World Leaders converge on UN headquarters: Five things to watch

Climate change, vaccine inequality, push for ‘multilateralism with teeth’ to dominate annual event.

A man passes with an umbrella in front of the United Nations Headquarters in New York [File: Mike Segar/The Associated Press]

More than 100 world leaders and heads of government were converging on the New York headquarters of the United Nations this week for days of events and speeches to mark the beginning of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.

The UN’s most prominent gathering – coming a year after it celebrated its 75th anniversary – began on Monday with high-level and bilateral meetings as well as a speech from South Korean supergroup BTS that drew a million viewers to its YouTube channel.

On Tuesday, nine days of the annual General Debate will begin. That will include opportunities for world leaders to address the wider international community, often with an eye to their home audience.

The gathering itself – a partial return to normalcy after the last year’s event were forced almost entirely online – reflects the reality of the world struggling to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.

With delegations limited in size, and at least 60 government heads still opting to deliver their speeches virtually, the event’s usual potential for sideline diplomacy is likely to remain hobbled, Alynna Lyon, a United Nations expert at the University of New Hampshire, told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and other officials have increasingly sought to convince members of the relevancy of the organisation as the world faces a “pivotal point in both the global security issues with COVID and climate policy”.

“The UN system was built while the bombs were still flying during World War II to create exactly a forum for diplomacy and political solutions, rather than resort to violence and war,” Lyon said.

“So all of the plumbing is in place for countries to do that here within the UN system. It’s just whether or not those individual countries want to turn on that water and whether they have the capacity to.”

Here are five things to watch:

‘Multilateralism with teeth’?

Spearheading the effort to reinvigorate global cooperation through the UN has been Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who is entering his second and final term in the role.

In a sweeping report last week, Guterres envisioned “a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system”, that would include new, crisis-ready “emergency platforms”, more robust approaches to global issues, and a greater emphasis on youth and their role in the future.

“We need multilateralism with teeth,” he said.

Maria Ivanova, an associate professor of global governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said the tone of the report has been striking to observers.

“This is a different secretary-general that we’re seeing, one with ambition, with a very clear North Star of global solidarity,” she told Al Jazeera, adding it will be telling to see how much of Guterres’s vision is reflected in leaders’ speeches.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Guterres has also hailed the “completely different environment” of the UN-US relationship under President Joe Biden, whose speech on Tuesday morning is set to again pledge the US’s recommitment to the UN, after former President Donald Trump’s actions to withdraw from the organisation.

But hopes the US could play a leadership role in reigniting international cooperation have already lost lustre for some allies, particularly in the wake of Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the concurrent rise of the Taliban.

A new alliance – and nuclear submarine contract – between the US, Australia, and the United Kingdom has further alienated longtime ally France while enraging Beijing.

Meanwhile, attempts at restoring the Iran nuclear deal have largely stalled, although some indirect diplomacy is expected during the week with Iran’s new foreign minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, travelling to New York.

Biden is also set to host a virtual summit on Wednesday to call for vaccine producing countries to better balance their national needs with exporting to poorer countries.

‘Great power’ politics

The US and China’s increasingly confrontational posture is expected to loom large over this year’s event.

Four years of Trump’s antipathy towards the UN also created the opportunity for China to pursue a “subtle” strategy of upped engagement with the organisation, most exemplified by an increase in both peacekeeping funding and personnel, University of New Hampshire’s Lyon said.

It has also included an increase in participation in several councils and committees, with many arguing that Beijing has “tried to change the UN [in a way] that’s not necessarily supporting democracy and human rights,” she said.

Hours after Biden is set to speak on Tuesday morning, Xi will deliver a virtual address via video link.

“Biden in his speech will probably talk about threats to human rights and threats to democracy,” Lyon said. “But he’s going to try to frame the world as authoritarian political systems that are threatening democracies, while trying to bring in and rally democracies around that particular vision, which is a counter to China.”

Meanwhile, Guterres, in the interview with the AP in the run-up to the General Debate, called on China and the US to avoid “a new Cold War at any costs”.

A “functional relationship” between the countries, he said, is “essential to address the problems of vaccination, the problems of climate change and many other global challenges that cannot be solved without constructive relations within the international community and mainly among the superpowers”.

The White House said it would not agree with that characterisation of its relationship with Beijing. “We recognise that China is a country that while we have while we may take issue with some means they engage in the world. We also have areas we will want to continue to work together,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday.

Climate Change commitments

This week’s events are widely seen as one of the last high-profile opportunities for UN members to announce more concrete steps to cut emissions before COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland in November.

A UN report released last week specifically called out major emitters, including China, India and Saudi Arabia, for not yet setting tougher emissions standards.

The analysis said that under countries’ current pledges, global emissions would be 16 percent higher in 2030 than they were in 2010 – far off the 45 percent reduction by 2030 that scientists say is needed to stave off disastrous climate change.

Several high-level meetings on the environment are currently scheduled, including a closed-door session on Monday hosted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Guterres with 35 to 40 world leaders.

“We all agree that ‘something must be done,’” Johnson told the leaders, according to a statement released by his office. “Yet I confess, I’m increasingly frustrated that ‘something’ to which many of you have committed is nowhere near enough. It is the biggest economies in the world that are causing the problem, while the smallest suffer the worst consequences.”

A Security Council meeting on Climate and Security on Thursday will be followed on Friday by the UN’s first global meeting on renewable energy since 1981.

Response to vaccine inequality

Debate over coronavirus vaccines has already marked this year’s UNGA, with local New York officials expressing concern the gathering will turn into a superspreader event, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who is vocally unvaccinated, testing the UN’s vaccine “honour system” by attending in person.

For leaders of developing countries, however, this year’s event will offer a global platform to address what observers have called a woefully inadequate global vaccine rollout.

That is particularly true in Africa, which has only received about 2 percent of the 5.7 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines administered around the world.

The UN-backed COVAX initiative, meanwhile, is on schedule to fall far short of the African Union’s 60 percent vaccination goal by 2023 or the COVAX’s goal of 20 percent vaccinations by 2022.

“I would be interested to see what some of the global south leaders will say about this, because they’re receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to the vaccine politics and distribution,” Alanna O’Malley, chair of United Nations Studies in Peace and Justice at Leiden University in the Netherlands, told Al Jazeera.

“How are they going to frame their case beyond inequality for better access to more vaccines?”

Afghanistan, Myanmar and Human rights

In a statement last week, Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, called on world leaders who take the podium at UNGA to speak “openly and directly about the human rights crises in the world, in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Ethiopia, China, and elsewhere”.

Of particular relevance will be pending questions about whether the UN will recognise the military government in Myanmar, which will be decided when the UNGA’s Credentials Committee meets after the General debate.

More vexing could be UN recognition of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which has sought international legitimacy, but has not yet sought representation in the organisation.

Western countries, meanwhile, have tread carefully with the Taliban government, and may be unwilling to threaten those relations by challenging UN recognition.

Source: Al Jazeera