UN General Assembly: Lula meets Zelensky, talks workers’ rights with Biden

By September 21, 2023

São Paulo, Brazil – President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time on Wednesday, following controversial statements the Brazilian leader had made in recent months about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The closed-door meeting, which lasted about an hour, was held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly taking place in New York. 

Following the encounter, Lula posted a photo next to Zelensky on his social media and said that he had a good conversation with the Ukrainian leader “about the importance of paths for building peace and always maintaining open dialogue between our countries.” Zelensky also posted a picture with Lula and highlighted the importance of the meeting.

“Following our honest and constructive discussion, we instructed our diplomatic teams to work on the next steps in our bilateral relations and peace efforts. Brazilian representatives will continue to take part in the peace formula meetings,” Zelensky wrote on X.

In recent months, Lula has made controversial statements about the war in Ukraine. He avoided criticizing Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, for invading its neighbor and even said that the two countries wanted war. Afterwards, Lula recanted and condemned the invasion of Ukraine’s territory.

Despite his backtracking, Zelensky criticized the Brazilian leader’s statements. In May, at the G7 summit in Japan, the two presidents tried to meet, which was not possible due to incompatible agendas. At the time, Zelensly was asked if he was disappointed because the meeting did not take place.

Smiling at the journalists, the Ukrainian president answered: “I think he (Lula) was the one disappointed.” Then, Lula replied to Zelensky’s statement and said that he was not disappointed, but upset. “I wanted to meet with him.”

There seemed to have been tension between the two leaders leading up to Wednesday’s sit-down. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said this week’s meeting served to “break the ice” between the two presidents.

“It was an important meeting. It was to break the ice,” said Kuleba. “The conversation was very warm and honest and I think the two presidents understand each other’s position much better than before.” Zelensky didn’t speak to the press after the meeting.

Lula spoke briefly to journalists and said that he approached Zelensky about the idea of ​​a group of neutral countries to mediate negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. It’s the so-called “peace club,” which Lula has been defending since the beginning of his term.

“I told him about the need to find a group of friendly countries that could build a proposal that was neither one nor the other. And that negotiation at a dialogue table is much cheaper than a war, there are no victims, there are no deaths and there are no shots,” he said.

The president defended “the construction of a lasting peace so that a territorial occupation like Russia never happens again.” He added, “No one will have 100% in a war, no one can win everything, in other words, it is not just the defeat of the enemy.”

Lula met with Biden to discuss workers’ rights in Brazil and the United States. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert/PR

Lula meets with Biden 

Although the war in Ukraine was also on the agenda during Lula’s meeting with United States President Joe Biden on Wednesday, the leaders of the two most populous countries in the Western Hemisphere met mostly to discuss workers’ rights. Biden and Lula signed a new workers’ rights protocol dubbed, the “Partnership for Workers’ Rights.”

The initiative aims to combat precarious working conditions, with unions as a support base. Lula, who has a trade union background and began his political career as president of a metalworkers’ union, defended the strengthening of those institutions as a tool to defend employees.

“Whoever believes in a weak union will make the businessman earn more,” said the president. “There is no democracy without a strong union, because the union is effectively the one who speaks for the worker to try to defend their rights.”

Lula said that, in his opinion, Biden is the US president who has best defended workers. And Biden sees the US workforce as a leading facilitator of the United States’ shift to renewable energies in the coming years. 

“We know that our progress depends on our workers. They are the ones who will drive the green energy transition, they are the ones who will secure the value chain and build the infrastructure to keep our economy strong,” said Biden.

Lula and Biden committed to encouraging other countries to join the Partnership for Workers’ Rights. They also discussed other subjects, such as climate change and protecting the Amazon, where Biden reinforced his commitment to protecting the rainforest.

President of Brazil speaks at the opening of the general debates of the UN Assembly. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert/PR

Speech at the UN

On Tuesday, Lula gave an address at the opening of the UN General Assembly. He returned to speak at the event after 14 years – the last time was in 2009, at the end of his second term. This time, Lula spoke about  — among other topics — combating hunger and inequality, protecting the environment and racial and gender equality.

“Reducing inequalities within countries requires including the poor in national budgets and making the rich pay taxes proportional to their wealth,” said Lula, highlighting that, without reducing inequalities, the 2030 Agenda could be “the UN’s biggest failure.”

He also said that his government has resumed a “robust and renewed Amazon agenda,” with inspection actions and combating environmental crimes. “Over the last eight months, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has already been reduced by 48%,” he claimed. 

The speech lasted 21 minutes and he was applauded seven times.

Lula met with the president of Cuba, Miguel Díaz-Canel, for a bilateral meeting. Image courtesy of Ricardo Stuckert/PR

Trip to Cuba

Before arriving in New York for the UN General Assembly, Lula visited Cuba, a country that had relations with Brazil severed during the government of former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro. In Havana, Lula met with Cuba’s leader Miguel Díaz-Canel, and criticized the economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba by the US.

“Cuba has been a defender of fairer global governance,” said Lula. “And to this day it is the victim of an illegal economic embargo. Brazil is against any unilateral coercive measure. We reject the inclusion of Cuba on the list of states sponsoring terrorism.”