The 78th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations opened in New York on 5 September, with its theme being “Rebuilding Trust and Reigniting Global Solidarity: Accelerating Action on the 2030 Agenda.”
The high-level General Debate is scheduled to take place from 19 to 23 September, as well as on 26 September.
Although the war in Ukraine and its political and economic impacts on the world as a whole will be amply debated, there are many countries from the Global South that want to see the 78th Session of the General Assembly devote time to reviewing the progress, or the lack of it, in implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as reviewing action on climate change and the financial resources needed to enable them to mitigate its growing negative and destabilising impacts on their economies and development plans.
A series of high-level meetings have been organised to discuss such major challenges facing the world. On 18-19 September a high-level political forum will be dedicated to sustainable development. Another significant meeting is the Climate Ambition Summit on 20 September convened by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
In the meantime, a preparatory ministerial meeting for the Summit of the Future that will be held in 2024 will take place on 21 September. On the same day, a high-level meeting on universal healthcare will be held. Last but not least, the existential question of the elimination of nuclear weapons will be discussed at a high-level plenary meeting on 26 September to commemorate the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
It is interesting to note that the UN this year has organised three high-level meetings concerning public health. One has already been referred to, and the other two cover the fight against tuberculosis (22 September) and pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response (20 September).
Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago has been elected president of the 78th Session of the UN General Assembly. In his remarks before the inaugural plenary session, he promised to work for a renewed atmosphere of conciliation, cooperation, and a shared commitment to addressing the many challenges to be discussed during this session.
Guterres released a “New Agenda for Peace” last June in which he expressed his strong belief in the UN’s role in helping member countries to address challenges such as climate change and the security risks associated with advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and other new technologies. He has called on the international community to face the “new generation” of global threats together, rather than to accept the decline of multilateralism as inevitable.
Because of the geopolitical rivalry among the great powers and the polarisation between the US and its allies and partners, on the one hand, and Russia, on the other, the UN in 2023 has centred its efforts on its indispensable humanitarian role in various hot spots around the world.
The role played by the UN in saving the Red Sea from an environmental disaster by siphoning more than one million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker off the Yemeni coast is a shining example of its capacities and dedication in carrying out its responsibilities according to the UN Charter. Also noteworthy was its success in raising the necessary funds to carry out this risky operation.
UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths has been what some think tanks, among them the international NGO the International Crisis Group, have described as the “UN’s point person” for dealing with major crises, conducting shuttle diplomacy on both the Black Sea Grain Initiative and Sudan’s Civil War, let alone the dire humanitarian situation in Sudan itself because of the military confrontation between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and a well-armed militia known as the Rapid Support Force (RSF).
The 78th Session of the UN General Assembly is convening at a time of great uncertainty and challenges that no nation or group of countries can tackle on its own. The international situation is imperiled by geopolitical rivalries that hamper the role of the UN in maintaining international peace and security, as well as its role, no less important, in promoting sustained international cooperation in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (the UN Development Agenda 2030) agreed in 2015.
In these times of heightened international tensions, the world badly needs both multilateralism and a strong United Nations.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly