Last year, there were no leaders at all. This year is going to be a little different. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in many regions of the world, leaders from more than 100 countries are convening in New York this week for the UN’s annual high-level gathering – a COVID-inflected, semi-locked-down affair taking place in one of the pandemic’s hardest-hit cities. It will be a departure from the General Assembly’s last in-person gathering in 2019, as well as from last year’s all-virtual version.
The grave issues they face, ranging from a rising climate disaster and significant vaccination disparities to Afghanistan’s future under new Taliban overlords and worsening conflicts in Myanmar and Ethiopia’s Tigray area, are enough to worry anyone in charge of a country.
Many other signs of a more chaotic, insecure, and dangerous world have been identified by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, including rising poverty and hunger, technological advancements “without guardrails” such as lethal autonomous weapons, the risks of climate breakdown and nuclear war, and growing inequality, discrimination, and injustice driving people to the streets to protest while conspiracy theories and lies fuel deep divisions within societies.
The United Nations Secretary-General continues stressing that the world is at a “pivotal moment” and that it must shift gears to “a greener and a safer world.” To do so, leaders must give multilateralism “teeth,” beginning with a coordinated effort to reverse the worldwide failure to combat COVID-19 in 2020 and ensure that 70% of the world’s population is vaccinated by the first half of 2022.
However, as is often the case with the UN, it remains to be seen whether the high-level sessions, which begin Monday and end Sept. 27, will result in meaningful progress.
Despite the pandemic, more than 100 heads of state and government and more than two dozen ministers opted to attend New York this year after COVID-19 forced them to deliver distant, pre-recorded statements at last year’s gathering. This represents the UN’s unique function as a global town square for all 193 member countries, no matter how small or large, powerful or weak.
The General Debate, the assembly’s annual gathering of world leaders, has always been a place where presidents, prime ministers, monarchs, and other top officials can meet in public or private meetings and receptions, as well as over lunches and dinners, to discuss local, regional, and global issues. In other words, it creates a location for diplomats to do sensitive business face to face, which is deemed significantly more productive than virtual meetings on the internet.
The pandemic is not only something for world leaders to consider but also something for them to deal with on the ground: COVID-19 admission procedures for leaders to the United States and to the United Nations have been a crucial problem ahead of the meetings. Its own headquarters.
In a statement dated Thursday, Assembly President Abdulla Shahid stated that the U.N. is solely based on the honor system. That means no New York City cops will be screening persons entering the United Nations. headquarters.
Many diplomats said they’ll be paying particular attention to the final scheduled speakers on the final day, Sept. 27, because each has a controversial topic to discuss.