US President Joe Biden and dozens of other world leaders were headed to New York on Monday for an annual UN gathering dominated by fears of climate change, Covid-19, the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, and Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers.
Mr Biden will address the UN for the first time as US president on Tuesday in a speech that asserts American leadership on cutting emissions of planet-heating gases and bringing more coronavirus vaccines to the developing world.
His tone will doubtless differ sharply from his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, but other leaders in the UN hall will be mindful of the chaotic US pullout from Afghanistan last month and China’s growing economic and military clout.
Other highly anticipated speakers on Tuesday include Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, French President Emmanuel Macron and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi.
Over the course of the week, more than 100 world leaders are expected to address the assembly hall in person and take part in bilateral meetings and a host of side-events on everything from Covid-19 vaccines and climate change to conflicts in Libya and Yemen.
Amid concerns that the assembly would become a Covid-19 superspreader event, the UN urged governments to limit the size of their diplomatic entourages, ensure all attendees in their delegations wear masks and self-certify that they have been vaccinated or are virus-free.
Many leaders have decided to stay home and send pre-recorded videos.
Kicking off the week on Monday, the seven-member K-pop boy band BTS appeared at UN headquarters to drum up support for the Sustainable Development Goals — UN benchmarks on which the world has fallen increasingly behind.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres later hosted a meeting of some three dozen leaders to raise ambitions on tackling climate change before a key summit in Glasgow in November.
After the meeting, Mr Guterres said that mankind was badly off track in efforts to keep global temperature rises below the agreed upon 1.5°C and that the “world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7°C of heating”.
The 1.5°C goal was “still in reach”, he added, but required countries to cut heat-trapping gas emissions even further while sending more assistance to poor countries trying to adapt to a hotter planet and stave off the worsening impacts of drought, fires and storms.
Speaking with The National before the UN’s high-level week, Francesco Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), urged leaders in Manhattan to work for the collective good rather than play to their home crowds.
“This is not about taking only the interests of their own countries, it is about taking care of the world, and the fragility and the desperation of the most exposed and the most poor,” Mr Rocca told The National.