UN General Assembly convenes for 77th session at a testing time for the multilateral system

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - NEW YORK CITY: The first UN General Assembly to be held in person since 2019 is taking place against the backdrop of humanitarian crises, climate emergencies, conflicts, and economic turbulence on almost every continent.

The world body’s executive is nonetheless excited to get down to business.

“It does create a sense of excitement,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, told Arab News in New York this week, ahead of the UNGA’s 77th session.

For the next two weeks, all eyes will be on what Dujarric once called “the world cup of diplomacy,” at a time when the need for global cooperation is perhaps more urgent and obvious than ever.

Overlapping crises continue to unfold across the world. Food insecurity is looming, humanitarian needs are growing, climate pledges remain unfulfilled, and inequality is widening.

A firefighter takes a rest after extinguishing a fire in an apartment that was hit by a missile strike in Kharkiv, on September 6, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)

The UNGA’s 77th session will see world leaders converge upon the UN’s New York headquarters to discuss ways to collectively solve these interlocking problems for the common benefit of all.

Civil society activists will be there, along with private sector representatives, and young people from around the world as part of a flagship initiative of the UN Foundation — Our Future Agenda.

However, one burning topic is sure to dominate the agenda over the coming fortnight: The war in Ukraine.

The conflict has not only unleashed horror upon the people of Ukraine, but has been felt all over the world, creating new challenges and compounding existing ones.

“I think the message (for world leaders) is to look around and look at all the challenges we face today,” Dujarric told Arab News.

“Not one of them can be solved unilaterally by one country. Whether you look at climate change, whether you look at conflict, hunger, which are all interlinked, I don’t know what greater definition we can give than ‘multilateral problems that need multilateral solutions.’”

A little over six months since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, there is still “no end in sight to the conflict,” Rosemarie DiCarlo, under-secretary-general for peacebuilding and political affairs, told a security council meeting in August.

According to UN estimates, based on verified incidents, around 6,000 civilians were killed and more than 8,000 wounded in the first 181 days of the conflict. UN officials fear the actual figures are “considerably higher.”

The war has led to the biggest displacement crisis since the Second World War. In just six months, almost 8 million Ukrainians have fled the country, rapidly surpassing the Syrian crisis, which saw 6 million Syrians displaced over a period of 11 years. Another 7 million Ukrainians are internally displaced.

The number of people displaced worldwide has swelled to more than 100 million — itself a grim new milestone.

Changes in weather patterns, which have resulted in droughts, flooding, and extreme temperatures have displaced millions, disrupting local food systems and threatening whole regions with famine.

Pakistan is the latest victim of the “climate carnage,” in the words of Guterres, during a recent visit to the food-hit country.

Food insecurity has been further exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, which caused the global price of grain to skyrocket, hitting vulnerable nations hardest.

According to the World Food Program, 345 million people will be acutely food insecure or at high risk of food insecurity in 82 countries over the coming year. This is an increase of 47 million acutely hungry people owing to the ripple effect of the war in Ukraine.

People wait for water with containers at a camp, one of the 500 camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in town, in Baidoa, Somalia. (AFP)

In Somalia, years of drought have once again raised the specter of famine, which is expected to hit parts of the country between October and December this year.

“I have been shocked to my core (by) the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring,” Martin Griffiths, the UN humanitarian chief, said during a visit to Mogadishu earlier this month.

“Famine is at the door, and today we are receiving a final warning.”

A year on from the Taliban’s return to power, Afghanistan has been left isolated and impoverished.

In the Middle East, the tragedy continues in Syria, with the country divided, its infrastructure in ruins, its economy in tatters, and millions of its pre-war population still scattered throughout the region.

Lebanon continues to suffer under a crippling financial crisis and intractable political paralysis, while Gazans have witnessed another round of fighting in the 70 year conflict, leading to yet more death and destruction.

But it is not just the Middle East that is suffering. The UN’s latest Human Development Index shows life has become harder in the 2020s for almost everybody, as living standards in more than 150 countries have fallen to their lowest in 30 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic created the biggest fall in life expectancy in most developed countries since the Second World War. HDI scores have fallen furthest in Latin American and Caribbean countries.

In India, life expectancy — one of the key measures of living standards — has fallen by three years, while nations of Sub Saharan Africa attained the lowest HDI scores, in part owing to the brutal conflicts in South Sudan and Ethiopia.

These developments have badly undermined recent progress in some of the world’s poorest regions where the HDI of the world’s 46 least-developed countries grew nearly four times faster between 1990 and 2019.

Furthermore, UN figures show some 50 million people are living in modern slavery: 28 million of them in forced labor and 22 million in forced marriages. Compared to 2016 global estimates, 10 million more people were in modern slavery in 2021.

There are now fears that the sheer scale of these concurrent challenges could pose a fundamental threat to the global order. The war in Ukraine, in particular, has shaken institutions like the UN to their core.

“In deepening global divisions and exacerbating mistrust in our institutions, the war is weakening the foundations of our international system,” said DiCarlo.

Members of Afghanistan's Powerful Women Movement, take part in a protest in Kabul on May 10, 2022. (AFP)

“The consequences of a breakdown in how the world manages questions of peace and security are frightening to contemplate.”

Guterres himself has called the forthcoming UNGA session a “test for the multilateral system” and the “cohesion and trust among member states.”

Indeed, the war and the UN’s failure to prevent it has raised questions over the global body’s role and relevance.

“I hear these opinions. I hear these messages. And I think there is a great deal of essence, a great deal of veracity in those messages,” Csaba Korosi, the newly-appointed UNGA president, told Arab News.

“We must continue to reform and transform the UN including the General Assembly and strengthen our cooperation through trust. Without building trust, it will be very, very difficult to face very complex challenges in front of us.”

He added: “The world needs breakthroughs on a number of burning issues, like water management, like climate change management. All my efforts will be to encourage member states, our partners in the business community in the science community, to help us find the breakthrough moments, the transformation pathways.”

The Sierra Leone-flagged dry cargo ship Razoni, carrying a cargo of 26,000 tons of corn, departing from the Black Sea port of Odesa, amid Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. (AFP)

Even in the face of so many challenges and declining faith in institutions, some UN officials believe there are reasons to feel hopeful — including the recent reopening of three Black Sea ports and the resumption of grain and fertilizer exports to the open market under a UN-brokered deal between Russia and Ukraine.

“Frankly, to see the agreement that we were able to get on the Black Sea Grain Initiative in itself to me is a beacon of hope,” Dujarric told Arab News.

“It’s challenging. It can be fragile. It can be open to criticism. But the fact that we did get agreement on that and it is being operationalized to the maximum possible extent, I think, gives us hope.”

Guterres himself believes the deal embodies “what we can achieve with political will, top operational expertise and collective effort.”  

Asked whether he thinks the deal will eventually lead to a ceasefire, Guterres said: “We always believe that hope is the last thing one can lose, and obviously I have hope that the most important value for humanity, that is peace, will also come to this part of the world. 

“Peace, that for us, in the UN, is always linked to the UN Charter and international law. And so, my hope is that this extraordinary spirit of commitment that we have seen in the Joint Coordination Center will (results) in a complex, I am sure, lengthy, process in which we all would like to see peace triumphing.”

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