The United Nations General Assembly returns to its full, in-person, i.e. pre-pandemic format restored for the first time in three years this week. That doesn’t mean the frictions and even the fault lines in the international community that the dreaded Coronavirus exposed, or some might say exploited, have gone away of course. In fact, they are providing the flavour to the exchanges taking place, whether in the cavernous General Assembly Hall where leaders take the lectern to address upto 200 country delegations, or any of the countless sideline events that have sprung up to form an important, vibrant ecosystem for the ideas that seek a better world, there has been an edge to this year’s early exchanges that no seasoned observer will have missed.
Take the traditional state-of-the-world address that the secretary-general delivers each year, formally commencing the session. Usually this can come off as a dose of milktoast, and most years they tend to be forgotten even before they’re finished. Now it is true that the current secretary general, who used to be the elected head of government of a UN member state in his past life, has seemed prepared to challenge such conventions, since taking up the position in 2017. Yet it was the no-nonsense language, the gloomy tone and the focus not only on the breadth of challenges confronting what he called “the splintering world,” but also the stark and often controversial solutions he offered that made this year’s secretary-general’s address a landmark, a marker in the sand.
Admonishing “the international community” – of which he could be asserted as first citizen – as “unready or unwilling” to tackle the big, global challenges of our times, he would go on to depict this as an abdication of responsibility, for which any castigation would be well-deserved. Drawing the attention of the world leaders, Gutierres listed the war in Ukraine, the spreading of conflicts that can be contained, climate change of course, ending extreme poverty and achieving quality education for all children as the most pressing issues of our time, for which solutions are still available, as long as the leadership is ready to steer us there.
David Scheffer, a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has already called it “the most consequential speech by a secretary-general in the history of the United Nations.” Although that may sound a bit hyperbolic, you could see how the spirit of the secretary-general’s speech could come across as a real clarion call, at a time when the world is hungering for some real leadership.
Meanwhile over at the Security Council, the UN’s highest decision-making body, you had some real fireworks as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken came face-to-face with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, for the first time since the start of the war. A phone call in July was the only other contact they had in this period – this is where the potential of UNGA week makes your eyes light up. The meeting was called to discuss allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses by Russian forces. But Lavrov turned up 90 minutes late, was in a foul mood while he was there – which was understandable given that almost everyone else was rounding on Moscow – and walked out when the Ukrainian ambassador was called on to make a statement.
“Insults, accusations and talk of war crimes and nuclear holocaust dominated the world’s premier diplomatic stage,” wrote the New York Times in its recap of the meeting. It seems the forum, no matter how hallowed, can only take you so far, when even leaders fail to see eye-to-eye.