What to look for at this year’s UN General Assembly

After thousands of speeches, meetings, and receptions this week at the UNGA summit, the United Nations is prepared to announce World Peace at the end of the global...

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After thousands of speeches, meetings, and receptions this week at the UNGA summit, the United Nations is prepared to announce World Peace at the end of the global event — err, no.

If only. The truth is, topics at the two-week summit appear more numerous, volatile and hard-to-solve than before any other UN General Assembly: Russia’s war in Ukraine, lethal floods in Libya, multiple coups on the African continent, North versus South economic funding, violent crisis in Haiti, and climate change, to name a few.

Potentially weakening the impact of the event, itself is the fact that US president Joe Biden is to be the only leader of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council to attend. French President Emmanuel Macron is staying home ready to greet King Charles and work on deteriorating situations from Niger to Sudan. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak too has decided to skip – a rarity for his country – and Russian President Vladimir Putin now risks arrest when he travels. Chinese leader Xi Jinping never comes. (Some UN old hands say having one out of five is nothing unusual in the history of the UNGA).

Nevertheless, 140 heads of state and government are scheduled to attend. Six vice presidents, four deputy prime ministers and over 30 ministers of state and chiefs of delegations will also stand at the rostrum to deliver remarks for their nations. Even if you’re not a regular UN observer, consider tuning in to UNTV on Tuesday, when Brazil kicks off the speechmaking followed by the US, Ukraine and Cuba, among others.

In a first for the annual summit, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky will be attending in person. Previously, he has appeared on video monitors in the General Assembly Hall. He is also expected to speak with Biden in Washington on Thursday.

Global disputes between the big powers of the UN are likely to hurt any chance of improving relations and making progress on several issues. Swiss Ambassador Pascale Baeriswyl noted a rising rivalry between the United States and China in the chamber. And advocacy group Human Rights Watch urged nations not to get distracted by politics but to “keep human rights front and center during the week’s events.”

“The week is an opportunity for smaller countries for the world to lay out their priorities in front of us. I don’t see the week as being a competition between big powers,” US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said last week.

But at a special Ukraine meeting at the Security Council table on Wednesday, prepare for Zelensky to take on Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, should he attend this ministerial meeting. There are also private one-on-one sessions between UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. The UN would like to get Russia back into the Black Sea grain deal. But Russia and Ukraine will not meet together here in New York.

“It is extremely important to fight those that are abusing their authority to limit democracy,” Guterres told reporters last week. But one Security Council diplomat has said Russia already trampled on the UN charter by invading neighboring Ukraine.

Monday will feature lots of debate on the awfully named Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs: seventeen different goals established years ago to improve poverty, education and health topics. Only 15 percent of the necessary funding is in place to reach those goals, one ambassador told the media.

The public, normally allowed to tour the headquarters, is not welcome inside during the big week. Demonstrators may shout and wave signs nearby, but they won’t be heard in the limousines slipping in and out of the UN compound.

Every year, UNGA attracts some unique outsiders (K-pop mega stars BTS thrilled fans by cavorting in the Assembly Hall in 2021). This time around, tennis great Roger Federer is expected be onsite, and Prince William and his wife Catherine, Princess of Wales, will meet the UN Secretary-General Monday afternoon in promotion of William’s Earthshot climate effort.

Thus, UNGA can now be called the Royal Rumble. But nobody slams a diplomatic face into a turnbuckle. Only a week or more of verbal sparring, as the world looks for action on a long roster of crises.

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