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

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Last year no leaders came. This year will be quite different — sort of.

With the novel 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-19-inflected, semi-locked down affair that takes place in one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit cities.

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 are 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 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has pointed to many other signs of a more chaotic, insecure, and dangerous world – rising poverty and hunger; technologicsl 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 UN 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 per cent 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 today and end September 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 novel coronavirus 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, UN 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”.

“For leaders from poorer countries, this is also a rare opportunity to speak publicly about the ongoing aftershocks of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s also, frankly, quite fun to come to New York. A lot of these leaders have been stuck in their capitals.”

After four years of Donald Trump representing the United States at the meetings, this week will see Joe Biden make his first appearance as president at Tuesday’s opening of the General Debate. Gowan said, “The really significant question is exactly how he frames relations with China.”

The pandemic is not only something for world leaders to discuss, but also for them to deal with on the ground. A key issue ahead of the meetings has been COVID-19 entry requirements for leaders to the United States — and to the UN headquarters itself.

By tradition, the first speaker after the secretary general delivers his state of the world report is Brazil. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, who isn’t vaccinated, reiterated last Thursday he doesn’t plan to get the shot any time soon. Bolsonaro’s justification – he had COVID-19 and thus, he says, he has a high level of antibodies.

Entering the United States requires a vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, but New York City has a vaccination requirement for convention centres, and it considers the General Assembly hall — which isn’t technically US soil — to be one of those.

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