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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Looming just as large as the political dramas are the deadly consequences of global warming, after a year of historic heat, wildfires and floods.
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.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Richard Roth and Laura Ly in New York, and Angela Dewan in London.