The Russia-Ukraine war, the Iranian nuclear deal, and climate change are likely to dominate debate at the first in-person annual United Nations General Assembly (GA) meetings that kicked off on Tuesday after the lifting of strict Covid-19 restrictions. The theme of the 77th meetings are “a watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenges.”
“The General Assembly is meeting at a time of great peril,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a news conference last week. “Our world is blighted by war, battered by climate chaos, scarred by hate, and shamed by poverty, hunger, and inequality.”
Guterres said that this year’s theme stems from the recognition that the world is at a critical moment in its history due to complex and interconnected crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, humanitarian challenges of an unprecedented nature, a tipping point in climate change, and growing concerns about threats to the global economy.
He added that the gathering of world leaders in New York must provide hope through dialogue, debate, and concrete plans to overcome divisions and crises.
However, even Guterres had little hope that an immediate solution could be found for the Russia-Ukraine war that is taking place in the European heartland but has caused tremendous harm worldwide, particularly in poor and developing nations as the prices of food and energy have soared to the highest levels in years.
When asked about the possibility of brokering a peace deal that would bring an end to the seven-month war between Russia and Ukraine, Guterres said it was important to be realistic. “It would be naïve to think that we are close… My good offices are ready, but I have no illusions that, at the present moment, the chances of a peace deal are not minimal,” he said.
Reducing hopes that meetings could be held on the sidelines of the UN’s annual high-level diplomatic event, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not be attending, along with the leaders of China and India.
The war in Ukraine and rising tensions between the US and China over Taiwan have polarised the world order in ways not seen since the Cold War, diminishing hopes that diplomatic meetings such as the GA could truly reach solutions to world crises. About 157 heads of state and representatives of governments planned to deliver speeches from Tuesday to Sunday in New York.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine will address the Assembly in a prerecorded video speech. The GA voted on Friday to grant him an exemption to the rule mandating that all speeches must be delivered in person this year.
US President Joe Biden, originally scheduled to deliver his speech at the opening of the GA General Debate on Tuesday as in previous years, was forced to delay his appearance by one day in order to attend the funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II in London on Monday.
The White House said Biden’s speech, delivered as Al-Ahram Weekly went to print, would stress the importance of building a world alliance to confront the most pressing global challenges.
He would also call for unity in support of Ukraine as it seeks to defeat Russian troops, push for world leaders to continue diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and seek to work together to counter the economic and military rise of China.
The Western countries are expected to use the GA to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and present it as an attack on world order, international law, and the principles of the UN Charter, which prohibits aggression against an independent and sovereign state.
However, they will face pushback from leaders of the developing world in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East who have grown weary of how the conflict has deflected attention from some of the major crises these regions are facing, from climate change to food insecurity and humanitarian suffering.
“We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, acknowledging that other countries have expressed concerns about Ukraine dominating the week in New York. She added that to address those concerns leaders would also remain focused on food insecurity, health and the climate.
In typically uncompromising language during his news conference last week, Guterres had lambasted the global response to the climate crisis as inadequate, unjust, and, at its heart, a betrayal. “Whether it’s Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, small islands or Least Developed Countries, the world’s most vulnerable – who did nothing to cause this crisis – are paying a horrific price for decades of intransigence by big emitters,” he said.
Targeting the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations, he reminded them that they are responsible for the vast majority of climate-related emissions and, even though they are also heavily impacted by record droughts, fires and floods, climate action in response appears to be on life-support.
Guterres slammed the actions of populist politicians who were showing “a shocking disregard for the poorest and most vulnerable in our world,” pitting people against one another, employing discrimination, misinformation, and hate speech.
The UN gathering this week will also bring Iran, the US and other parties under the same roof after five months of fruitless negotiations to reinstate the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
But the chance of a formal meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to reignite negotiations is minimal, according to US officials and Iranian and European diplomats.
Both Iran and the West plan to make a case to the world in New York that the other side is to blame and must make concessions. Iran and the US have failed to agree on the “final text” of an agreement offered by the EU, leaving the talks stalled.
The Biden administration will argue that Tehran is to blame for the impasse in the talks to contain its nuclear programme, saying it is making new demands beyond the scope of the deal. Iran will argue that the US is not demonstrating good faith and providing the guarantees that would make the deal worthwhile.
France’s Ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Rivière, said that members of Europe’s negotiating team plan to capitalise on the GA to “push very hard for full resumption of the deal and encourage the parties to compromise, especially Iran.”
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, will be in New York on his first appearance at the UN General Assembly since taking office, along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. They are expected to hold meetings with their bilateral counterparts on the nuclear deal except for those from the US.
Former US president Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018 despite Iran’s compliance and, as part of his “maximum pressure policy,” reimposed sanctions on Iran that targeted oil sales and financial transactions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.