Ukraine war and its effects set to dominate this year's UN General Assembly meeting

Dozens of world leaders will meet in person after two years of pandemic-related disruptions

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The UN General Assembly opens in New York this week, with this year's gathering of world leaders set to highlight the deepening divisions between the West and rival powers Russia and China.

While myriad global issues will be highlighted by presidents, prime ministers and other leaders from the UN's 193 member states, the war in Ukraine will dominate many speeches as they are delivered in front of the UN chamber's famous green marble backdrop.

“This will be a General Assembly that will, perhaps, bring back a return of the divisions between the West and the non-West — non-western in this case being Russia and China,” said Michael Barnett, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

“There is likely to be, because of the invasion, a lot of accusations and hand wringing with regard to Ukraine.”

The war, which is grinding towards a gruelling stalemate more than six months after Russia's February 24 invasion, has had knock-on effects even for countries that are not backing one side or the other.

Food shortages have hit many nations dependent on Russian and Ukrainian wheat imports, and the war has driven up food costs on a global scale.

While the UN is often chided for moving slowly, it has nonetheless helped seal a deal to ship grain out of Ukraine.

Energy markets have also suffered historic shocks after the invasion resulted in a massive slash in gas supplies to Europe and stoked a sharp increase in international oil prices.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to speak at the event but it is not clear whether he will be able to do so in person or if he will make a video appearance.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is reportedly set to skip this year's meeting, sending Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in his place.

The UN General Assembly — often referred to simply as UNGA — begins on Tuesday but the main focus is on next week's “high-level debate” days, during which world leaders mingle and deliver speeches starting on September 20.

Other issues on the agenda include the worsening effects of climate change and the lingering effects of Covid-19.

Climate-driven disasters are affecting the whole world but developing nations are particularly vulnerable, as illustrated by the recent catastrophic flooding in Pakistan that has killed more than 1,200 people and left tens of millions more in need of help.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a video message: “Let’s stop sleepwalking toward the destruction of our planet by climate change … Today, it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the event for the past two years. The gathering returns to normal this year, although some restrictions remain and the UN has capped the number of journalists that can attend.

For the Middle East, Mr Barnett predicted that Iran's actions in the region would be brought into focus, with Israel criticising Iran and Tehran, in turn, using the opportunity to “call attention to not just Israel, but the other states as well that are lined up against it”.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will “probably be the only one to mention that Palestine is still not solved”, Mr Barnett told The National.

The UNGA is famous for its theatrics and headline-grabbing moments, such as in 2006 when Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez spoke a day after George W Bush, US president at the time, and said he could still smell sulphur in the room as “the devil came here yesterday”.

Despite the drama, the UNGA “nevertheless does provide a kind of barometer of where we are and where folks are lined up and what kinds of coalition seem to be forming”, Mr Barnett said.

China's speech will be closely watched, particularly after the UN last week issued a damning report on allegations of abuse against minorities, including the Uighur population in Xinjiang province.

Mark Leon Goldberg, the editor of UN Dispatch and host of the Global Dispatches Podcast, noted that the UNGA also provides world leaders with a forum to speak face to face.

“Despite Covid, there will be dozens and dozens of heads of state and foreign ministers all in New York, all at the same time.

“They do what's been called diplomatic speed dating. They cram in a lot of meetings, do a lot of talking to each other and have those kinds of meaningful face-to-face interactions,” Mr Goldberg told The National.

“It still is one of the key moments in the world for diplomacy to happen.”

Updated: September 12, 2022, 4:36 PM