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From food insecurity to the UN’s future: What we’re watching at the UNGA

Despite the General Assembly being the most representative international body – with delegates from 193 member states – the UN’s agenda is still dominated by powerful nations.

The United Nations logo in the UN headquarters in New York.
The United Nations logo in the UN headquarters in New York. (Mike Segar/REUTERS)

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The world’s biggest diplomatic event is back – well, kind of. 

The 76th session of the UN General Assembly kicked off at UN headquarters in New York on 14 September, and the headline-grabbing General Debate – featuring high-profile speeches from heads-of-state – is getting under way this week. But the annual meeting of world leaders and diplomats is taking place as a hybrid of in-person and virtual speeches and events, disappointing organisers’ plans for a full, in-person event. 

The UN had hoped an in-person UNGA would make a strong statement about the need to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation to tackle global challenges, after the pandemic forced last year’s gathering to go almost entirely virtual – a format that, it turns out, isn’t always great for international diplomacy.

From the on-going impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis to the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan and last month’s earthquake in Haiti, it’s hard to imagine a more consequential global backdrop to this year’s assembly. But with the pandemic casting a shadow over proceedings, questions linger about how much can realistically be achieved and how effective the UN is as a forum for addressing pressing international issues. 

Here’s a look at some of the topics we’ll be following:

Who will represent Afghanistan and Myanmar? 

Before proceedings got underway in New York, the UN was grappling with the question of who should represent new governments in Myanmar and Afghanistan in the General Assembly. 

In February, Myanmar’s military deposed the country’s civilian government in a coup, precipitating months of widespread, largely peaceful protests. In response, the military launched a brutal crackdown, killing hundreds. 

The Taliban’s takeover of Kabul last month has also sparked concern about respect for human rights and women’s rights, as well as the fate of at-risk Afghans who fear being targeted by the Taliban after the end of a chaotic international evacuation effort.

Representation in the General Assembly – a decision that will ultimately be made by the UN Credentials Committee – would bestow international legitimacy on both governments.

For now, it looks as if the UN ambassador appointed by Myanmar’s deposed civilian government will stay on – despite being dismissed by the country’s military rulers. ​​Afghanistan’s representative, appointed before the Taliban takeover, has reportedly asked the UN to retain his seat; it’s unclear if the Taliban will put forward its own candidate. 

The question of UN credentials gets at the deeper issue of how the international community should, or should not, engage with both new governments. Afghanistan and Myanmar are struggling to cope with the long-term humanitarian effects of conflict; with economic turmoil and public sector breakdowns; and with environmental crises and food insecurity. How the international community and organisations continue to deliver aid is a hot button issue in both contexts

The way forward on pandemic recovery and vaccine inequality

With COVID-19 already having affected the General Assembly’s format, it’s unsurprising that the pandemic will be a major topic during the event itself. “Building resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19 [and] rebuild sustainably” is part of the theme of the 76th UNGA. 

It’s no secret that the pandemic has sent humanitarian needs skyrocketing around the world and eroded development gains. Instead of being the “great equaliser” – as some predicted at the outset – vulnerable and marginalised communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in almost every way.  

How quickly countries will be able to start recovering largely comes down to the issue of vaccine access. US president Joe Biden is convening a virtual summit with world leaders on the pandemic on 22 September and is expected to ask them to commit to ensuring 70 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated by this time next year. 

“So far, 80 percent of [COVID vaccine] doses administered around the world have gone into arms in high- and upper-middle-income countries.”

The Biden administration is also in negotiations with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer to buy 500 million COVID vaccine doses to donate internationally, bringing total planned donations from the US to 1.15 billion – about one-tenth of global need. The deal has not been finalised, and it’s unclear when the doses will be available and distributed. 

So far, 80 percent of doses administered around the world have gone into arms in high- and upper-middle-income countries while only 0.4 percent have been given to people in low-income countries. 

Despite earlier pledges to reduce the gap, some wealthy countries – including the US – are beginning to roll out booster shots, while COVAX, the UN-backed initiative set up to try to ensure equitable vaccine access, recently cut its supply forecast for the year by 25 percent. 

Even with COVID in the spotlight, it’s unclear what concrete actions the UNGA may take on the pandemic because of the divergent interests of wealthy nations, which are hoarding currently available vaccine supplies, and poorer member states eager to receive more doses. “I don’t think there is a consensus on what sort of big policy initiatives the UN should be driving at this time,” Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, told the World Politics Review’s Trend Lines podcast. 

The climate crisis and climate action 

The severity of the global climate crisis has been on full display in the lead up to the General Assembly – with wildfires raging in regions across the world, catastrophic flooding in some areas, droughts in others, and hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean off to an active and destructive start.  

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” according to a report released in August by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

António Guterres, now starting his second term as UN secretary-general, called the report a “code red for humanity”, adding, ​​"We must act decisively now” to reduce carbon emissions.

On 17 September, the UN warned that countries’ current carbon cutting action plans are not enough to reduce global warming and limit its catastrophic effects. The same day, the US and EU pledged to cut methane gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030 – potentially the most significant step yet towards fulfilling the Paris climate agreement. 

Guterres is also convening a high-level dialogue on 24 September aimed at promoting the transition to clean, affordable energy. It’s the first global gathering on energy held as part of the General Assembly since 1981. 

The climate crisis could also feed into conflict dynamics in many regions, such as the Sahel in Africa. Guterres is hosting an open debate on 23 September looking at the link between climate change and security – the same day the Security Council is meeting to discuss the topic. 

However, discussions in New York will mostly be setting the scene for COP 26, the UN climate change conference, taking place in Glasgow later this year. Countries are being asked to commit there to ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions by 2030 and to detail how they plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

Tackling rising food insecurity 

Touching on an area intersecting with the climate crisis, the UN is hosting a first-ever summit on food systems, in parallel with the General Assembly on 23 September. 

Approximately 270 million people are expected to face acute food shortages this year compared to 150 million before the pandemic. The economic fallout of COVID-19, effects of the climate crisis and natural disasters, and conflict are all factors contributing to the rise in food insecurity. 

“Approximately 270 million people are expected to face acute food shortages this year.”

At the same time, the global food system – encompassing agriculture production, packaging, and waste management – produces one third of all greenhouse gas emissions. 

The summit will discuss how food systems need to change to better feed the global population, reduce the negative environmental impacts of the current approach, and advance progress on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals

Can the UN deliver?

The UN has been talking about reinvigorating multilateralism for years now. This year is the first General Assembly since former US president Donald Trump – famously derisive of multilateral institutions, such as the UN – exited the White House. So is the door open for the UN to finally make some progress on tackling the daunting collection of international challenges?   

Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, who will address the General Assembly on 21 September, is at least rhetorically supportive of a more collaborative approach – although recent decisions relating to Afghanistan and Australia are making some US allies question how interested in multilateralism the Biden administration actually is. 

Despite the General Assembly being the most representative international body – comprising delegates from all 193 member states – the UN’s agenda is still dominated by powerful states, especially the US, which, even under Trump, paid for around one fifth of the UN’s total budget.

In his opening remarks to last year’s General Assembly, Guterres acknowledged “multilateral institutions need an upgrade to more equitably represent all the people of the world, rather than giving disproportionate power to some and limiting the voice of others, especially in the developing world”. 

Arguably, that might help pave the way to progress on some of the most pressing issues facing the world – from the climate crisis to the pandemic. So we’ll be watching to see if there are any signs of shifting power dynamics at this year’s General Assembly – but we won’t be holding our breath.

Now that you know what we’re watching, let us know what’s on your radar at this year’s UNGA here.

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