UNITED NATIONS – Last year no leader came. This year will be quite different – sort of.
As the coronavirus pandemic still rages in many parts of the world, leaders from more than 100 countries are heading to New York this week for the annual high-level United Nations gathering – a semi-locked COVID-inflected affair that takes place in one of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic. This will be a change from the last in-person General Assembly meeting in 2019 – and very different from last year’s fully virtual version as well.
Expecting Them: Sized challenges enough to frighten anyone who runs a country, from an escalating climate crisis and serious vaccine inequalities to the future of Afghanistan under its new Taliban rulers and to escalating conflicts in Myanmar and in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed to many other signs of a more chaotic, insecure and dangerous world: increasing poverty and hunger; technological advances â€œwithout safeguardsâ€ such as lethal autonomous weapons; the risks of climate degradation and nuclear war; and growing inequality, discrimination and injustice leading people to take to the streets to protest “as conspiracy theories and lies fuel deep divisions within societies.”
The UN chief keeps repeating that the world is at “a pivotal moment” and must shift into high gear towards “a greener and safer world”. To do this, leaders must give multilateralism ‘teeth’, starting with joint action to reverse the global failure to fight COVID-19 in 2020 and ensure that 70% of the world’s population is vaccinated. during the first half of 2022.
But as is often the case with the United Nations, it remains to be seen whether the high-level meetings, which start on Monday and end on September 27, actually make progress.
After COVID-19 forced leaders to deliver pre-recorded speeches remotely at last year’s meeting, more than 100 heads of state and government and more than two dozen ministers decided to come to New York this year despite the pandemic. This reflects the unique role of the United Nations as a global public forum for the 193 member countries, whether small or large, weak or powerful.
The annual gathering of assembly world leaders – called the General Debate – has always been a place where presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and other senior officials can discuss local, regional and global concerns in public meetings and functions or private, and during lunches and dinners. . In other words, it creates a space for carrying out the delicate business of face-to-face diplomacy, which is seen as much more productive than online virtual meetings.
Richard Gowan, director of the International Crisis Group at the UN, said the first in-person meeting of the General Assembly since the start of the pandemic – although some 60 leaders have chosen to give pre-recorded speeches – is not only symbolic but an opportunity to “show that the international cooperation is important.”
â€œFor the leaders of the poorest countries, this is also a rare opportunity to speak publicly about the ongoing aftershocks of COVID-19,â€ he said. â€œIt’s also, frankly, quite fun coming to New York. Many of these leaders are stuck in their capitals.
After four years of Donald Trump representing the United States in meetings, this week Joe Biden will make his first appearance as president when the general debate opens on Tuesday. Gowan said that “the really important question is exactly how he frames relations with China.”
“He won’t be criticizing China as openly as Trump, especially in 2019 and 2020,” Gowan said. “But I think Biden will try to portray China as a country that challenges the rules-based world order and a country that should not be trusted to lead the international system.”
The pandemic is not only something world leaders need to discuss, but also something to deal with on the ground: a key issue ahead of the meetings has been COVID-19 entry requirements for leaders in states – United – and at the UN headquarters itself.
Traditionally, the first speaker after the Secretary General presents his State of the World Report is Brazil. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is not vaccinated, reiterated Thursday that he does not plan to be vaccinated anytime soon. Bolsonaro’s rationale: He had COVID-19 and therefore, he says, he has a high level of antibodies.
Entry into the United States requires a vaccination or recent COVID-19 test, but New York City has a vaccination requirement for convention centers, and it considers the General Assembly Hall – which does not. is technically not American soil – is part of it.
Assembly Speaker Abdulla Shahid said in a letter Thursday that the UN relies only on an honor system. This means that there will be no New York City police to screen people entering the UN headquarters.
Many diplomats say they will keep a close watch on the last scheduled speakers on the last day, September 27, because each has something controversial.
North Korea has just tested new cruise missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons. In Myanmar, generals toppled the democratically elected government in February. The Guinean army overthrew the democratically elected president a month ago. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban seized power on August 15 when the Afghan army did not fight as the last American troops withdrew from the country after 20 years of war.
The credentials of Myanmar’s current ambassador, the country’s ousted democratic government, are challenged by the military junta, but UN officials say the General Assembly’s credentials committee will not meet to hear the protest only after the end of the week’s meetings. And the Taliban have yet to submit a letter challenging the credentials of the previous government’s ambassador.
Among those delivering pre-recorded statements this year are the presidents of Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. French President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to deliver a pre-recorded statement, but the government has said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will now deliver the country’s speech in person on the last day.
France and China have reacted angrily to the surprise announcement by Biden, alongside Australian and British leaders, of an agreement to supply Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Australia had signed a contract of at least $ 66 billion for a dozen French conventional diesel-electric submarines and their construction was already underway.
France, the United States’ longest-serving ally, responded by recalling its ambassadors from the United States and Australia on Friday, and the implications of the dispute for Asian and global security will certainly be hot topics in private meetings this week. .
The action begins Monday morning when the Secretary-General brings together world leaders and global pop group BTS to highlight the 17 UN goals for 2030 ranging from eradicating poverty and protecting the planet to achievement. of gender equality, providing every child with a quality education and ensuring a healthy life for all.
An hour later, around 40 world leaders will take part in a closed-door meeting on climate change co-chaired by Guterres and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the run-up to November’s big climate event in Glasgow, Scotland.
“We need urgent progress on money, cars, coal and trees,” British Ambassador to the UN Barbara Woodward said. This means raising $ 100 billion to help vulnerable countries cope with climate change and get countries ambitious emission reduction plans, she said.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch, said world leaders must also deal with human rights crises.
“They must be clear that there can be no status quo with perpetrators of serious rights violations and support UN action which will impose real costs,” he said. â€œViolent leaders around the world need to know that the world is watching them and that they could one day be held responsible for serious violations. “