World leaders head to UN for downsized General Assembly despite pandemic

After an all-virtual UNGA last year, more than 100 world leaders are travelling to New York

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

After Covid-19 pushed the world’s biggest diplomatic meeting online for the first time, more than 100 world leaders are heading to New York next week for the UN General Assembly, with climate change and the pandemic squarely on the agenda.

The UN hopes to get consensus on issues from the Taliban’s lightning take-over of Afghanistan, how to meet ambitious climate change targets and global unity in rolling out vaccines and halting the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We need to re-establish confidence. The current geopolitical division in the world is an obstacle," Secretary General Antonio Guterres told AFP.

The world "is really in a very dangerous situation," he said. "We need to sound an alarm to wake up political leaders."

US President Joe Biden will address the General Assembly for the first time on Tuesday and a day later will convene a virtual summit on Covid-19 as he seeks to show US leadership on vaccines.

With the Delta variant triggering renewed infection spikes, Mr Guterres said the world was "heading in the wrong direction in all areas" on the pandemic.

"It's absolutely unacceptable that there are countries where 80 per cent of the population is vaccinated and some where two per cent are vaccinated," he said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will come to New York on Monday to seek action on climate change ahead of a UN conference in Glasgow in November as temperatures and severe weather rise to startling levels.

Other world leaders set to attend include Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett who, like Mr Biden, will be making his first appearance.

The United States discouraged heads of state from visiting and asked that delegations be kept small as a way to fight Covid-19. French President Emmanuel Macron, a frequent UN presence, will be among leaders who cited Covid-19 concerns for sending a pre-recorded video.

UNGA 2020 goes virtual - in pictures

"We are concerned about the UN event being a super-spreader event," Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters.

"Leaders have to be responsible, and they have to take responsibility for their actions."

One leader who is not minding the guidance is President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, which by tradition is the first nation to speak.

The far-right leader said he plans to come to New York even though he is not vaccinated against Covid-19, defying New York city authorities who want everyone to present proof of vaccination.

Mr Guterres defended the record of the UN, which quickly went mostly virtual last year at the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 4.5 million lives worldwide.

"I am very proud this was never a centre of spreading Covid and I hope it will remain so," Mr Guterres said.

The UAE on Saturday announced the team it is sending to New York to “advance solutions to pressing global challenges, such as Covid-19, the digital divide, climate change, and gender inequality.”

Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemy, Minister of State for International Co-operation, will lead the UAE delegation with both hybrid in-person and virtual meetings. Of particular focus will be the UAE’s two-year term on the UN Security Council from January 2022.

"With the enormous strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE believes that this is a key moment to heed the Secretary-General’s call to 'Build Back Better'," said Lana Nusseibeh, Assistant Minister for Political Affairs and Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the UAE to the UN.

"As an incoming member of the UN Security Council, the UAE will deepen its commitment to improved cooperation on global health, promoting gender equality, building resilience to climate change, and harnessing the potential of innovation for peace."

The UAE’s statement will be delivered to the general debate on September 27.

Ms Al Hashemy will be joined at the UN by a number of ministers and officials, including Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology and Special Envoy for Climate Change; Sheikh Shakhbout bin Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of State; and Khalifa Shaheen Al Marar, Minister of State.

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the Security Council, are not even sending their foreign ministers.

Richard Gowan, who follows the United Nations at the International Crisis Group, said the two powers were also sending a message.

"The Chinese and Russians are not going to invest a huge amount in this General Assembly, perhaps to show that they are not really that bothered by Biden's arrival," he said.

Mr Biden, accelerating an effort under his predecessor Donald Trump, has identified a rising China as the paramount concern for the United States in the 21st century.

Vowing to focus on the larger challenge of proving the democratic model, Mr Biden has sought both to invest heavily at home and pulled the last US troops out of Afghanistan in August.

The Taliban's swift takeover is set to be a major topic of discussion at the UN, with western powers pressing against recognition and looking to see the Islamists' track record on issues of concern, such as the rights of women.

Afghanistan remains represented at the United Nations by the fallen government of president Ashraf Ghani, who fled on August 15.

The UN ambassadors from Myanmar and Guinea, likewise, have remained in place despite military takeovers, with Myanmar's envoy outspoken against the five-month-old junta.

Afghanistan, Myanmar and Guinea are all scheduled to speak on September 27, the last day of the General Assembly, with the possibility they may end up speaking in front of empty chairs.

Updated: September 21, 2021, 1:57 PM