The 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) kicked off in New York as planned on September 18, with global attention focused on the so-called high-level week — that all have come to know — which is invariably full of pomp and circumstance, meetings of important leaders, along with dozens of tightly focused high-level meetings and side events.
The key takeaways from this year’s UNGA, which will run until September 26, are focused in three main areas:
–According to the UN, we are facing unprecedented setbacks on global progress. The UN sees the Earth getting hotter, faster. Poverty and food insecurity are worsening, amid war and inflation. Humanitarian needs are escalating in scale and cost. Inequality is deepening. World leaders came together to discuss and debate how to confront the global “polycrisis,” and to develop strategies to accelerate action on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
–High level attendance was a serious concern this year. Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the so-called P-5, only the US sent its head of state. Of course, since the US is the host nation for the UN, non-attendance by an American President is effectively impossible.
The global commentary on the non-attendance of most of the P-5 was largely negative, but some of this can be explained by the ongoing war in Ukraine. The absences of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping were not particularly unexpected. With the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant in force for Russian President Putin, it is doubtful he would have even considered putting his fate in the hands of UN and State Department lawyers to confirm his diplomatic status during the UNGA. And with China’s duplicitous positions regarding the Ukraine war and international sanctions, Xi correctly decided the downsides of making an appearance outweighed any potential gains for his nation.
However, the absence of French President Emmanuel Macron, who was tied up in Paris hosting a state visit for Britain’s King Charles, among other meetings, is surprising to say the least in view of France’s repeatedly ham-handed attempts to assume a stronger leadership role in Europe and its support for multilateralism globally. The EU’s profile at this UNGA was accordingly weaker than usual.
Macron skipped one other UNGA, after the formation of the US, Australia and UK security alliance in 2021. By default, the meetings held and speeches given by President Joe Biden received more attention than in previous years.
This year Biden’s speech focused on global collaboration efforts but touched on every corner of the globe as the American President’s UNGA remarks must. He unequivocally blamed Russia for its brutal war in Ukraine and renewed Washington’s commitment to support Kyiv. Biden also urged “de-risking, not decoupling” with China and praised gradually improving Israeli-Arab relations.
The war for Ukraine overshadowed the entire UNGA meeting in one way or another. The attendance of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, at his first UNGA since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, generated the most newsworthy UNGA speech this year.
Zelensky’s in-person appearance was meant to drum up additional international support in the form of arms deals and humanitarian funding as well as wider contacts with countries that do not currently support Ukraine’s self-defense efforts. While he did not steal the show per se, his powerful UNGA speech also questioned Russia’s membership in the United Nations, calling on the body’s core values, including the UN’s dedication to protect state sovereignty and to punish war crimes.
Zelensky also generated a minor tussle with the Russian delegation after his speech to the Security Council; Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walked out. After meeting with a range of “neutral” countries in the war context, Zelensky departed for Washington where he met with President Biden, senior officials, and congressional leaders and received new pledges of American military support. While he was in Washington the first US M1 Abrams Main Battle Tank was delivered to Ukraine. He later made a surprise visit to Canada.
While Zelensky was outside of Ukraine for his UNGA-related travels, the Ukrainian military scored a massive victory with a coordinated missile attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. Striking during a senior level meeting with most of the Fleet’s top officers present, Russian casualties reached 138, including the death of the Commander of the Black Sea Fleet.
Progress has been insufficient in developing sustainable development goals
The lack of progress on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 was the key theme of this year’s UNGA coming from the perspective of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who noted, “Unless we act now, the 2030 Agenda will become an epitaph for a world that might have been.”
According to the UN’s annual development goal implementation report, the impacts of the climate crisis, the war in Ukraine, a weak global economy, and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed weaknesses and hindered progress towards the goals.
For the full report, please read here: https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2023/
The UN had also produced a quadrennial report this year entitled “Times of Crisis, Times of Change: Science for Accelerating Transformations to Sustainable Development.” It concluded that “at this critical juncture, midway to 2030, incremental and fragmented change is insufficient to achieve the sustainable development in the remaining seven years.” The report also noted that “Implementation of the 2030 Agenda requires the active mobilization of political leadership and ambition for science-based transformations. This must be achieved globally – leaving no country, society, or person behind.”
This is all UN speak warning that many of the 2030 development goal projections will not be met. It is difficult to claim that this message has been acknowledged by the major powers, especially in view of P-5 leaders’ non-attendance. However, at a special meeting, world leaders adopted a political declaration to accelerate action to achieve the 17 goals,
For leaders in the “Global South,” the message was not lost and in fact it was incorporated into the main themes of many of their speeches.
Brazil’s radical leftist President Luis Ignacio Lula focused on growing north-south inequality as well as climate change while loudly proclaiming that “Brazil is back” as a key player in multilateral organizations and on global issues. While in New York, Lula met with Ukrainian President Zelensky, since the two leaders failed to meet at other Summits both recently attended. Both sides pledged to maintain an open bilateral dialogue. Lula had previously angered western leaders by claiming in May that both Russia and Ukraine were responsible for the war; he reiterated a similar “balanced” statement last month claiming peace was not the objective of either side.