Ukraine to dominate as world leaders convene at United Nations

“Underlying a lot of these meetings will be a huge amount of tension between Western countries and representatives of the global south in particular,” said Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group.

“There’s still a lot of ill feeling over issues such as the COVID vaccine rollout, climate financing … and now food prices. All these issues are driving major wedges amongst UN member states,” Gowan said.

Russia has been trying to chip away at its international isolation after nearly three-quarters of the General Assembly voted to reprimand Moscow and demand it withdraw its troops within a week of its February 24 invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, his US counterpart Antony Blinken and French President Emmanuel Macron all visited African states in the past several months, vying for influence. Africa has been hard hit with a famine expected to be declared in Somalia in the coming months.

Macron intends to use his two-day visit to New York to lobby countries that have remained neutral in the war to try and bring them onside with the West, French officials said, with a focus on India, Gulf countries, Africa and some Latin American states.

“What we need is peace in Europe, a turning away from great power confrontation and its endangerment of global security, and the shaping of a fairer and more responsive multilateral order,” Kenya’s UN Ambassador Martin Kimani said. “That’s where they need to pay attention, as do we all.”

Russia’s strategic partner China has been firmly on the fence, criticising Western sanctions against Russia but stopping short of endorsing or assisting in the military campaign. In a surprise acknowledgment, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said China’s leader Xi Jinping had concerns about Ukraine.

For the past two years leaders were allowed to submit video statements because of pandemic restrictions, but this year they have to travel to New York to speak in the General Assembly chamber. Putin and Xi are sending their foreign ministers.

However, the General Assembly agreed on Friday to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to send a pre-recorded video statement. The decision was adopted with 101 votes in favour, seven against and 19 abstentions.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba is expected to attend. He will attend a UN Security Council ministerial meeting on Thursday in Ukraine, along with Blinken, Lavrov and China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi.

The US president is traditionally the second leader to address the General Assembly, but Joe Biden will this year speak on Wednesday – his appearance delayed because he is travelling to London for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that so far Lavrov had received requests for about 20 meetings with other leaders.

She told reporters in Moscow that Russia would advocate for “the strengthening of the UN’s central co-ordinating role in world affairs and strict observance of its charter, including the principles of the sovereign equality of states and non-interference in their internal affairs”.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also travelling to New York. While it is unlikely Tehran and Washington will overcome an impasse to salvage a 2015 nuclear pact soon, Iran will use the gathering to keep the diplomatic ball rolling by repeating its willingness to reach a sustainable deal.

While Ukraine will dominate the week-long UN event, the climate crisis will also garner attention. But many other global crises are likely to take a back seat, like the loss of Afghan women’s rights since the Taliban came to power 13 months ago.

Afghan lawmaker Naheed Farid urged world leaders to “name the regime of Afghanistan as a gender apartheid,” telling reporters in New York: “This language was a catalyst to change in South Africa and can be a catalyst to change in Afghanistan.”


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