UNITED NATIONS – (AP) – Faced with a complex set of challenges that are testing humanity like never before, world leaders gather at the United Nations this week, in the shadow of Europe’s first major war since World War II – a conflict that has unleashed a global nutritional crisis and divided great powers not seen since the Cold War.
The many facets of the Ukraine war are expected to dominate the annual gathering, which will come together as many countries and peoples grapple with rising inequality, an escalating climate crisis, the threat of multiple famines, and a cyber-fueled spate of misinformation and hate speech are facing – everything beyond a coronavirus pandemic that is in the middle of its third year.
For the first time since the founding of the United Nations on the rubble of World War II, European nations are witnessing a war waged by nuclear-armed neighbor Russia. Their February 24 invasion not only threatens Ukraine’s survival as an independent democratic nation, but also leaves leaders in many countries concerned about maintaining regional and international peace and preventing a major war.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the strategic divisions – with the West on one side and Russia and increasingly China on the other – “paralyze the global response to the dramatic challenges we face”.
He not only pointed to the devastation in Ukraine after nearly seven months of fighting, but also to the effects of the war on the global economy.
Rising food and energy prices are hitting the world’s poorest people hardest, and nations are being “devoured by the acids of nationalism and self-interest” instead of working together and resolving disputes peacefully, two principles at the heart of the UN charter underpinning everything what the United Nations is trying to do.
“The General Assembly meets at a time of great peril,” the UN chief said last week.
For the first time in three years, leaders will deliver their speeches in person in the vast General Assembly Hall. There will be no more COVID-related pre-recorded addresses or hybrid meetings, with one exception: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Despite objections from Russia and some allies, Friday’s 193-strong assembly voted overwhelmingly to allow the Ukrainian leader to pre-record his speech for reasons beyond his control — the “ongoing foreign invasion” and military hostilities that are threatening he must carry out his “national defense and security duties”.
The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and her funeral in London on Monday, which many leaders plan to attend, have caused a last-minute headache for the high-level meeting. Diplomats and UN staff have to deal with changes in travel plans, the timing of some events and the logistically complicated speaking schedule for world leaders.
Guterres is skipping the funeral to chair Monday’s “Transforming Education Summit,” which he called to take action toward a UN goal to ensure quality education for all children by 2030, who have fallen significantly during the pandemic has lost.
The real gathering of world leaders, known as the General Debate, begins Tuesday morning with the UN chief’s state of the world address ahead of the 77th session of the General Assembly, which began on September 12. Brazil has spoken first for over seven decades In the early sessions of the General Assembly, it volunteered to speak first when no other country did.
The US President, representing the host country at the United Nations, is traditionally the second speaker. But President Joe Biden is attending the Queen’s funeral, and his speech has been postponed to Wednesday morning. Senegalese President Macky Sall is expected to take Biden’s place.
Nearly 150 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs feature on the latest list of speakers, a very high number that reflects the importance of the gathering not only for showcasing each country’s worldview, but also for private one-on-one and group meetings where diplomats say a lot of the Businesses of the world are conducted.
Other heads of state joining the UN alongside Zelensky, Biden and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro include the presidents of Turkey, Iran, France, Colombia, South Korea, South Africa, Egypt and Venezuela. The heads of government on the list include new British Prime Minister Liz Truss, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is also appearing for the first time, and the Prime Ministers of Japan, Israel, Iraq and Pakistan. Russia and China are sending their foreign ministers.
For many years, the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who have veto power – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – have met on the sidelines for lunch or dinner. Diplomats said no meeting was planned this year.
During typical high-level weeks, thousands of people flock to the UN complex for speeches and hundreds of side events. However, due to the ongoing pandemic, only the few events organized by the Secretary-General and the President of the General Assembly will take place at the UN headquarters this year. Dozens of side events are held at other locations around the city.
Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, said Ukraine and the food crisis are the two “overarching issues” and the message from Western leaders will be clear: “This is Russia’s war of aggression and this is a massive attack on the UN System.”
A highlight will be the ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council on September 22, which will address the fight against impunity in the war in Ukraine – an issue to be decided by France, which holds the presidency of the Council this month. The meeting could bring the foreign ministers of the five permanent council nations into a room with the invited Foreign Minister of Ukraine, Dmytro Kuleba.
France’s UN Ambassador Nicolas De Riviere said on Friday that “the perpetrators will be held accountable” for the “dramatic consequences” of the “Russian war of aggression” on civilians in Ukraine. And US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the United Nations is facing a “crisis of confidence” caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which violates its neighbor’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, “tramples human rights” and the heart of the UN Charter Striving for war instead of negotiated peace.
She told reporters on Friday that the answer must be “to redouble our commitment to a peaceful world and to hold even more closely our deep-rooted principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, peace and security.”
Thomas-Greenfield insisted that the high-level meeting “is not dominated by Ukraine” because there are conflicts elsewhere. That’s why, she says, the United States is focused on addressing the food crisis and climate change, promoting global health and complying with the UN Charter.
Gowan of the Crisis Group said his organization has seen in recent weeks that African and Latin American countries “have gradually succumbed to Ukraine fatigue” and that there is a sense in many parts of the UN “that countries don’t want to keep attacking Russia.” There is a clear understanding among Western leaders, and particularly in the US, of the need to “keep non-Western countries on board when it comes to Ukraine,” he said.
Gowan said he will also be listening to “an undercurrent of discontent” from African nations and countries of the Global South about how they have been let down on COVID-19 vaccination and funding to combat climate change and deal with escalating food prices and living costs. He also complained that crises in Mali, Afghanistan and Yemen were not the focus.
Secretary-General Guterres, who was visiting Pakistan where he said the flooded area was three times the size of his native Portugal, lashed out at the group of the 20 wealthiest nations he says are responsible for 80% of emissions causing global warming cause .
“My message to the world leaders gathered here is clear: bring the temperature down – now,” he said. “Don’t flood the world today, don’t drown it tomorrow.”
Edith M. Lederer is chief UN correspondent for The Associated Press and has been reporting on international affairs for more than half a century. For more AP coverage of the UN General Assembly, see https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly.
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