On 20 September, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres inaugurated the high-level debate in the framework of the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. The leaders of nearly 150 countries descended on the Big Apple for their first fully in-person gathering since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.
US President Joe Biden addressed the General Assembly on 21 September, and as expected he launched an attack on Russia for its role in going to war against Ukraine. His remarks, as well as those of the other Western leaders who followed him, among them French President Emmanuel Macron and newly elected British Prime Minister Liz Truss turned this year’s UN General Assembly into something akin to a battle cry against Moscow.
To the credit of the French president, he stressed that his country – though he used the word “we” it was not clear whether he was speaking about the West, the European Union, or NATO – was not at war against Russia even as he affirmed that assisting Ukraine in “protecting its territory” would continue.
On his way back to Paris on 22 September, Macron told a pool of French reporters travelling with him that he was looking forward to the de-escalation of the situation in Ukraine through dialogue and that he would not be making any remarks that could be interpreted as an escalation in this regard. He expressed the hope that the Russians and Ukrainians would return to the negotiating table when the latter were in a “position to do so,” and he proposed working towards what he termed a “collective dialogue” to achieve peace.
Shortly before the start of the high-level UN debate, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the partial mobilisation of 300,000 soldiers in addition to the holding of referendums in four provinces of Ukraine – Luhansk and Donetsk, both separatist republics, and Kherson and Zaporijjia – from 21 to 27 September. Most observers expect a yes vote in these referendums, after which these provinces will be annexed to Russia.
Undoubtedly, the two Russian decisions, accompanied by an implicit hint that Russia will not hesitate to use all its weapons systems, conventional and otherwise, to defend itself if its territorial integrity is threatened, have alarmingly raised the stakes in Ukraine and those between Moscow and Washington and other Western capitals with the exception of Budapest.
The 77th Session of the UN General Assembly thus turned into a battleground of words and declarations instead of a forum on how to ensure international peace and security.
However, as Guterres emphasised in his inaugural remarks last Tuesday, multilateralism, as embodied by the UN and its Charter, provides a divided and polarised world with the only promising way forward and the only way of dealing with the existential questions confronting the international community in these challenging times. These include questions of peace and security and the war in Ukraine and other no less grave crises like climate change, food security, and the Covid-19 pandemic or future pandemics.
Guterres made a point of reminding leaders around the world that while the international community is fixated on the destabilising situation in Ukraine, and the terrifying prospects that the world could witness as a result of miscalculation, desperation, or the absence of statesmanship in the resort to nuclear weapons, whether these are “tactical” or “strategic,” there were also other crises around the globe that are a threat to regional and international peace and security.
He called for a “world coalition” to tackle three challenges, namely the maintenance of international peace, the creation of mechanisms for a dialogue that can contribute to the de-escalation of present tensions, and the prioritisation of conflict prevention. He rightly stressed that the climate crisis is the defining issue of our time and that dealing with it should be the “first priority” of all governments around the world as well as of multilateral organisations.
The overriding question now is whether a politicised world can still work through multilateral organisations to find solutions to the various crises of an ailing international system.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.