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Reform, climate, and prevention: Three key themes as UNGA kicks off

Geopolitics may grab the headlines, but the relevance of the UN in building consensus and resolving crises is increasingly being tested.

People watch drones creating a 3-D display outside the United Nations Headquarters calling attention to the Amazon rainforest and climate change in New York U.S., September 15, 2023. THe drones are making a globe in red. Above it are the words: The World Burns. Eduardo Munoz/Reuters
Drones create a 3-D display on 15 September 2023 outside the UN headquarters calling attention to the climate crisis ahead of this week's General Assembly.

A new UN General Assembly session has a decidedly ambitious to-do list as a week of high-level meetings kicks off today in New York: Reform the global financial order, avert a climate catastrophe, nip the next pandemic in the bud, and reverse the backslide on the world’s development goals.


Simple, right?


Official summits on climate change, the Sustainable Development Goals, and a trio of meetings on global health are meant to steer the focus. But geopolitics tends to grab the headlines as world leaders (or their designates) swap podium time during the general debate


The year’s summits and debates take place as Libya and Morocco grapple with fresh disasters that have killed thousands of people in each country. And the conflict in Sudan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are among the many emergencies that continue to overstretch the global humanitarian sector – and test the UN system’s relevance when it comes to resolving crises and building consensus.


Each UNGA is a mash-up of mostly urgent and often-competing priorities. Here are three themes that thread them all together at this year’s meetings:

Reform: Righting power imbalances, rebuilding trust

If UN Secretary-General António Guterres has his way, then this general assembly session will mark a step forward for multilateralism and solidarity in a polarised world.


“At a time when our challenges are more connected than ever, the outcome of a zero-sum game is that everyone gets zero,” Guterres told reporters last week.


A big part of regaining trust in the multilateral system, he said, is to address global finance’s long-standing power imbalances, which have saddled countries in the Global South with tougher lending policies, inadequate support after disasters, and rising debt.


Guterres is expected to table a report that includes recommendations to:

  • make financing more equitable
  • advance ways of deferring debt payments when climate-fuelled disasters hit
  • boost the amount of lending available for developing countries
  • advance debt-for-climate swaps that trade bad debt for green investments
  • reform the financial institutions themselves


These are versions of policies that leaders and experts in the Global South, such as Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados, have long demanded and are starting to set in motion. They say the unfair global financial system isn’t geared up to help disaster-vulnerable countries as the climate crisis accelerates.


There’s a clear link between debt, disasters, and long-term crises: Rising debt leaves countries with less to invest in the social supports that would help communities withstand crises on their own.


There’s also a parallel push to reform the global tax regime. This UNGA session, countries will debate a proposal that could set in motion plans to create a global tax convention under the UN.


The UK-based Tax Justice Network says billions of dollars in public money are lost each year due to unpaid taxes. Developing countries are particularly affected, but global tax oversight has been largely led by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose members are mostly drawn from European and North American countries.


Similarly, attention will be on leaders’ statements during the general debate for signs of genuine momentum to reform the Security Council, where five countries hold veto power and outsized control. US President Joe Biden last year called for countries from Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean to join the council with permanent seats.

Climate: Staving off catastrophe

The clock is ticking on the start of this year’s COP climate summit in late November, when one of many key tasks will be to finalise a stocktake of the world’s response to the climate crisis since 2015’s Paris Agreement treaty.


The early report card confirms what any community living through more volatile storms, floods, wildfires, and extreme heat already knows: Countries aren’t on track to limit global temperature rise to the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold.


If the COVID-19 pandemic, imbalanced global economic policies, and humanitarian emergencies have thwarted progress on the world’s Sustainable Development Goals, then the climate crisis has supercharged their backslide. Climate change “undermines” nearly all the indicators, according to the UN’s meteorological agency, the WMO


This week’s Climate Ambition Summit is meant to prod countries to get their houses in order on their national plans to cut emissions.


The summit also includes a roundtable to spark ideas on so-called loss and damage funding – money to compensate for climate-linked destruction that has long been a missing link for disaster-hit countries. The emphasis promises to be on the practical rather than the political: Invitees include the International Monetary Fund, other financial institutions, the private sector and philanthropists, and civil society. Member states, whose governments have mostly stalled on loss and damage, are allowed in as observers.

Prevention: Digging at the roots of tomorrow’s crises

What connects many of the priorities of this UNGA session is a push to prevent future risks from spiralling – wherever those risks may come from.


COVID-19 may have vanished from humanitarian and political agendas, but the world is still digging out from under the upheaval. 


Global health observers say draft political declarations to be adopted during these meetings on all three issues – pandemic prevention, universal health coverage, and tuberculosis – are short on firm commitments.


A summit on pandemic prevention headlines three high-level health meetings (alongside universal healthcare and tuberculosis). 


A pandemic accord is aimed at building up the systems and policies needed to better handle global health threats. What the final result will look like is up in the air: Negotiations on the pandemic treaty are underway but reportedly moving slowly


And global health observers say draft political declarations to be adopted during these meetings on all three issues – pandemic prevention, universal health coverage, and tuberculosis – are short on firm commitments.


The emergency in Libya, meanwhile, underscores how different risks can combine to set off a disaster. The initial damage came from a tropical storm that brought heavy rains and flash floods. But the devastation in Derna city happened after two dams collapsed, washing away entire neighbourhoods and leaving thousands dead.


The high death toll would have been preventable had there been adequate early warning systems and evacuation protocols in place, the WMO said.


The disaster risk reduction movement has its own set of targets and priorities, known as the Sendai Framework, which include goals for boosting prevention and preparedness at all levels. This UNGA session will hear a progress report, halfway to Sendai’s 2030 target date.


While global and national policies on disaster risk reduction have progressed, putting them into practice is often a different story, the report notes. Disaster risk reduction in countries facing conflict and humanitarian emergencies is particularly lagging.


“Financing for disaster risk reduction remains inadequate and largely reactive,” the report notes. “The focus on disaster response as opposed to prevention and preparedness prevails.”


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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