By JENNIFER PELTZ
UNITED NATIONS — The world’s problems seized the spotlight Tuesday as the U.N. General Assembly’s yearly meeting of world leaders opened with dire assessments of a planet beset by escalating crises and conflicts that an aging international order seems increasingly ill-equipped to tackle.
After two years when many leaders weighed in by video because of the coronavirus pandemic, now presidents, premiers, monarchs and foreign ministers have gathered almost entirely in person for diplomacy’s premier global event.
But the tone is far from celebratory. Instead, it’s the blare of a tense and worried world.
“We are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction,” Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, adding that “our world is in peril — and paralyzed.”
He and others pointed to conflicts ranging from Russia’s six-month-old war in Ukraine to the decades-long dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Speakers worried about a changing climate, spiking fuel prices, food shortages, economic inequality, migration, disinformation, discrimination, hate speech, public health and more.
Priorities varied, as did prescriptions for curing the humanity’s ills. But in a forum dedicated to the idea of bringing the world together, many leaders sounded a common theme: The globe needs cooperation, dialogue and trust, now more than ever.
“We live in an era of uncertainty and shocks,” Chilean President Gabriel Boric said. “It is clear nowadays that no country, large or small, humble or powerful, can save itself on its own.”
Or, as Guterres put it, “Let’s work as one, as a coalition of the world, as united nations.”
It’s rarely that easy. As Guterres himself noted, geopolitical divisions are undermining the work of the U.N. Security Council, international law, people’s trust in democratic institutions, and most forms of international cooperation.
“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day,” the secretary-general said. “It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade.”
While appeals to preserve large-scale international cooperation — or multilateralism, in diplomatic parlance — abound, so do different ideas about the balance between working together and standing up for oneself, and about whether an “international order” set up after World War II needs reordering.
“We want a multilateralism that is open and respectful of our differences,” Senegalese President Macky Sall said. He added that the U.N. can win all countries’ support only “on the basis of shared ideals, and not local values erected as universal norms.”
After the pandemic forced an entirely virtual meeting in 2020 and a hybrid one last year, delegates reflecting the world’s countries and cultures are once again filling the halls of the United Nations headquarters this week. Before the meeting began, leaders and ministers wearing masks wandered the assembly hall, chatting individually and in groups.
It was a sign that that despite the fragmented state of the international community, the United Nations remains the key gathering place for global leaders. Nearly 150 heads of state and government have signed on to speak during the nearly weeklong “General Debate,” a high number that illustrates the gathering’s distinction as a place to deliver their views and meet privately to discuss various challenges — and, they hope, make some progress.
Guterres made sure to start out by sounding a note of hope. He showed a photo of the first U.N.-chartered ship carrying grain from Ukraine — part of a deal between Ukraine and Russia that the U.N. and Turkey helped broker — to the Horn of Africa, where millions of people are on the edge of famine It is, he said, an example of promise “in a world teeming with turmoil.”
Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine topped the agenda for many speakers.
The conflict has become the largest war in Europe since World War II and has opened fissures among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War. It also has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe at a large power plant in Ukraine’s now Russia-occupied southeast.
Meanwhile, the loss of important grain and fertilizer exports from Ukraine and Russia has triggered a food crisis, especially in developing countries, and inflation and a rising cost of living in many nations.
As Jordan’s King Abdullah II noted, well-off countries that are having unfamiliar experiences of scarcity “are discovering a truth that people in developing countries have known for a long time: For countries to thrive, affordable food must get to every family’s table.”
Leaders in many countries are trying to prevent a wider war and restore peace in Europe. Diplomats, though, aren’t expecting any breakthroughs this week.
In an impassioned speech to the assembly, French President Emmanuel Macron said no country can stand on the sidelines in the face of Russia’s aggression. He accused those who remain silent of being “in a way complicit with a new cause of imperialism” that is trampling on the current world order and is making peace impossible.
Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova’s country has long depended on Russia for oil and gas. But Slovakia has provided military aid to neighbor Ukraine, she noted.
“We, the members of the U.N., need to clearly side with victim over aggressor,” she said.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine, protection of civilians and “the maintenance of all channels of dialogue between the parties.” But he opposed what he called “one-sided or unilateral” Western sanctions, saying they have harmed economic recovery and have threatened human rights of vulnerable populations.
Neither Ukraine nor Russia has yet had its turn to speak. The assembly has agreed to allow Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to speak by video, over objections from Russia and a few of its allies.
Zelenskyy’s speech is expected Wednesday, as is an in-person address from U.S. President Joe Biden. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to take the rostrum Saturday.
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