Under-pressure and missing leaders create disjointed feel at UN showpiece

Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are facing domestic challenges, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are absent

TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, September 24, 2019. / AFP / Ludovic MARIN
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With the complex problems facing the world – from the protracted conflicts in Syria and Libya to the concerns about climate change reaching a point of no return – it would be naive to expect a week of meetings to effect immediate change.

However, this year’s UN General Assembly week of high-level meetings was even more disjointed.

Take the Permanent Members of the Security Council, two members’ leaders (US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson) are facing major domestic woes, two members’ leaders are absent (China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin) and France’s Emmanuel Macron is trying his best to play an almost impossible diplomatic role in bringing President Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to a meeting – without much success.

Rather, Mr Trump used his address to the General Assembly to accuse Iran of being the “world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”, and Iranian President Rouhani claimed the US was conducting “economic terrorism” against his country.

The two talked over each other, rather than finding a way to communicate.

Halfway through the General Assembly week of high-level debate, what is clear is that nationalism is on the rise and multilateralism continues to face serious challenges. And yet, hope remains.

While fiery statements and speeches may capture attention, important diplomatic work continues behind the scenes. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals continue to provide a framework for possible co-operation between nations, but also on individual national agendas. The first High Level Dialogue on Financing for Development will convene today to bring the public and private sectors together to announce initiatives for the financing of sustainable development. This meeting will seek to push forward the sustainable development agenda that has been overshadowed by politics in countries such as the US and developments like the attacks on Saudi Aramco on September 14.

The challenge for the organisers will be to cut through the noise and ensure today’s meeting gets the attention it deserves.

And there is much noise in New York, making a serious dialogue on long-term development quite difficult – both figuratively and in reality. Every now and then, in addition to the noise generated by police sirens and honking horns of frustrated cab drivers, the chants of passionate protesters rise up.

From a handful of protesters carrying handwritten signs against the Bolivian President Evo Morales, to organised demonstrators against the Iranian regime who year after year congregate outside UN headquarters on 1st Avenue. These demonstrations have become part of the fabric of UNGA week, but seem to have gathered pace this year. There is even a designated spot for them, with police officers protecting their right to demand change.

And still, most UN delegates rush past them to their next meeting, while New Yorkers walk past without engaging, as they do through most of this UNGA week.