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Zelenskiy will address UN General Assembly in person for the first time

The war in Ukraine, the fight against climate change and support for the Global South will feature at a meeting where four out of the five leaders of the permanent members of the Security Council will be absent

ONU Zelenski
A drone show in front of the UN headquarters in New York this weekend called for attention to climate change and protection for the Amazon rainforest.EDUARDO MUNOZ (REUTERS)
Macarena Vidal Liy

The war in Ukraine, the fight against climate change and support for the countries of the so-called Global South will feature this week at the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The great annual meeting of nations will be characterized both by who is present — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will intervene in person at the first session on Tuesday, to garner support against the Russian invasion — and who is absent: China is sending a delegation, and the leaders of three other permanent members of the Security Council will not be attending either: Russia, the United Kingdom and France.

This means that the only leader of a permanent member of the Security Council who will attend the Assembly will be the president of the United States, Joe Biden. According to his National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, Biden is “eager to use this trip to advance U.S. interests and values on a range of issues from mobilizing financial resources for the Global South for development and infrastructure needs, to galvanizing cooperation to tackle the climate crisis, to strengthening global support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity as it defends itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.” Behind the scenes, this weekend Sullivan himself met in Malta with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, to discuss the war in Ukraine and the bilateral relationship, among other issues.

In his annual address to the General Assembly, Biden “will lay out for the world the steps that he and his administration have taken to advance a vision of American leadership that is built on the premise of working with others to solve the world’s most pressing problems,” Sullivan added. After his speech, the U.S. president will extend his stay in New York for meetings with the president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. With the former he will participate in a meeting with labor leaders from Brazil and the United States; with the second, with whom he has maintained a thorny relationship throughout his term in office, regarding the negotiations for a diplomatic agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, among other matters.

The most anticipated address, however, will be Zelenskiy’s, also scheduled for that first session. It will be the first by the Ukrainian head of state in person at U.N. headquarters since the war began in February 2022 (last year he addressed the General Assembly by videoconference), and it comes at a time when Ukrainian military forces are trying to accelerate the pace of their counteroffensive to recover territory occupied by Russia.

The counteroffensive has advanced more slowly than expected and, after 19 months of fighting, public interest in countries like the United States is declining. Especially among Republican sympathizers, resistance is growing to keep up military and economic aid that is around $75 billion, according to the German think tank Kiel Institute for the World Economy. The Ukrainian president also hopes that countries that have until now been lukewarm about the conflict will condemn the Russian invasion more emphatically.

Zelenskiy plans to meet with leaders in bilateral meetings, including Netanyahu, and participate in a U.N. Security Council meeting specifically dedicated to the war. In it, he could come face to face with the representative of his enemy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Ukrainian leader’s tour of the United States will continue on Thursday in Washington, where he will meet with Biden at the White House — it will be his second conversation at the presidential residence in nine months — and he will also go to the Capitol for meetings with legislators to try to shore up support for his government at a time when a new U.S. package of military and humanitarian assistance is pending approval. This aid is included in a federal spending law that must be approved before September 30th.

“I think [Zelenskiy] is looking forward to the opportunity not just to see President Biden here at the White House, but also to see congressional leaders from both parties to make the case that the United States has been a great friend and partner to Ukraine throughout this entire brutal war and that United States should continue to do that,” Sullivan declared.

During the U.N.’s big annual forum, which brings together 193 member countries, and just 10 days after the G-20 summit in New Delhi that brought together the world’s main economies, world leaders will also dedicate their attention to issues of concern to the Global South, in a sign of the growing desire by rich countries to drum up support for Ukraine and turn Russia into a diplomatic pariah. Various high-level meetings will focus on climate change, financing for development and water.

After a complicated negotiation, the leaders plan to adopt a political declaration on the Sustainable Development Goals, which seeks to relaunch the 17 goals adopted in 2015 against poverty and inequality that, due to causes such as the coronavirus pandemic, the Ukrainian conflict, the rise of authoritarianism — and a lack of interest from governments — have either stagnated or regressed, as in the case of food security. By 2030, the date on which the goals were to be achieved, it is estimated that 500 million people will still live in extreme poverty, and 100 million children will be out of school. Among those who do attend classes, 300 million will leave school without knowing how to read or write.

“Pressure is increasing, especially from countries in the Global South with significant expectations for greater support on issues related to development and climate change financing,” said Noam Unger, director of the Sustainable Development Initiative at the CSIS think tank in Washington.

Countries will also address issues such as the reform of multilateral institutions and the U.N. itself, in a context in which the rivalry between the United States, the great world power, and China, the emerging great power, are competing in what seems to be the path to a new global bipolarity.

Significantly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has avoided attending not only the meeting in New York, but also the G-20 meeting in New Delhi. His presence at another international forum, the APEC summit of Pacific countries in San Francisco in November, is in doubt. On the other hand, he has attended other summits supported by Beijing, including the BRICS summit in South Africa in August. For its part, the United States is cultivating new regional partnerships, especially in the Asia Pacific region.

“There has always been a search for alternatives when it comes to international forums. “There has always been a feeling that when you can’t get what you want from the U.N. you go somewhere else,” said Marti Flacks, director of the CSIS Human Rights Initiative. “What is different now is that those alternative groupings that are developing are stronger, more dynamic, and there are more that are led by competitors of the United States, particularly China.”

The absence of its great rivals on the world stage, Beijing and Moscow, opens up an opportunity for the United States on this occasion to present itself as a defender of the U.N. and everything it represents. According to Sullivan, in Biden’s participation in the General Assembly the president “reaffirm and advocate for the principles at the core of our international order, including the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And he will underscore the need for the U.N. and all multilateral institutions to be more representative, democratic, and effective.”

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