World leaders gather ‘at time of great peril’ at UN

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New York
CNN
 — 

It took a Queen to shake up this year’s high-level week at the United Nations General Assembly – an annual whirlwind shindig known as UNGA that will begin on Tuesday.

The UN gang is finally getting back together in person, after three years of leaders speaking by video due to the global pandemic. But many leaders from the 193 UN member countries were in the United Kingdom for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday, forcing their missions to the UN to scramble to reschedule speeches and rendezvous.

Perhaps most prominent among the changes, US President Joe Biden will speak on Wednesday morning instead of taking America’s traditional second speaking slot after Brazil on Tuesday. Biden has also built in time for chats with country leaders in London, which may limit some discussions in Manhattan.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky will be the only world leader to speak by video, occupied as he is by the war in his country. The Assembly on Friday overrode Russian objections to permit Zelensky to speak virtually.

The invasion of UN member country Ukraine by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, could cast a shadow over the entire General Assembly:

“The General Assembly is meeting at a time of great peril,” UN Secretary-Antonio Guterres said at a press conference last week. “Geostrategic divides are the widest they have been since at least the Cold War. They are paralyzing the global response to the dramatic challenges we face.”

Don’t expect this year’s General Assembly to be “business as usual,” US Assistant Secretary for International Organization Affairs Michele Sison said on Friday. “Russia’s unprovoked, ongoing assault on Ukraine raises serious questions about its commitment to diplomacy, the UN Charter, and the territorial integrity of nations.”

Many UN diplomats say that Russia has put the UN’s credibility and image at stake this year by invading another UN country, with the UN unable to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop.

The great majority of UN membership strongly opposes Russia’s war in Ukraine. Expect Western countries to use their official speeches to bash Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will speak on Saturday, but no Western country has said if they have bilateral planned with the Russian visitor.

Others fear Russia’s war has displaced other issues of global importance, like the climate crisis. “This would have been a climate UNGA but Russia has taken care of that with its invasion of Ukraine,” one diplomat told CNN.

“It does occupy a lot of space,” said Stefan Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary General, during a press briefing on Monday. “Because we know that that the war in Ukraine is having a global impact, on food, on grain, on the energy crisis. It’s having a knock-on impact on the fight against climate change, where – because of the energy crisis – we see member states reverting back to polluting sources of energy.”

“It is however not stopping the Secretary General from raising all these other issues,” he added.

But the US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, emphasized the need to take a broad view, telling reporters on Friday that “next week will not be dominated by Ukraine, but we will not ignore Ukraine. We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world,” she added.

“A lot of leaders who feel [Russia’s war in Ukraine] is a distraction from problem in their own region,” International Crisis Group’s UN director Richard Gowan also said.

On Thursday morning, there will be a ministerial Security Council session on Thursday morning on Ukraine, with Lavrov the highest ranking member of the Russian government to attend.

Still, some may wish for fewer verbal attacks on Moscow, seven months into the conflict. One diplomat told CNN that poorer countries on the sidelines feel a calmer tone could assist in finding an end to the conflict – and need Russian oil or food supplies.

Food security is another major topic for the global forum, with the world economy hard-hit by the pandemic, inflation and struggling supply chains. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is expected to chair a meeting on food during the high level week.

“What we’re hoping to do is really bring the world together to address all of the issues related to food insecurity. So it’s bringing both the south as well as countries – developing countries and donor countries together in the room to address these issues,” said US Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield.

Still, it’s another year where citizens of the world may wonder what the UN really does, given the nightmare in Ukraine and low levels of donations from member countries towards other crises.

“The UN as an organization is not in position to deliver anymore because everything is upside down,” another UN diplomat said.

But at least it can put on a big show again, with many world leaders making their first appearance in several years. There will be hundreds of speeches, handshakes, parties and panels. An estimated 140 heads of state and government will attend. And chasing them will be hundreds of media members from around the world.

As another diplomat put it, everyone is a “moving target” at UNGA.

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