Come mid-September and the annual high level week at the UN General Assembly, I used to be glued to the TV or some other device on hand where I could follow the speeches.
Unfortunately these days I don’t have that kind of time on any random September afternoon (I’m on CET), so I couldn’t follow everything that was happening real time, but I was still very interested in the outcomes of those high level meetings. Besides the UN webservice and the still very active international community Twitter (sorry, I can’t call it anything else), I followed the happenings of the week through the Global Dispatches podcast (Mark Leon Goldberg again did a great job bringing in great guests with insights to the events going on) and Politico’s UN Playbook series.
This year’s is the first full scale UNGA since the beginning of the Covid-era, with so many world leaders present just as the old days. There was a huge focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with many side events happening throughout the week. The SDGs target period is 2015-2030, so this year we are at the halfway mark with not very great perspectives.
Traditionally the week starts with a main side event on Sunday-Monday, this time themed around the SDGs, and the UNGA kicks off on Tuesday with speeches from the UN Secretary General, the President of the UNGA, and then world leaders from around the world. Secretary General Antonio Guterres traditionally rings the alarm bell in his UNGA speeches calling out world leaders for their responsibility in the goings on in the world. He didn’t hold back this time either. “Our world is becoming unhinged. Geopolitical tensions are rising. Global challenges are mounting.“, he said, referencing the challenges we are facing these days from conflicts to climate change through different kinds of inequalities in the world. One must wonder whether it’s helpful recounting all this each year, without any action following. And I am not one of the pessimists here. A powerful sentence from the speech, one of my personal favorites, but also getting a huge applause on site was ““We, the Peoples” does not mean “We, the men.”” Indeed it doesn’t. But again, actions would speak louder than words.
US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also spoke on that first day, among many others, and the general debate continues throughout the week and well into the weekend, closing next Tuesday. Although arguably these speeches are merely formality, following what everybody has to say on the world stage does paint a clear picture of how given state wants to seem like to the world, so I still find them interesting. It is also interesting what each world leader (i.e. their teams) finds worthy of emphasizing in their speeches, in what order and in what time frame. Yes, I am a speech analyzing nerd in that way. But fortunately, it seems like the age of hijacking the GA podium and speaking for four hours (Fidel Castro in 1960) or 90 minutes (Muammar Gadaffi in 2009) instead of 15 is over, and no-one tried to make bombshell statements this year either.
For those who are not there for the speeches, the side events and who’s meeting whom might be more telling. For example many were anticipating the Wednesday session of the UN Security Council when President Zelenskyy addressed the Council and many wondered what it will look like him being in the same room with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov representing Russia. They weren’t, since Lavrov entered the session halfway, way after Zelenskyy left, although there was a heated debate beforehand between the Prime Minister of Albania (as Albania holds the rotating presidency of the Council at the moment, he presided the meeting) and the Russian delegation that wanted to prevent the Ukrainian president to address the Council ahead of all other speakers with no success. Otherwise no suprises, Zelenskyy called on the Council to withdraw Russia’s veto power until it stops breaching international law (ain’t gonna happen), and Lavrov answered that his country fully respects all provisions of the UN Charter. All the other members expressed solidarity and support towards Ukraine.
This high-level week at the UN brought along many more high level meetings in different topics including climate action, pandemic prevention and preparedness, development and more. Some of these were preparatory meetings for later summits, but some had real results in the form of a political declaration like the High-level Meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response.
So, do these events do any good or is it just for show? My opinion will not be any surprise here, I wouldn’t be following all of it so eagerly, if I didn’t believe in the power of international diplomacy and world leaders coming together to work towards common goals. I know a great deal of conscientious employees of different UN agencies and organizations who do their jobs in this spirit every day and deeply believe their work and their organization can make a difference. Yes, the UN is paralyzed in many ways, mostly by its own rules, but when it comes to responding to tragedies and hardships, the world would be much worse off without its diplomatic power.
Do you follow UNGA week in any form? What did you find interesting this year?