UN assembly opens amid widening crises

UN assembly opens amid widening crises

Presidents, prime ministers, kings and potentates are converging on New York for the opening session of the UN General Assembly. The 78th annual assembly of the world organisation presents both a global gala and expanded summit meeting to try to solve a myriad of crises facing the international community.

While the ongoing war in Ukraine takes centre stage among the 193 assembled UN members, so will solving the challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a 17-point mantra for countries ranging from no hunger, clean water, quality education and zero poverty. As the UN says, "ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that build economic growth".

Realistically, the SDGs are probably only partially attainable given the worsening civil conflicts and humanitarian challenges worldwide.

Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago has been elected as President of the 78th Assembly. His slogan "Peace, Prosperity, Progress and Sustainability" encompasses the goal and spirit.

Actually, this session is the first fully-fledged assembly since the pandemic; 145 world leaders will arrive along with an expected 15,000 diplomats, delegates and staff. Opening day of the General Debate on Sept 19 sees the first speaker, by tradition, being the president of Brazil, then the US, and others such as Turkey, Ukraine and the Islamic Republic of Iran while the Thai leader's schedule is set for Sept 22.

Interestingly China, France, Russia and the UK are not sending their presidents or prime ministers. Obviously, Russia's Vladimir Putin fears arrest while on American soil, China's Xi Jinping appears preoccupied with domestic economic and political concerns. The United Kingdom's Rishi Sunak is not expected to attend either.

France's Emmanuel Macron shall not attend; he's hosting Britain's King Charles III on his delayed visit to Paris. Moreover, the time slot for France to speak is late in the day on a Saturday.

Despite the shifting schedules, the fact remains that of the five Permanent Security Council members, only the United States will be represented by the head of government, Joe Biden.

A growing list of humanitarian crises confronts the assembled delegates as natural disasters, such as earthquakes in Turkey and recently in Morocco, compete for funds and attention from long-running civil conflicts in Syria, Libya and Ethiopia.

Without question, Russia's war in Ukraine remains the biggest global flashpoint; we are probably tiptoeing around some sort of nuclear confrontation more than we wish to believe.

Though most member states rightfully condemn Russia's aggression in Ukraine, where are the calls for peace? During almost any war, diplomatic trial balloons and peace plans are floated to try to solve the conflict, even during the fighting.

The signature general debate session offers a week-long talk fest where presidents and prime ministers grandly state their country's vision and viewpoint on varied world crises.

Sadly, there's little oratory but instead political palaver and rote rhetoric. Usually, by the second day of "debate" the droning speeches inside the cavernous Assembly Hall often create a torpid boredom.

Naturally, there's an element of time-tested ritual during the general debate where UN protocol usually flawlessly choreographs what emerges as a diplomatic dance where all the partners, players and estranged participants seem to be on-site and on cue not only for their formal speeches but more significantly for the sideline "bilateral" meetings either one on one or with allied groups -- Association of Southeast Asian Nations, European Union, African Union, to name but a few.

But beyond the high-level week, the assembly then sets into a laborious routine covering 172 agenda items like maintenance of peace and security, promotion of human rights, disarmament and international law. Specific issues like the question of Palestine, the situation in Afghanistan, the situation of democracy and human rights in Haiti are among the items.

Overall, a disproportionate number of agenda items for debate concern and criticize Israel. Yet, practically speaking, there's discussion and action on programme budgets for various UN operations and financing for the myriad of global peacekeeping missions.

Thus the UN complex on the East River becomes the undisputed centre for global diplomacy for a few weeks each year. Adrenaline, anticipation and caffeine move the process sometimes long into the night. So does hope.

John J Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defence issues. He is the author of 'Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China.'

Do you like the content of this article?