Adding to the urgency was the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin chose the General Debate opening day to announce “partial mobilisation” following reports of setbacks in Ukraine. He reiterated that he would use “all means” (code word for nuclear weapons) to protect his country’s security.
Confrontations and accusation exchanges between Russia and the US-European alliance over Ukraine meant that issues of prime concern to developing nations were simply sidelined at the first in-person UNGA meeting in three years. Tight restrictions due to the spread of Covid-19 had forced the UN to hold its annual meeting online over the past two years.
Even the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine on world economies, particularly those of the poorer countries now facing an acute food crisis, were not properly addressed.
In the speech he delivered on behalf of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi at UNGA, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri noted that the Covid-19 pandemic’s devastating impact, coupled with the war in Ukraine, have battered the economies of developing countries as evidenced by the sovereign debt crisis.
Many countries in the Middle East and Africa lack the resources required to confront that crisis, he added, calling on developed countries to launch a global debt swap initiative between creditor and debtor nations to transform the bulk of debt into joint investment projects. Such an initiative would combat unemployment, create jobs, and contribute to growth.
Turning to the current food crisis, Shoukri pointed out that in Africa alone one in five people are at risk of hunger, and the continent remains a net food importer at an annual cost of $43 billion. An integrated strategy is needed and must address, among others, the root causes of the crisis, the negative impact of climate change, and developing countries’ access to global markets.
Given its location, Shoukri said Egypt was ready to cooperate with all parties to establish an international hub for storing, supplying, and trading grains in Egypt, in the interest of collective food security.
Speaking for the president of COP27, which will be held in the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh this November, Shoukri urged all members of the international community to put their pledges and commitments into action and support developing countries in their efforts to confront the devastating impact of climate change. “They are the most deserving of our support,” he said.
He also expressed the hope that COP27 will reach outcomes that can contribute to a reduction in emissions, and enhanced mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage commitments. He reminded the audience that funds for adaptation need to be doubled, that the $100 billion promised for climate finance annually must be duly delivered, and that there must be a just transition to renewable energy.
Many experts fear that the shortage and near total halt of Russian gas and oil exports to Europe after the outbreak of war in Ukraine seven months ago will lead to a restoration of large-scale digging for fossil fuels, ignoring earlier pledges to expand the use of alternative clean energy.
Egypt’s foreign minister also said that water security remains one of the most important challenges facing the world today, especially in the Middle East and Africa, which includes some of the driest and most arid countries in the world.
Mincing no words on Egypt’s disagreement with Ethiopia over its unilateral decisions on building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Shoukri pointed out that threats to water security are not always due to lack of resources or declining rainfall, but often result from the actions of upstream riparian states that assert their absolute control over a trans-boundary water resource, disregarding for principles of humanity, good-neighbourliness and international law.
Even after a decade of futile negotiations, the foreign minister affirmed that Egypt remains committed to self-restraint, respecting the Ethiopian people’s right to development. However, this cannot be at the expense of the Egyptian people’s right to life and survival, he said, stressing the need to reach a comprehensive, legally binding agreement regarding the filling and operation of the GERD, in accordance with the Agreement on Declaration of Principles concluded by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in March 2015 in Khartoum.
Agreeing with the leaders of other developing nations in Africa and Asia who addressed the 77th UNGA session, Shoukri warned that the world was at a delicate juncture where increased polarisation makes serious action and a commitment to multilateralism more imperative than ever.
He called on world countries to reinvigorate and reform the UN, starting with the reform of the UN Security Council by allowing a permanent seat for the African continent.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Shoukri, along with the Jordanian King Abdullah, who delivered his own speech a few days earlier, reiterated their support for the two-state solution involving the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.
While the news remains dominated by military action in Ukraine, Shoukri said the ongoing, explosive situations in several Arab countries should not be ignored. He pledged that Egypt would continue working with its neighbours to resolve the crises in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq in a way that safeguards those countries’ sovereignty, unity and the interests of their peoples.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.