UNITED NATIONS — Faced with a complex set of challenges that are testing humanity like never before, world leaders are meeting this week at the United Nations in the shadow of Europe’s first major war since World War II — a conflict that sparked a global food crisis and divided the great powers in a way not seen since the Cold War.
The many facets of the war in Ukraine are set to dominate the annual meeting, which comes together as many countries and peoples face growing inequality, a growing climate crisis, the threat of multiple famines and a wave of disinformation and of internet-fueled hate speech – all amid a coronavirus pandemic that is halfway through its third year.
For the first time since the United Nations was founded from the ashes of World War II, European nations are witnessing a war waged within them by neighboring nuclear-armed Russia. Its February 24 invasion not only threatens Ukraine’s survival as an independent democratic nation, but worries the leaders of many countries about preserving regional and international peace and preventing a wider war.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said strategic divisions – with the West on one side and Russia and increasingly China on the other – “cripple the global response to the dramatic challenges facing we are facing “.
He highlighted not only the devastation in Ukraine after almost seven months of fighting, but also the impact of the war on the global economy.
Escalating food and energy prices are hitting the world’s poorest people the hardest, and nations are “devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest” instead of working together and peacefully resolving disputes, two principles that are at the heart of the UN Charter and underpin everything the UN tries to do.
“The General Assembly is meeting at a time of great peril,” the UN chief said last week.
For the first time in three years, the leaders will deliver their speeches in person in the vast General Assembly Hall. There will be no more pre-recorded addresses or hybrid meetings caused by COVID, with one exception: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite objections from Russia and a few allies, the 193-member assembly voted overwhelmingly on Friday to allow the Ukrainian leader to pre-record his speech for reasons beyond his control – “the ongoing foreign invasion ” and the military hostilities which oblige it to carry out its “national defense and security missions”.
The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her funeral in London on Monday, which many world leaders plan to attend, created last-minute headaches for the high-level meeting. Diplomats and UN staff are scrambling to cope with changes in travel plans, the timing of some events and the logistically complex timing of speeches by world leaders.
Guterres skips the funeral to chair Monday’s ‘Education Transformation Summit’ which he called for creating action on a UN goal to ensure quality education for all children by 2030 which lost a lot of ground during the pandemic.
The real gathering of world leaders, known as the General Debate, begins Tuesday morning with the UN chief’s state of the world address to the 77th session of the General Assembly which began on September 12. Brazil has spoken first for more than seven decades because in the first sessions of the General Assembly, it volunteered to speak first when no other country did.
The United States, chair, representing the host nation of the United Nations, is traditionally the second speaker. But President Joe Biden is attending the Queen’s funeral and his speech has been postponed until Wednesday morning. Senegalese President Macky Sall is expected to take Biden’s place.
Nearly 150 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs are on the latest list of speakers, a very high number reflecting the importance of the meeting not only for presenting each country’s worldview, but also for private and individual meetings where diplomats say a lot of business in the world is done.
Besides Zelenskyy, Biden and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, other heads of state who have come to the UN include the presidents of Turkey, Iran, France, Colombia, South Korea, South Africa, Egypt and Venezuela. Heads of government on the list include new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also making a first appearance, and the prime ministers of Japan, Israel, Iraq and Pakistan. Russia and China send their foreign ministers.
For many years, the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with the right of veto – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – have met aside for lunch or dinner. Diplomats said no meeting was scheduled for this year.
During typical high-level weeks, thousands of people are in the United Nations complex for speeches and hundreds of side events. But due to the persistence of the pandemic, only the few events organized by the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly are being held this year at UN headquarters. Dozens of side events will take place elsewhere in the city.
Richard Gowan, director of the UN’s International Crisis Group, said Ukraine and the food crisis would be the two “overarching themes” and that the message from Western leaders would be clear: “This is the war of aggression by Russia and it is a huge attack on the United Nations system.”
A highlight will be the ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council on September 22 on the fight against impunity in the war in Ukraine – a subject decided by France, which holds the presidency of the Council this month. The meeting could bring together the foreign ministers of the five Permanent Council nations in the same room as Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who has been invited.
Thomas-Greenfield insisted the high-level meeting “will not be dominated by Ukraine” as conflicts are also unfolding elsewhere. That’s why she says the United States is focused on addressing the food crisis as well as climate change, promoting global health, and upholding the UN Charter.
Gowan, of the Crisis Group, said his organization has seen in recent weeks that countries in Africa and Latin America “have gradually succumbed to Ukraine fatigue”, and that there is a feeling in many many parts of the UN “that countries don’t want to have to constantly attack Russia.” There is a clear understanding among Western leaders, and particularly in the United States, of the need “to keep non-Western countries on board Ukraine”, he said.
Gowan said he will also listen to “an undercurrent of discontent” from African nations and countries in the global South about how they have been let down by COVID-19 vaccinations and funding to tackle climate change. and coping with rising food prices and the cost of living. He also lamented that the crises in Mali, Afghanistan and Yemen were not in the foreground.
Secretary-General Guterres, who has just visited Pakistan where he said the flooded area is three times larger than his home country of Portugal, lashed out at the group of 20 richest nations, which , according to him, are responsible for 80% of the emissions that cause global warming. .
“My message to world leaders gathered here is clear: turn the heat down — now,” he said. “Don’t flood the world today, don’t drown it tomorrow.”