Seven things to look out for at this year’s UN assembly

Biden’s UN address, vaccinating diplomats and the Taliban’s envoy — 'The National' breaks down everything you need to know about UNGA

US President Joe Biden and scores of other world leaders are braving the Covid-19 danger and heading to New York to deliver their speeches at the UN General Assembly in person this year.

The National highlights the key issues to watch for during the toughest week in global diplomacy.

1. South Korea's BTS rally for UN targets

Move over Mr Biden - the real stars of this UN General Assembly have already danced and sang their way through the UN's domed meeting place.

South Korean seven-piece boy band BTS broadcast from UN headquarters on Monday, promoting global goals tackling poverty, inequality, injustice and climate change as world leaders headed to New York.

The group filmed a music video for their song Permission to Dance at the UN at the weekend, dancing through the General Assembly Hall and out into the gardens. It quickly garnered a few million views on social media.

2. Joe Biden tries to salvage America’s battered reputation

President Biden’s first speech as US leader to the UN General Assembly comes only weeks after Washington’s ignominious retreat from Afghanistan as the Taliban swept back to power.

Mr Biden is a multilateralist supporter of UN-style diplomacy. His speech on Tuesday will probably contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” rhetoric and try to reassert US leadership.

Still, US allies were shocked by how sharply Mr Biden pulled the plug on their joint military enterprise in Afghanistan and have big qualms about US leadership. All the while, China grows richer and mightier.

A US-led conference on sharing Covid-19 vaccines on September 22 may burnish Washington’s credentials, but Mr Biden still has a diplomatic mountain to climb in New York.

“Trump took a vicious line towards China and attacked its trade policies,” said Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the International Crisis Group think tank.

“Biden won’t be as nasty towards Beijing. But I think we probably will hear the president … talk about the need to protect a rules-based world order led by the US against Chinese competition.”

3. Embattled UN buoyed by opinion poll findings

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is struggling to keep a divided world on track to tackle climate change and the coronavirus pandemic — but a new poll suggests people broadly support his leadership of the world body.

A Pew Research survey found last week that about two thirds of people in wealthier nations in North America, Europe and Asia view the organisation favourably.

UN spokeswoman Melissa Fleming called the results “encouraging".

4. Could the real Afghan and Myanmar envoys please stand up?

The Taliban’s rapid return to power last month in Afghanistan and the military coup in Myanmar in February have far-reaching consequences for those two countries.

They also pose a troubling question at the coming General Assembly: Who is the correct representative for each nation?

Both UN members have ambassadors in place at UN headquarters in New York. But Myanmar’s envoy Kyaw Moe Tun openly defies the junta that seized power back home, and Afghanistan’s envoy Ghulam Isaczai likewise abhors the Taliban.

Myanmar’s new military rulers have tried to replace Mr Kyaw Moe Tun and there has even been a plot to kill him. The Taliban are expected to send their own envoy to New York once they have consolidated a government in Kabul.

A UN committee is in charge of deciding the rightful envoy for a UN member. But time is short, and it may not be clear who speaks for Myanmar and Afghanistan until it is their turn at the podium on September 27.

5. Vaccination frustration

The UNGA was scaled back this year for fear of becoming a Covid-19 superspreader event. Still, dozens of leaders are headed to Manhattan and even with trimmed down entourages, this adds up lots of officials from the world’s four corners crammed into a big hall.

Under UN rules, participants must vouch that they are vaccinated or recently tested and infection-free when they enter the headquarters building. Everyone must wear masks under the General Assembly hall's golden dome.

But, in true UN fashion, divisions have developed in recent days. New York officials, who host the world body, say participants must be vaccinated. Their call for vaccinations was endorsed by the UN’s new General Assembly president, Abdulla Shahid.

But naysayers have blasted the vaccine demand. Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said it was a “clearly discriminatory” infringement of nations’ rights at the UN — which is supposed to follow internationally agreed upon rules, not those imposed by US officials.

6. How to keep your foreign minister busy at a scaled-back UNGA

Lana Nusseibeh, the UAE’s Ambassador to the UN, and other New York-based envoys have a problem for this year’s UNGA ⁠– keeping their presidents, prime ministers and ministers occupied at the week-long diplomatic jamboree.

On a normal year, UN headquarters and the surrounding streets are bustling with side events, conferences and bilateral sit-downs as huge entourages of officials snake their way through endless security checkpoints.

But the second UNGA during the coronavirus pandemic will have fewer in-person events and fewer officials travelling to New York. For Ms Nusseibeh and others responsible for planning their boss’s itineraries, this is a headache.

UN envoys “are stressing currently about the high-level week that is about to start, and the delegations of heads of states and foreign ministers who are about to arrive, and potentially the lack of meetings they have to send them to,” Ms Nusseibeh said this week.

“We're all going through a little bit of stress thinking about their schedules.”

7. UK's Johnson seeks pledges in run-up to Glasgow climate talks

To put it mildly, global efforts to cut emissions of planet-heating gases are not going well.

World leaders have agreed to keep temperature rise below 1.5°C against pre-industrial levels, but none of the big world economies has cut back on carbon enough to make this anywhere close to a realistic outcome.

The responsibility for fixing this currently lies with the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will host a climate summit in Glasgow in November that is, for many activists, the last chance to put global efforts on the right track.

Mr Johnson and Mr Guterres will gather with about three dozen world leaders on Monday, hoping to raise ambitions for scrapping coal and other dirty fuels at the coming talks in Scotland.

Speaking on background with reporters, a UN climate official said it would be a “frank, closed-door discussion” where the UN chief would “raise the alarm” and demand not only long-term pledges but also near-term plans for cutting carbon drastically.

Updated: September 20th 2021, 5:08 PM
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