The only way to beat the UN General Assembly traffic is not to attend at all.
Every year the world watches as leaders from across the globe convene in New York for the UN General Assembly, but this year is a little less star-studded than normal.
Several of the highest-profile presidents, prime ministers, and other heads of state and government are staying home rather than making the trek, leaving this year feeling a little less splendiferous than normal.
It would be easy — and wrong — to assume that a lot of the reluctance has to do with it being the first General Assembly with Donald Trump as the leader of the host country.
Instead, the reasons for some of the biggest names to stay home vary from pressing domestic needs, to having elections to win, to just flat-out not liking the experience of the whole spectacle that comes along with the high-level week at the UNGA. And that doesn’t count the leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad who while under constant discussion aren’t exactly keen to rub shoulders with their counterparts.
It doesn’t hurt that this year’s theme, much like 2017 as a whole, is sort of nebulous, leaving world leaders without an issue like refugees or climate change to rally around.
Here’s why some of them are opting out:
Russian President Vladimir Putin
It’s well known at this point that despite Russia loving the UN for being one of the places where it can make the biggest splash on the world scene, Putin abhors going to the General Assembly and has only rarely made an appearance over his decade and a half in power. He dutifully showed up two years ago for the 70th anniversary of the UN — as the leader of a member of one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, he likely felt obligated.
Of all of those on the list of no-shows, Trump’s team is probably the most glad that Putin decided to kick it in the Kremlin instead. “If he had attended, the only story about the entire UN meeting would have been if the two met bilaterally and for how long, just as was the case with the G20,” Richard Gowan, a UN expert at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told BuzzFeed News in an email interview.
Chinese President Xi Jinping
Xi, much like Putin, has never been a fan of the business of showing up and — as observers have put it for years now — going through the “speed dating” of lightning-fast bilateral meetings on the sidelines. Like Putin, he last showed up for the UN’s 70th anniversary and as a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council knows that everyone will pay attention to whatever the person he has speak in his stead will say anyway. And there just so happens to be a big Chinese Communist Party Congress next month that he just has to prep for.
Gowan also points out that if Xi and Putin had both showed “there would have been inflated expectations of a ‘Big 3’ meeting to solve the North Korean impasse, which none of them are ready or able to do.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
Unlike Xi and Putin, Merkel’s never had a problem with the General Assembly, though she tends to leave the big speechmaking to her foreign minister rather than take the podium herself. She prefers to show up to the big high-level summits that are usually held before the General Debate starts, like last year’s on refugees. This year, though, she’s got an election to win at home, which is likely eating up most of her time. With voting locations opening next Sunday, a trip to New York just seems a bit lower priority.
Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto
Things aren’t going great for Peña Nieto at home, where he faces a dismal approval rating and a rising crime rate. As if that wasn’t enough, he can’t even take the time to head to New York, as a twin set of natural disasters — a massive earthquake off the southwestern coast and Hurricane Katia — have devoured his attention.
Peña Nieto was originally slated to speak just a few slots after Trump, which makes his decision to stay home all the more interesting. “The two men don’t exactly have a history of mutually satisfactory interactions, and the Mexicans must have worried that Trump would fire off some zinger about the wall and force their guy to improvise a response fast,” Gowan told BuzzFeed News.
Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi serves as the head of the ruling party in Myanmar and was originally slated to attend this year’s General Assembly. But now a vice president will be speaking on behalf of the country during the General Debate. So what caused the Nobel Peace Prize winner to opt out? One likely reason is the massive surge of Rohingya Muslims that have been fleeing her country, leaving neighboring Bangladesh with 400,000 refugees on its eastern border. Aung San Suu Kyi has long been criticized of her lack of support for the Rohingya and an appearance at the UN would have only served to highlight the crisis.
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi
Modi hasn’t been a constant around UN HQ in Septembers past. He made sure to make his debut appearance in 2014, the year he was first named prime minister. But since then, he’s been content to let others do the talking for him during the General Debate. Like Merkel, he did make an appearance in 2015 to speak at the summit on climate change, but not so much at this year’s summit, which is focused on sexual exploitation and decidedly lower-profile.
President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte
Duterte has had a…troubled relationship with the UN since he took office in June 2016. Only two months on the job, he threatened to withdraw from the organization over criticism of his drug policy — which mostly consists of his outspoken support of extrajudicial violence against drug users. If he were to visit the UN, he’d have to face a host of questions about the murder of an estimated 13,000 civilians under the crackdown. He also has an ongoing campaign against an ISIS spinoff to worry about, so that doesn’t make him exactly likely to visit the UN.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta
Earlier this year, Kenyatta likely thought he’d be free to travel to the UN this year, having either won reelection or finishing out his term. But the Kenyan Supreme Court upended all of that on Sept. 1, when it overturned the results of the presidential election that had taken place just weeks earlier and ordered a new vote. Kenyatta is now running again in hopes of keeping his seat for real this time, leaving the UN on the backburner.