In the wake of three well-attended international summits in recent weeks – the BRICs summit of middle-ranking powers in Johannesburg, the Asean summit in Jakarta and the G20 global economic forum in New Delhi – the non-attendance of top leaders at this week’s 78th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly seems unfortunately to underline the organisation’s marginalisation. At least that is the message some non-attendees wish to send.
While US president Joe Biden does reportedly plan in his speech to reinforce the welcome theme that “multilateralism is back”, he will be doing so to a chamber that will not include the leaders of Russia, China, France, the UK, and India – all, bar the latter, permanent members of the UN Security Council. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has an unbreakable date hosting a royal visit by King Charles II. The absentees will, however, inevitably reinforce the message at the General Assembly of frustration in the global South at the failures of rich countries and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and IMF on the development, debt and climate agendas and in terms of the underrepresentation of the South on the Security Council. China’s Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Brics summit signalled Beijing’s growing support for that grouping as a source of international influence. The group’s decision to enlarge membership with Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates gives it greater heft.
“If it were up to us we would spend more time discussing Ukraine,” Olof Skoog, the EU’s ambassador to the UN, admits of the General Assembly. But, he said, the aim this year was to prevent the north-south rift from deepening and to pay attention “to the fact that for the developing world, this week the central element is about development.”
Ukraine will be debated, despite the reluctance of many in the South to take sides, with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, present for the first time since the invasion, expected to face off tomorrow at the Security Council Ukraine debate against Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Ireland will be represented at the General Assembly by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who will join fellow EU member states in strenuously backing Ukraine and will promise a further €20 million in non-lethal aid. He will also fully embrace the development agenda, notably the implementation in full of the UN’s 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. It is also important that Ireland publicly throws its small but significant weight behind the enlargement and reform of the Security Council, paralysed as it is by divisions among its veto-holding members. Arguably there is no more important task facing international diplomacy in this increasingly polarised world than the strengthening of the legitimacy and power to act of the United Nations’s premier body.