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From aid double standards to the climate emergency: What we’re watching at the UNGA

As crises expand and increasingly overlap around the world, we look at key issues on (and off) the humanitarian radar.

 Labourers offload bags of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Programme warehouse in Adama, Ethiopia, 8 September 2022.
Labourers offload bags of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Programme warehouse in Adama, Ethiopia, 8 September 2022. (Tiksa Negeri/REUTERS)

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World leaders converge at the UN General Assembly this week with the fallout from the conflict in Ukraine, hunger, and climate-fuelled disasters in the spotlight.

High-level meetings and the General Debate, beginning 20 September, will mark the first in-person summit at the General Assembly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. This is also the first fully in-person UNGA since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a political summit with impossibly high stakes – aiming to address the world’s most pressing issues – and often low expectations: Humanitarian crises will be a key focus, but quick fixes and cash windfalls aren’t likely in the cards for those trying to respond to growing and overlapping emergencies.

UN officials say this year’s summit must be about hope and overcoming divisions. But geopolitical divides are as wide as they’ve been in decades.

Here are a few issues on (and off) the humanitarian radar:

Funding, or reforming, the humanitarian system

With the global spotlight zeroed in on UN headquarters during the UNGA, calls for more funding and more attention for neglected crises are the norm. 

But this year some humanitarians will also be looking for signs of donor appetite to prevent conflicts and crises in the first place – and to shift how international emergency aid is funded, planned, and delivered.

A recent study on the state of the humanitarian system found a sector that is slow to evolve and slow to make the reforms necessary to keep pace with spiralling needs and costs.

The tab to pay for humanitarian responses reached at least $31.3 billion last year, up from about $28.9 billion in 2017. The issue of how to expand on the traditional funding base – grants from mostly Western and often-fickle donor governments – could come up at the UNGA during closed-door ministerial-level meetings.

While no one is predicting surefire solutions for what ails the humanitarian sector, decisions at the General Assembly can hint at (or reinforce) where donor policy is headed. 

At last year’s coronavirus-hobbled session, a resolution on humanitarian aid emphasised the need for anticipatory action to better prepare for and prevent crises. In the ensuing months, G7 leaders from the world’s most advanced economies have continued to codify the shift, stressing that the humanitarian sector must be “as anticipatory as possible” – a clear challenge to a system built for responding to crises, rather than preventing them.

Solutions for the roots of food insecurity

Famine is “at the door” as drought and conflict combine in Somalia, the UN’s humanitarian chief has warned. Oxfam says climate change is worsening hunger in many of the worst hot spots. And at least 345 million people face “acute food insecurity” – more than double the pre-COVID-19 tally, according to the World Food Programme.

It’s clear why hunger is a top concern at this year’s UNGA. How to address it is another matter. 

Some aid groups are calling on governments to fully fund UN-backed humanitarian appeals as a start (most are less than a third-funded, late in the year). Others want to see deeper changes to fix broken global food systems.

The issue will get a public boost early on. The United States is co-chairing a “global food security summit” on 20 September. It’s intended to build on a similar event at June’s G7 leaders’ summit where governments pledged some $4.5 billion to fight hunger. Critics said the amount was not nearly enough and that it did little to address the structural changes needed to tackle global food insecurity.

Double standards in geopolitics and international aid

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will dominate the UNGA agenda. That’s to be expected with a conflict that has killed nearly 6,000 civilians – by the official count, which is certainly only a fraction of the true toll – displaced millions in and out of Ukraine, exacerbated global food insecurity, and ripped open geopolitical divisions. 

But it’s hard not to notice the double standards in the global response to the Ukraine crisis, from the vastly different welcome given to refugees, to the lopsided resources available.

While donors have been generous for Ukraine, funding for other crises has languished. And while solutions for Ukraine are top of mind, other emergencies – drought in the Horn of Africa, or Myanmar’s post-coup crisis, for example – are clearly taking a back seat.

“Ukraine, we know it has been on the top of the agenda for so many months now. But we must not lose sight of the disasters.”

For many countries, addressing the climate crisis is the priority, and it risks being lost amid a crowded list of emergencies and political gamesmanship.

“Ukraine, we know it has been on the top of the agenda for so many months now. But we must not lose sight of the disasters, the lives that are being lost,” said Georges Maniuri, the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu’s ambassador to the European Union, speaking about the impacts of the climate crisis. 

“Recently, [floods] in Pakistan, the heat waves that hit Europe, bushfires in France, Spain, Portugal – these are, I believe, events that are worth taking note of.”

The next step for bringing the climate emergency to court

Vanuatu, besieged by a range of climate-linked threats, is far from the only country aiming to focus attention on disasters fuelled by rapid global heating. 

Pakistan’s prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, will speak at a leaders’ roundtable on climate action: Large parts of his country are submerged by extreme floods that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and affected 33 million people. The 21 September roundtable is billed as encouraging “a frank and informal exchange between world leaders”, as the climate crisis worsens and action lags behind. 

But Vanuatu may make waves during this General Assembly session. The Pacific Island nation wants to take climate justice to the UN’s top court, and it’ll use these meetings as a launchpad.

Vanuatu plans to table a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an “advisory opinion” – legal advice that can inform international law – clarifying state responsibility for acting on climate change.

The UNGA is one of the few entities authorised to request advisory opinions from the ICJ, which handles disputes between nations.

Campaigners see legal challenges as a key avenue for climate justice, since discussions on climate reparations and who pays for so-called loss and damage are frequently stalled at the yearly COP climate summits.

The ICJ’s advisory opinions are non-binding, but they could set legal precedent to be used in other courts. In other words, a favourable decision from the ICJ could give plaintiffs in any country’s courts another tool to hold big polluters – including governments – accountable for climate damages.

Diplomats and climate advocates from Vanuatu and elsewhere have spent recent months trying to leverage broad support for the ICJ bid, which began as a campaign by university students in the Pacific Islands.

Vanuatu plans to table its resolution at the General Assembly by the end of October, Maniuri said.

(Un)accountability 

What happens to UN officials accused of committing crimes while on mission? In many cases, even the UN isn’t sure. 

A report going before the General Assembly describes how “credible allegations of criminal conduct” by UN officials and experts on mission are handled. These cases are referred to authorities in the accused’s home country for “investigation and possible prosecution”.

The report lists 45 cases involving UN officials and experts on mission, referred between July 2021 and the end of June 2022. In only two cases did countries tell the UN what actions were taken, the report said. 

In one case, an unnamed country was said to have initiated an investigation or prosecution for a person accused of fraud while on mission with the UN’s refugee agency. In another, the country simply acknowledged it had received the referral.

The report lists at least 330 referred cases dating back to 2007. Most are for corruption or fraud. Some involve sexual exploitation and abuse – including at least seven concerning the distribution of child pornography.

While the records indicate a handful of investigations were opened in home countries, the trail appears to have gone cold for many: “No information received from member state,” is the most common status.

The oldest case is an allegation of the rape of a minor. There has been no information on the case in 15 years, and no follow-up from the UN, the report suggests.

Criminal accountability is not a hot-button issue at this UNGA; the report has essentially become a yearly tabulation submitted by the Secretary-General’s office during each session. 

But it underscores some of the problems inherent in a sector often accused of failing to hold perpetrators responsible – and of failing victims and survivors of sexual abuse and exploitation, in particular.

For its part, the Secretary-General’s office notes that the report is only one record of accountability efforts at the UN. Other recent reports have covered internal disciplinary measures, broader accountability, and sexual abuse and exploitation.

Making up for lost time

COVID-19 made education an urgent humanitarian issue, and it’s also a focus at this UNGA.

The Transforming Education Summit, running from 16 to 19 September, aims to re-prioritise education after the disruption caused by COVID-19 and other crises.

More than 94 percent of the world’s student population had their schooling interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and advocates worry millions may not return to the classroom. 

A World Bank study suggested that missed education could add up to $17 trillion in lost lifetime earnings. These losses are uneven, with girls, children from low-income homes, and children with disabilities less likely to find workarounds to get back on track. 

The WFP warns that “a surge in hunger among school-age children” threatens learning, even as more children return to school. And recovery also means protecting schools from harm, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack, which tallied more than 300 assaults on educational institutions in 2020 and 2021.

The future of pandemic preparedness

More than two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to imagine a global summit where the coronavirus isn’t a top issue.

At this UNGA, the framing has shifted to how COVID-19 mixes with conflict and climate change to fuel complex, interlocking crises. Pandemic preparedness and health security are still among leaders’ talking points, even if global negotiations are usually at the ministerial level at the World Health Organization.

But some want to see a heavier focus at the top. 

The previous session of the General Assembly voted to call for a leaders’ summit in September 2023 to push for “pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response”. 

A WHO-established independent panel, which has been critical of global progress to prepare for future threats, said the push needs to come from “political leadership at the highest level”.

Edited by Eric Reidy.

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