting with Mr Lavrov, how did that go, can you tell us more about it, is there any sign that he sent that he is open to diplomacy?
Q - How long did that last?

A - Just under half an hour. It is the second time I have spoken with him since taking office. The first was in August, precisely on the subject of the Zaporizhzhia plant. And we then saw progress that enabled Mr Grossi’s mission to be organized. We will see how things go this time.

Q - You mentioned Iran and the window of opportunity that is closing. What sort of initiative could you take during the meeting? And President Raisi is there. Is a meeting envisaged with President Macron?

A - There are no new initiatives: I just said that we have made the best possible efforts in good faith over a year or a year and a half of negotiations and made final adjustments in the summer. It is now up to Iran to accept or reject that. The ball is in its court, it is its decision. Iran would be well advised to seize this opportunity to return to the JCPOA and its benefits, which would not settle all issues on regional stability but which would be a useful step. Could there be meetings with Mr Raisi? I don’t know at this stage, but you will remember that the President spoke with Mr Raisi this summer, after I spoke with my counterpart at his request. So we will see what this week will bring.

Lastly, on the President’s exact programme, my responsibilities stop there. In good time, you will receive the composition of what should not be seen as “outreach”, but rather as an expanded meeting with our partners, in the spirit, as I was saying, of not just staying between us, but rather forging as many ties as are needed on global issues and subjects that concern us all. And I think there will be half a dozen or a dozen participants, but it is not up to me to give you the names of the countries concerned. Thank you.