A divided world before the UN General Assembly: What can we expect from the meeting?

Like every year when September arrives, world leaders gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to celebrate the General Assembly.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
18 September 2023 Monday 16:25
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A divided world before the UN General Assembly: What can we expect from the meeting?

Like every year when September arrives, world leaders gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to celebrate the General Assembly. At this year's meeting, representatives from more than 140 countries will discuss the main problems affecting the world at a time of special division between the Global South and Western countries. Developing countries believe that the war in Ukraine is neglecting vital issues such as rising food prices and the climate crisis. On the other hand, Kyiv and its allies come to the meeting with the aim of convincing them that the Russian invasion and issues such as food insecurity are related and to take a less neutral stance towards the conflict.

While the effectiveness of the United Nations has often been questioned, the benefits of attending the General Assembly are great. From the stand, countries broadcast their agendas, complaints and calls to action to the entire world and to have them permanently recorded. This week is a key opportunity for countries often drowning in debt to capture the attention of a broader audience. It is also an opportunity for leaders to participate in meetings outside the general debate on neutral territory such as that of the UN.

However, setting the agenda of priorities is key and this year the unanimity of the hardest years of the pandemic is behind us, and the war in Ukraine is the reason. Both the West and Kyiv are aware that they need to reframe their argument to the Global South, where many countries have not condemned the Russian invasion and would prefer the war to end, even if it means Ukraine cedes territory. The Western powers want to make it clear that the war is not only a matter of European security but an economic crisis that affects the entire world. The problem is that many leaders want the meeting to focus more on the climate crisis and their economic difficulties.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday called on countries that signed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to redouble their efforts to achieve the agreed goals to end extreme poverty and address the climate crisis by 2030. Guterres recognized that, at the halfway point between the formulation of the SDGs in 2015 and their ideal date to achieve them, 2030, only 15% are on track to be achieved.

For the first time, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, will speak in person at the Assembly. A year ago, he received exceptional authorization to intervene via video message. "For us it is very important that our words, all our messages, are heard by our partners," he said Monday in New York. Since the Russian invasion, an overwhelming majority of countries have adopted several resolutions in the General Assembly supporting Ukraine. But after a year and a half of war and the global impact of the conflict, certain countries are advocating for a diplomatic solution. In this context, we will have to closely follow the intervention on the podium of the Brazilian president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, one of the most skeptical leaders regarding the conflict, and the meeting that he will have on Wednesday with Zelensky himself. Unlike several Western powers, Brazil has never imposed financial sanctions on Russia or agreed to supply munitions to Kyiv.

Given the prominence of the Ukrainian conflict, we will also have to pay attention to the intervention of the head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, as well as that of his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

As is tradition, the Brazilian, Luiz Inazio Lula da Silva will be the first head of state to speak before the Assembly. He will be followed by US President Joe Biden, as host of the event, and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is trying to revive the agreement on Ukrainian grain exports through the Black Sea.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raïssi will take the podium this Tuesday, a day after the success of a rare prisoner exchange between his country and the United States was revealed within the framework of an agreement that includes the transfer of 6 billion to Tehran of dollars of frozen funds.

Apart from the United States, no other permanent members of the Security Council (France, United Kingdom, China, Russia) will be represented at the highest level during this annual mass. Traditionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin has declined to attend the meeting and usually sends Lavrov to represent him. However, French President Emmanuel Macron is a regular attendee and this would have been British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's first opportunity to address the General Assembly. Macron cited the imminent visit of King Charles III to Paris, while Sunak has excused himself citing his busy schedule. Leaders of other major countries, including India (which just hosted the G20 summit in New Delhi this month) and Mexico, will also send ministers in their place.