Coronavirus be damned, the world’s diplomats are back.
New Yorkers who enjoyed the peace and quiet of the United Nations’ all-virtual General Assembly last year will once again face the gridlock of diplomatic motorcades next week, as world leaders and their entourages descend on the international body’s headquarters in Manhattan.
The 76th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) is about to kick off its high-level week, where member states will be asked to deliberate on two parallel challenges: ending the pandemic, and redefining the post-pandemic global economy to be healthier for the planet.
The UN sees the current moment as a potential pivot point. “The choices we make will either secure human, economic and environmental health for generations to come, or reinforce old patterns that are destroying nature and driving societal division,” reads the official overview of the week’s agenda. “An inclusive, sustainable and resilient COVID-19 recovery is critical to setting the world on course toward a just transition to a 1.5°C pathway.”
But first, the pandemic must end, and the issue of vaccine access will be at the top of the UNGA agenda. Health experts have repeatedly warned the world will not move on from Covid-19 without widespread immunization – and the World Health Organization (WHO) has sharply criticized wealthier nations’ stockpiling of vaccines and distribution of booster shots while poor nations face shortages.
More than 70% of the world’s Covid-19 doses have been administered in just 10 countries, WHO said Thursday.
Covid-19: An issue at UNGA in more ways than one
The General Assembly has not exactly gotten off to a unified start.
Despite a letter from the US encouraging member states to call in virtually and help avoid creating “a super spreader event,” the speaker schedule for the General Debate – which begins on Tuesday – shows more than 100 heads of state and government coming in person, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and US President Joe Biden.
Even Korean pop icons BTS are flaunting the advice to stay home, with the boy band booked to make an appearance at UNHQ on Monday.
New York City requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination for indoor gatherings – a rule local authorities have asked the UN to follow. To facilitate compliance, a one-shot vaccination station will even be set up on-site. But visiting dignitaries are not proving entirely cooperative.
Brazil and Russia are already giving their local hosts a poke in the eye, vocally rejecting the health requirement. “We strongly object that only people with a proof of vaccination should be admitted to the GA hall,” wrote Russia’s UN representative Vassily Nebenzia in a letter to the organization, according to state news agency TASS. Nebenzia also noted that not all countries use the vaccines approved in New York.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro threw down the gauntlet on social media, declaring point-blank on Thursday that he would not get vaccinated before the General Debate. He is due to address the assembly in person on Tuesday morning, in Brazil’s traditional role as the first speaker.
The UN has said it trusts in a vaccination “honor system.”
Geopolitics in the great hall
The General Debate is always the centerpiece of the week, with delegates boasting in turns about their countries and weighing in on global issues – this year likely including Covid-19, the chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan, tensions with Iran and North Korea, and a growing rivalry between the US and China.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi won’t be traveling to New York, but his recorded statement will be worth a close listen amid stalled nuclear talks. Sharp words from both China and France are also to be expected in the wake of last week’s surprise US-UK deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines to patrol the Pacific – which antagonized Beijing and undercut a prior deal with Paris. Signaling the depth of its fury, France on Friday recalled its ambassadors from the US and Australia.
UN watchers anticipated conflict this year over at least two seats in the General Assembly Hall – those of Myanmar and Afghanistan, where undemocratic regimes have recently surged to power but diplomats representing the previous governments still hold UN accreditation. For now, the UN’s credentials committee has not indicated any intention to change the status quo.
Myanmar’s permanent representative to the UN, Kyaw Moe Tun, is a remnant of the country’s democratically elected government, which was overthrown by a military coup in February. An outspoken critic of the junta’s deadly suppression of protests, he now represents a movement to restore democratic leadership, known as the National Unity Government. The junta has previously attempted and failed to replace him.
Afghanistan’s permanent representative to the UN, Ghulam M. Isaczai, was stranded a month ago, after the government that appointed him crumbled and its president fled the country under the Taliban’s advance. But Isaczai has continued to advocate for Afghanistan, meeting with foreign envoys and even calling on the UN Security Council to pressure the Taliban into forming a more democratic government. The militant Islamist organization has not requested accreditation for an UNGA envoy this year, and Isaczai seeks to retain control of Afghanistan’s seat for now, UN Secretary General’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq told CNN.
The future of democracy under the Taliban – and particularly the rights of women and girls – will be recurrent topics throughout the week of high-level meetings. The UN Security Council on Friday voted unanimously to extend its UN Assistance Mission in the country for six months.
“I expect numerous discussions on Afghanistan,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told press on Friday, adding that the US would urge the Taliban to show respect for human rights. In general, the US delegation will emphasize countering “corrosive” autocratic influences around the world, she said.
A leaders’ meeting on racism will also reflect social upheaval in the West. The meeting, titled “Reparations, racial justice and equality for people of African descent,” follows a wave of racial reckoning in the US and other Western countries, and comes amid a conservative backlash against teaching painful historical truths.
Looming just as large as the political dramas are the deadly consequences of global warming, after a year of historic heat, wildfires and floods.
According to a new report released Friday by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the planet is careening toward warming to 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – far above the 1.5 degree Celsius limit scientists say is necessary to stave off the worse consequences of the climate crisis.
Diverting this “catastrophic” path means building climate action into the world’s pandemic recovery, and the General Assembly is seen as the last opportunity to lock in global commitments before next month’s G20 in Rome and November’s COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.
On Monday, UK Prime Minister Johnson – a cohost of COP26 – will sit down with the Secretary-General and dozens of other leaders for one of few in-person meetings to discuss the environment, focusing on the G20’s responsibilities. That same day, UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa, former US Vice President Al Gore and COP26 chair Alok Sharma, will speak at a high-powered event on how to deliver the goals set out in the 2015 Paris accord.
A special open Security Council debate on climate and security follows on Thursday, and a virtual event on sustainable energy will be held the next day – the first such high-level event since 1981.
The week will also be an opportunity for some countries and businesses that haven’t yet set ambitious goals for carbon neutrality to finally do so and capitalize on the global attention.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Richard Roth and Laura Ly in New York, and Angela Dewan in London.