UNGA 2020: 5 things to watch for at the annual UN meeting

This year's general assembly will be unlike any other, with world leaders opting to stay home

In a time of closures, the United Nations General Assembly will still forge ahead with its annual meeting, but under a set of unprecedented protocols that were implemented to protect participants from the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual meeting of the UN decision-making body will go digital for the first time ever, as world leaders deliver their speeches online and vote through a new "silent voting" protocol.

With the UNGA already under way, The National highlights five key things to watch for.

1. What is lost in going digital?

The United Nations General Assembly typically sees more than 100 world leaders descend on New York to mingle, negotiate and problem-solve.

This year, with the majority of world leaders opting to deliver a video address, there will be less opportunity for chance meetings in the hallways of the UN headquarters in Manhattan and for unscripted dialogue and sidebar conversations that stray from the official agenda.

“There is a huge loss in the efficiency of diplomacy,” said UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in an interview with Ian Bremmer.

“It’s much easier to do diplomacy and it’s much easier to solve conflicts when you are able to physically contact people and to put everybody together in the same room.”

Finding solutions to global conflicts under the current circumstances is “much more complex, it’s much more difficult”, Mr Gutterres said.

World leaders have the option to attend the event in person, and are also permitted to send a New York-based representative to the assembly hall, but the hustle of a standard general assembly will be minimised this year by low attendance and physical distancing measures.

Opening of 75th session of General Assembly
A wide view of the General Assembly Hall as Volkan Bozkir (left at dais and on screens), President of the seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, chairs the 1st plenary meeting of the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly. At right at dais is Secretary-General António Guterres.
15 September 2020. UN Photo/Evan Schneider

2. International day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons

The General Assembly will hold a meeting on October 2 to mark the international day for the total elimination of nuclear weapons. The session will bring world leaders together to resume discussions and negotiations on nuclear arms control and disarmament.

With the US and Russia possessing roughly 90 per cent of the global nuclear stockpile, their attendance will be expected.

UN member states will be listening closely to Mr Trump’s comments on the subject, as he is currently entangled in negotiations with the UN and Iran over sanctions related to the Iran nuclear deal – which Mr Trump withdrew from in 2018.

The US said this week that it plans to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran, which was set to expire in October under the 2015 nuclear deal.

The other parties to the deal – Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – and most of the UN Security Council have said that since the US is no longer a party to the deal, they cannot reimpose the UN sanctions.

The UNGA will be a well-timed meeting for the US, Iran and other parties to address the conditions and fallout of the Iran nuclear deal.

3. Sustainable development goals

A key point on the UNGA agenda this year will be the environment, with a focus on the 17 sustainable developments goals that were adopted by the UN member states in 2015.

The ambitious goals range from ending poverty to improving health services for all. The deadline for UN member states to implement the goals is 2030. But, with coronavirus pandemic overwhelming government resources, critics say progress on achieving the goals has slowed, while simultaneously underlining the importance of solving the issues that heighten the effects of the pandemic, such as climate change and poverty.

“I am extremely concerned. Covid-19 is a threat multiplier. We have a health emergency, a humanitarian emergency and now a development emergency. These emergencies are compounding existing inequalities,” said Amina Mohammed, the UN Deputy Secretary General.

The World Food Programme announced this week that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic is expected to push 14 million more people in the Middle East below the poverty line. Unemployment is forecast to rise in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iran. And the pandemic is exacerbating currency devaluation in Lebanon and Syria.

“There is no choice here. We cannot afford to go back to the world we had before this crisis,” said Ms Mohammed.

In response to critics who say the timeline for the sustainable development goals is unrealistic, Ms Mohammed said, “This crisis has already demonstrated that massive change can be brought about if there is political will and unity of purpose.”

In line with the sustainable development goals, the decline of Earth’s biodiversity will be a central topic at this year’s UNGA.

The UN has warned that over one million species are at risk of extinction, two billion hectares of land are currently degraded and 66 per cent of oceans, 50 per cent of coral reefs and 85 per cent of wetlands have been significantly and negatively altered by human activity.

A day of virtual meetings will be held on September 30 to address the urgent need for biodiversity solutions.

4. Middle East peace and security

A number of sessions are scheduled to specifically address some of the current challenges in the Middle East, with Yemen, Lebanon and Libya all on the agenda.

On September 17, Kuwait, Germany, Sweden and the UK co-hosted a session on Yemen to discuss the urgent need for political progress. Yemen, Middle East’s poorest country, has been devastated by years of war and famine. And the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted its inadequate and crumbling health system.

A joint statement released after the meeting stressed the need for military de-escalation and stable governance. The group agreed to meet again in six months to assess progress.

On September 23, a session will be held to address the international community’s support for Lebanon, and to encourage Lebanese politicians to swiftly form an effective and credible government that is “able to meet the legitimate aspirations and needs expressed by the Lebanese people”.

Lebanon is teetering on the edge of several disasters, with a severe economic crisis, a capital devastated by a deadly explosion, health systems that struggle to manage coronavirus outbreaks, and a state that has failed to form a new government in time to meet the deadline imposed by Emmanuel Macron, a key step towards unlocking billions of dollars of international investment and aid.

On October 5, a Libya-focused session will be held to follow-up on the Berlin Conference, which brought 11 nations together in January to address the ongoing civil war in the country. The UNGA meeting will assess progress on commitments made and identify gaps.

The January conference concluded with a pledge to end the flow of weapons into the North African nation and the establishment of a “five by five” military council to bring the Libyan National Army and Government of National Accord into joint discussions.

5. A quieter New York

The rush that usually happens in September in Manhattan will be quieted this year, as coffee shops see fewer diplomats, hotels see fewer bookings, and roads see fewer motorcades.

The annual general assembly brings world heavyweights into the heart of New York City, often to the frustration of local residents who endure road closures and traffic jams.

But this September, the streets of New York will see less action as the general assembly moves online and world leaders stay home to deliver their addresses.