World leaders gather for UN General Assembly as international crises escalate

Frustration with the world body is growing as the Security Council remains paralysed on key issues while the Global South is underrepresented

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The 78th session of the UN General Assembly, the largest yearly gathering of world leaders and high-ranking diplomats, is taking place in New York this week amid numerous international crises and as the world body comes under increased scrutiny.

Often referred to simply as UNGA, the event will see presidents, monarchs and prime ministers address the world in front of the UN chamber's famous green marble backdrop, while lower-level officials hustle on the sidelines to make deals and build relationships.

This year's theme is “restoring trust and reigniting global solidarity”, but the credibility and reliability of the UN are currently being undermined by geopolitical conflicts, divisions and paralysis at the Security Council, as economic, humanitarian and climate-related crises continue.

“The gap between the demand for international co-operation and its supply is widening … The UN has fallen short, both because it is no longer fit for purpose and because its member states do not trust one another,” said Stewart Patrick, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For various reasons, four out of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council are choosing to skip this year’s UNGA, with only the US sending its leader.

President Joe Biden will tackle a range of issues, including mobilising financial resources for the Global South, galvanising co-operation to tackle the climate crisis and strengthening global support for Ukraine, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has said.

Amid the widening gap between rich and poor countries, diplomats representing Latin America, Africa and Asia have been increasingly vocal about their frustration regarding the amount of attention given to Ukraine when compared to other global crises.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to appear in person to address the General Assembly on Tuesday and will appear before the Security Council the following day.

Russia’s Foreign Minister is expected to attend the same meeting.

Richard Gowan, who oversees Crisis Group's UN advocacy efforts, told The National that the Ukrainian leader wants to seize this opportunity to discuss Russia's disruption of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and the threat to global security.

“If he strikes the appropriate tone and demonstrates respect for the concerns of non-western leaders, he may mitigate some of the potential tensions at the UN,” Mr Gowan said.

“The prevailing sentiment in New York is that the time has come, even among countries generally sympathetic to Ukraine, for the pursuit of a diplomatic resolution to the conflict sooner rather than later.”

With more than 140 world leaders expected in New York City, diplomats will also assess progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.

These 17 objectives, set to combat climate change, eradicate poverty and foster economic growth by 2030, currently stand at the halfway mark, yet progress in achieving the goals appears increasingly imperilled.

As per this year's report on the goals, the repercussions of the climate crisis, the conflict in Ukraine, a fragile global economy and the persistent impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic are slowing progress.

The report highlights that only 15 per cent of the SDG targets are currently on course to be achieved within the next decade.

“This largely reflects the indifference of many governments to address those issues. Officials should stop looking at Sustainable Development Goals as optional, but instead see them as vital and obligatory rights,” said Lou Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch.

US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Security Council members on Thursday that progress on the SDGs requires the active engagement of the private sector.

“The public sector must harness the expertise of the private sector and translate it into action,” she said.

The UAE’s ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh, meanwhile, said public-private partnerships that were once useful additions are now crucial to humanitarian work.

Over the past decade, Ms Nusseibeh said, the UAE has been developing “a digital platform to support a government’s ability to better harness international support in the wake of natural disasters”.

The UAE has also established a major humanitarian logistics hub and is working with UN agencies and private companies on new technologies to reach those in need, Ms Nusseibeh added.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will be hosting preparatory ministerial meetings for the Summit of the Future, which will be held during the opening of UNGA.

According to the UN, the event will “build upon the SDG Summit and breathe new life into the multilateral system so that it can deliver on the promises of the United Nations Charter and the 2030 Agenda”.

Updated: September 19, 2023, 8:23 AM