(Editor’s Note: The author further shares his insights on the U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting on the Just Security Podcast. Listen to the episode here).
When world leaders meet in New York for the annual High-Level Week of the United Nations General Assembly in the week of Sept. 18, two items will top their agendas. One will be Russia’s war in Ukraine. The other will be the state of international development. There are likely to be some uncomfortable exchanges between Western and non-Western officials about the relative importance of these issues. African, Asian and Latin American diplomats have bridled at the amount of time Ukraine has absorbed at the U.N. in comparison to other international crises and challenges. The U.S. and its allies should use the General Assembly to show that they can focus on Ukraine and the concerns of the Global South simultaneously.
Tension Between a Focus on Ukraine and International Development
Last year’s “UNGA” session was dominated by the fallout from Moscow’s full-scale invasion and war in Ukraine. Diplomats from the Global South hoped that this year’s meeting would focus on their concerns around development instead. This year marks the halfway point in between the U.N.’s adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious set of commitments including ending extreme poverty and safeguarding the environment, and the target date for their completion in 2030. But it is no secret that there is little chance of States actually achieving the SDGs on schedule. In particular, the economic shocks tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine have set back development efforts and reversed progress on poverty eradication.
Against this bleak backdrop, developing countries have insisted that rebooting development – and by implication holding Western countries to their aid pledges – should be the overarching topic of conversation in New York. The president of the General Assembly, Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago, will convene a special summit on achieving “accelerated progress” towards the SDGs from Sept. 18-19. Western diplomats have been keen to reassure their non-Western counterparts that they understand this is a top priority.
Zelenskyy’s Goals and Challenges
But the General Assembly’s attention will also be on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, who spoke to his fellow leaders via video link last September, is now set to appear in New York in person and address the General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 19 and the Security Council the next day. Diplomats, U.N. officials, and journalists all acknowledge that Zelenskyy’s appearance, assuming it occurs, will become the story of the week.
Zelenskyy has had a turbulent relationship with the U.N. since Russian launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. A few months later, in April 2022, he told Security Council members in a video address that the body should dissolve itself if it could not restrain Russia. But Kyiv and its allies have also used the General Assembly as a platform to corral other States to condemn Moscow, pushing through a series of resolutions reaffirming Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity with huge majorities.
For the Ukrainian president, this trip to New York will be an opportunity for more personal outreach to leaders from the Global South. Zelenskyy will surely emphasize Ukraine’s efforts to get foodstuffs to needy countries in Africa and the Middle East, and blast Russia for its decision to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative this July. He will also likely push other U.N. members to back a series of Ukrainian initiatives relating to the war. One of these is the idea that the General Assembly should endorse a special tribunal that could hold Russian leaders, including Vladimir Putin, accountable for the crime of aggression (the Ukrainian Mission in New York has been circulating ideas on this since at least last October). Support for the tribunal among U.N. member states is thin – although Ukrainian officials believe a lobbying push could change this – and the merits of creating a tribunal at this moment in the war have been the subject of debate among some Western commentators. Zelenskyy is also keen to convene an international summit with other world leaders to endorse his vision of peace – starting with a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory – before the end of the year.
The highest-stakes part of Zelenskyy’s stay in New York will be his appearance at a Security Council debate on Ukraine on Sept. 20. This will also likely feature Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, standing in for an absent Putin, raising the possibility that Zelenskyy and Lavrov could face off in the Council chamber. If that is the stuff of which legendary U.N. moments are made, it will probably end up being a damp squib. Lavrov will likely stay outside the chamber when Zelenskyy speaks (much as he did during a Council debate on Ukraine in September 2022), and Zelenskyy will not stick around to hear what Lavrov has to say.
Even in Lavrov’s absence, however Ukraine’s leader will still need to tread carefully in the Council. Other participants will include Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has called for an early negotiated end to the war and blamed NATO for fueling hostilities by arming Ukraine. Many other non-Western leaders in both the Security Council and General Assembly are also likely to avoid saying or committing to anything that would require them to take sides in what they see as a clash between Russia and Ukraine’s Western backers. Many believe their interests are best protected by remaining on the sidelines of this struggle. As my colleagues at the International Crisis Group and I have noted in analyses of previous General Assembly debates, African, Asian, and Latin American speakers often avoid mentioning Ukraine or hide behind vague calls for peace.
Discussions Around the SDGs, Global Health, and Climate Change
In this case, Zelenskyy and Ukraine’s allies will also need to try to reassure their counterparts from the developing world that they do not want to divert the limelight from the SDGs. The preparations for the special SDG summit have not been easy. In August, the U.S. and a group of like-minded Western states refused to back a draft outcome statement for the summit, apparently objecting to passages referring to reforms to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make them more responsive to developing States’ financing needs. The sticking point here appears to be more about process than substance – the U.S. agrees the Bank and IMF need to overhaul their rules, but believes that this should be negotiated through their own boards rather than the U.N. – and a compromise text is nearly complete. The IMF and World Bank governors will meet in Morocco in mid-October, and will likely take up the problem of how developing nations can get access to funds more easily there.
Although these charged issues will shape media narratives around the General Assembly, there is no shortage of other topics up for discussion. In addition to the SDG summit, there will be further high-level meetings, including a discussion of global health, another on tuberculosis, plus a “no nonsense” discussion of climate change with Secretary-General António Guterres in advance of the U.N. climate conference, COP-28, in Dubai this November. Guterres, meanwhile, is trying to drum up excitement about a further top-level meeting that he wants to convene in September 2024 with a broader remit to rethink the future of multilateralism. This “Summit of the Future” is meant to address how the U.N. can tackle big picture topics like the global regulation of artificial intelligence. It is still not clear, however, whether big players in the tech sector such as the United States and China really want to engage in such processes through the U.N. The secretary-general will convene foreign ministers on Sept. 21 to try to get planning for next year’s event on track.
The United States and Security Council Reform
Meanwhile, as per tradition for U.S. presidents, Joe Biden will be one of the opening speakers of the High-Level session on Sept. 19. U.S. officials insist in private that he will be focusing on issues that resonate with the Global South. There are reports that these will include an event with Brazil’s Lula on protecting workers’ rights. But Biden will also face scrutiny over what he says about the more abstruse U.N.-specific topic of Security Council reform. In his speech at last year’s High-Level Week, Biden set diplomats’ hearts racing by saying that the U.S. would support a push to overhaul the Council, potentially including creating new permanent seats for powers including Brazil and India. Although U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield has led consultations on this issue, it is not clear that Washington will put much more energy into the initiative (which would involve jumping very high formal bars to amend the U.N. Charter). Other leaders will listen closely to any hints from Biden on this theme.
Important as all this U.N. business feels in the moment, much of it is the sort of diplomatic froth that bubbles up around every General Assembly session – and recedes just as quickly as leaders depart New York and return home. At a recent event on the work of the General Assembly, one ambassador ruefully noted that there are rarely any metrics to test whether the various declarations the body generates have real-world impact. Debates that seem urgent at the U.N. can quickly fizzle.
Yet the big issues before the General Assembly this year are indicative of the longer-term problems that face the U.N. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised hard questions about whether the world organization can play a useful role in peace and security in an era of geopolitical rifts. The slow progress on the SDGs raises equally difficult questions of whether the U.N. is still well-placed to help developing countries grow their economies. And the potential for friction among U.N. members about what topic to prioritize this year highlights deep divisions among States about what challenges the multilateral system should focus on.
The General Assembly is meant to be the place where leaders come together to hash out some of these global questions. At least in theory, Western leaders should listen to the developing world’s concerns about the SDGs – and non-Western leaders should engage with President Zelenskyy on Ukraine security. It remains to be seen whether, amidst the hurly-burly of the General Assembly, the U.N.’s members will have the time and wisdom to hear each other out, and possibly even find new ways to solve the problems that affect them all.