The annual gathering of leaders at the U.N. General Assembly is taking place this year in the shadow of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral and as the war in Ukraine heads into a possibly decisive period.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is skipping the Queen’s funeral to remain in New York to oversee an Education Summit on Monday. He will then participate in the opening of the annual debate Tuesday morning, telling reporters it would be “inconceivable” that he would miss it.
U.S. President Joe Biden as host country leader would traditionally be the second head of state to address the assembly Tuesday, but as he will be attending Elizabeth’s funeral Monday, U.S. officials say his speech will now shift to Wednesday.
Neither Russian President Vladimir Putin nor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be coming to New York, but despite this, their conflict will dominate the agenda.
“I think that Joe Biden and other Western leaders will use this as an opportunity to simply hammer home their anger with Russia over this war,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group, told VOA.
He said Western leaders will also be seeking to shore up support from some non-Western countries they feel are trying to avoid taking sides or criticizing Russia.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters Friday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “tests the fundamental principles that the U.N. was founded on.” She urged the international community not to abandon those values.
“We must double down on our commitment to a peaceful world and hold even closer our deeply held principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, peace and security,” she said.
“And that’s why next week is so critical. We believe this is a moment to defend the United Nations and to demonstrate to the world that it can still take the world’s most pressing global challenges on.”
On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council will hold a ministerial level meeting on the situation; it could see some heated exchanges between Russian and Western officials. There will also be a separate side event that day on accountability for war crimes committed in Ukraine.
But despite what will be many meetings and events about the conflict, even the secretary-general is not optimistic that there will be the opportunity for any ground-breaking diplomacy on the sidelines of the annual debate.
“My good offices are ready, but I have no illusions … at the present moment, the chances of a peace deal are minimal,” he told reporters Wednesday.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven up global food, fertilizer and fuel prices, pushing fragile countries closer to the brink.
World Food Program Chief David Beasley warns that in 82 countries, as many as 345 million people are acutely food insecure, or “marching toward starvation.”
Somalia is one of the worst off.
Four failed rainy seasons have led to unprecedented drought. Eight million people could soon face famine if October’s rains fail as forecast.
“In total, 300,000 people are expected to be in IPC 5 conditions between October and December,” the Food and Agriculture Organization’s chief economist, Maximo Torero, told U.N. Security Council members Thursday.
IPC 5 is the humanitarian classification for famine.
In 2011-12 more than 250,000 Somalis died from famine. In 2016, there were fears that would be repeated, but international donors rallied to prevent the worst outcome.
Today, leaders know they need to act and do so quickly.
Somalia has sent its special envoy for drought response to New York to muster international support.
“Food is available inside the country — what we need is cash,” Abdirahman Abdishakur told VOA.
He warns that if a scaled-up humanitarian response does not happen in the next few weeks, people will die.
“The famine is real — it is happening,” he said.
On Wednesday, there will be a high-level meeting on responding to urgent needs in the Horn of Africa.
As for rising global food prices, the United States, the African Union, European Union and Spain will co-chair a food security summit Tuesday.
“It is bringing both the South as well as countries — developing countries and donor countries — together in the room to address these issues and how we move forward,” Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said. “So that we can avoid the crisis that we are actually experiencing right now and see if we can make the situation better in the coming months.”
Improving market supply
The United Nations is counting on a package deal it has brokered with the help of Turkey and agreed by Ukraine and Russia, to put more grain on the global market and lower food prices.
The deal, signed July 22 in Istanbul, allows Ukrainian grain exports out of its Black Sea ports that Russia had blockaded. A separate agreement seeks to remove obstacles to get Russian fertilizer and food exports to world markets. Although not under Western sanctions, some shippers and insurers have been reluctant to do business with Russian companies for fear of running afoul of other sanctions targeting Moscow.
So far, more than 3 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain has gotten to markets in more than 30 countries via the deal, leading to a drop in food prices.
“Prices at the international level have gone down, but it is true that prices at the domestic level have not yet seen the decrease that we have seen in the international market,” said U.N. Conference on Trade and Development chief Rebeca Grynspan, who helped negotiate the deal.
She is also working to get more Russian fertilizer to markets, to ease prices, which she says are currently three times more than they were before the pandemic. If farmers cannot afford fertilizer, their crop yields could shrink, leading to food shortages next year.
“Fertilizer is a very important part of this deal,” Grynspan said.
Multitude of crises
While Ukraine may monopolize the spotlight during the high-level week, there is no shortage of other pressing issues, crises and conflicts for leaders to discuss.
Many will come up in bilateral meetings among top leaders. Others will get a broader setting.
Ahead of the general debate, Secretary-General Guterres is convening an education summit to address the massive disruption caused to schooling by the pandemic. The U.N. says 244 million young people worldwide are still out of school.
A new report from the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, estimates that only a third of 10-year-olds worldwide can read and understand a simple written story. That is half what it was pre-pandemic.
This is the first year leaders will meet again in New York in person in large numbers since the pandemic began in 2020, and while COVID-19 will not be in the spotlight, pandemic recovery will be part of economic and health discussions.
As will the climate crisis.
The U.N. chief just returned from Pakistan, where deadly floods have submerged one-third of the country.
“What is happening in Pakistan demonstrates the sheer inadequacy of the global response to the climate crisis, and the betrayal and injustice at the heart of it,” he told reporters.
He will use his platform to press for more investments for climate adaptation and mitigation for the poorest countries, which have contributed the least to climate change.