World leaders meet ‘in time of great peril’ at UN

New York

It took a queen to shake up this year’s high-level week at the United Nations General Assembly – an annual whirlwind known as UNGA which kicks off on Tuesday.

The UN gang is finally getting back in person, after three years of leaders speaking by video due to the global pandemic. But many leaders from the 193 UN member countries were in the UK for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday, forcing their UN missions to scramble to reschedule speeches and appointments.

Perhaps most significant among the changes, US President Joe Biden will speak on Wednesday morning instead of taking America’s traditional second speaking spot after Brazil on Tuesday. Biden has also scheduled time to chat with national leaders in London, which may limit some talks in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will be the only world leader to speak via video, busy as he is with the war in his country. On Friday, the Assembly overrode Russian objections to allow Zelensky to speak virtually.

The invasion of Ukraine, a UN member country, by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, could cast a shadow over the entire General Assembly:

“The General Assembly is meeting at a time of great peril,” UN Secretary Antonio Guterres said at a press conference last week. “Geostrategic divides are the widest since at least the Cold War. They paralyze the global response to the dramatic challenges we face.

Don’t expect this year’s General Assembly to be “business as usual,” US Undersecretary for International Organizations Affairs Michele Sison said on Friday. “Russia’s continued and unprovoked assault on Ukraine raises serious questions about its commitment to diplomacy, the Charter of the United Nations and the territorial integrity of nations.”

Many UN diplomats say Russia put the credibility and image of the UN at risk this year by invading another UN country after the UN failed to convince the Russian president Vladimir Putin to stop.

The vast majority of UN members strongly oppose Russia’s war in Ukraine. Expect Western countries to use their official rhetoric to denigrate Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will speak on Saturday, but no Western country has said whether it has planned bilateral relations with the Russian visitor.

Others worry that Russia’s war has displaced other issues of global importance, such as the climate crisis. “It would have been a climate UNGA, but Russia took care of that with their invasion of Ukraine,” a diplomat told CNN.

“It takes up a lot of space,” said Stefan Dujarric, spokesman for the UN secretary general, during a press briefing on Monday. “Because we know that the war in Ukraine has a global impact, on food, on cereals, on the energy crisis. This has an impact on the fight against climate change, where – because of the energy crisis – we see Member States reverting to dirty energy sources.

“That doesn’t stop the secretary-general from raising all these other issues though,” he added.

But US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield stressed the need to take a broad view, telling reporters on Friday that “next week won’t be dominated by Ukraine, but we won’t ignore Ukraine. We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world,” she added.

“[There are] many leaders who feel [Russia’s war in Ukraine] is a distraction from the problems in their own region,” also said the director of the International Crisis Group at the UN, Richard Gowan.

On Thursday morning, there will be a ministerial session of the Security Council on Ukraine, which will be attended by Lavrov, the highest-ranking member of the Russian government.

Still, some might wish for fewer verbal attacks on Moscow seven months into the conflict. A diplomat told CNN that poorer countries on the fringes believe a calmer tone could help end the conflict — and need Russian oil or food.

Food security is another major topic at the global forum, with the global economy hit hard by the pandemic, inflation and struggling supply chains. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to chair a meeting on food during the high level week.

“What we hope to do is really bring the world together to solve all the problems related to food insecurity. So it brings both the South and the countries together – developing and donor countries in the same room to address these issues,” said US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

Yet it is another year when citizens of the world may wonder what the UN is really doing, given the nightmare in Ukraine and low levels of donations from member countries to other crises.

“The UN as an organization is no longer able to deliver because everything is upside down,” said another UN diplomat.

But at least he can put on a great show again, with many of the world leaders making their first appearance in several years. There will be hundreds of speeches, handshakes, parties and panels. About 140 Heads of State and Government will be present. And in pursuit are hundreds of members of the media around the world.

As another diplomat put it, everyone is a “moving target” at the UNGA.

. World leaders meet time great peril

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