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As leaders reconvene at UN, climate and COVID top the list

UNITED NATIONS, (The Southern African Times) – Last year, no leaders came at all. This year will be quite different — sort of. 

With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, leaders from more than 100 nations are heading to New York this week for the United Nations’ annual high-level gathering — a COVID-inflected, semi-locked down affair that takes place in one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit cities of all. It will be a departure from the last in-person meeting of the General Assembly in 2019 — and far different, too, from last year’s all-virtual version.

Awaiting them: daunting challenges enough to scare anyone who runs a country, from an escalating climate crisis and severe vaccine inequities to Afghanistan’s future under its new Taliban rulers and worsening conflicts in Myanmar and the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed to many other signs of a more chaotic, insecure and dangerous world: rising poverty and hunger; technology’s advances “without guard rails” like lethal autonomous weapons; the risks of climate breakdown and nuclear war; and growing inequality, discrimination and injustice bringing people into the streets to protest “while conspiracy theories and lies fuel deep divisions within societies.”

The U.N. chief keeps repeating that the world is at “a pivotal moment” and must shift gears to “a greener and safer world.” To do that, leaders need to give multilateralism “teeth,” starting with joint action to reverse the global failure to tackle COVID-19 in 2020 and to ensure that 70% of the world’s population is vaccinated in the first half of 2022.

But as is often true with the United Nations, it remains to be seen whether the high-level meetings, which start Monday and end Sept. 27, make actual progress.

After COVID-19 forced leaders to deliver remote, pre-recorded speeches at last year’s meeting, more than 100 heads of state and government and more than two dozen ministers decided to come to New York this year despite the pandemic. That reflects the United Nations’ unique role as a global town square for all 193 member countries, whether tiny or vast, weak or powerful.

The assembly’s annual gathering of world leaders — called the General Debate — has always been a place where presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and other top officials can discuss local, regional and global concerns at public or private meetings and receptions, and over lunches and dinners. In other words, it creates a space to carry out the delicate business of diplomacy face to face, considered far more productive than virtual meetings online.

Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, said the General Assembly’s first in-person meeting since the pandemic began — though about 60 leaders have opted to deliver pre-recorded speeches — is not only symbolic but an opportunity to “show that international cooperation matters.”

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