Leaders to Gather at UN Against COVID-19 Backdrop


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UNITED NATIONS —Afghanistan, climate action and the COVID-19 pandemic will be front and center next week when large numbers of world leaders return to New York for their first in-person meetings at the United Nations in more than a year.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed in-person diplomacy at the United Nations, and last September it was still considered too unsafe to hold the annual gathering that draws nearly 200 presidents and prime ministers and their large delegations in person, so it was all virtual.

Vaccines have made it safer to hold a scaled-down gathering, although the rampant spread of the delta variant left decisions for many about coming until the last minute. Leaders also have the option to stay home and send a video message, which about 50 of them plan to do. Many of those leaders are from lower income countries where vaccines have been in short supply, highlighting the imbalance in vaccine access.

"What we need is a global vaccination plan, and we need those that have power in the world to put their power at the service of vaccine equity," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters recently.

The World Health Organization has set a global target of vaccinating at least 40% of the population of every country against COVID-19 by the end of this year, and 70% of the world's population by the middle of next year.

More than 5.7 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally, about 260 million of them through COVAX, a multilateral effort for equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. But lower-income countries are still lagging far behind wealthy ones, particularly in Africa, where only 2% of the world's vaccine doses have been administered.

U.S. President Joe Biden is convening a virtual summit on Wednesday that will urge commitments from both the public and private sectors to work to end the pandemic by next year.

"We are building a coalition of governments, businesses, international institutions and civil society to expand vaccine production, accelerate access to vaccines and life-saving treatment, and strengthen health systems around the globe," U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters on Friday.

Climate emergency

Guterres has encouraged leaders to build back better from the pandemic, and a large part of that is focused on a greener recovery.

The world is not on track to meet pledges made in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement to slow global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and as low as 1.5 degrees, above pre-industrial levels.

"We really are out of time," Guterres said Thursday in a video message marking a grim U.N. climate report. "We must act now to prevent further irreversible damage."

In November, nations will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to try to remove some of the obstacles to achieving the Paris goals.

"It has to be a turning point where action on mitigation, adaptation and finance happen," a senior U.N. official said of the Glasgow conference, known as COP26.

On Monday, Guterres will co-host a private summit with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and a small group of leaders to try to advance some of the priorities for Glasgow to be a success.

"As the [British] prime minister has said, we need urgent progress on cash, cars, coal and trees," British Ambassador Barbara Woodward said. "That means raising the $100 billion to fund adaptation and resilience for climate-vulnerable countries. It means getting ambitious plans from countries who have not set out how they will cut emissions, particularly phasing out coal, and revitalizing and protecting nature."

Geopolitical crises

There will be no shortage of political and humanitarian problems to discuss.

Conflict and famine in Ethiopia and a military coup in Myanmar were already in the international spotlight this year. Millions of Yemenis are near starving. The war in Syria has dragged on for more than a decade, and neighboring Lebanon is plunging into an economic abyss.

Haiti was rocked by an earthquake one month ago just weeks after its president was assassinated. Earlier this month, Guinea's military staged a coup and jailed the president. And not to be ignored, North Korea has resumed test-firing ballistic missiles.

But in recent weeks, the situation in Afghanistan has seized international attention as the government collapsed, the Taliban swept into power in Kabul, and the United States military departed the country ending its 20-year military presence.

Chaos ensued as thousands of terrified Afghans who had worked for the U.S. military and other NATO countries or worked in other sensitive positions, sought to leave the country to avoid Taliban reprisals. The situation has been seen as a foreign policy disaster for the Biden administration, which as Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, inherited a withdrawal deadline but no plan from the former Trump administration.

Now the United Nations finds itself in a difficult situation, trying to assist nearly 18 million Afghans who are in dire need of assistance after years of conflict, drought and now COVID-19.

"Afghanistan represents an enormous humanitarian challenge for the United Nations, and it's going to be U.N. agencies responsible for keeping Afghans alive during a period of hunger and political chaos," said Richard Gowan, U.N. director for the International Crisis Group.

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The concern with which wealthy countries view the situation was evident on Monday, when they pledged more than $1.2 billon to provide humanitarian and regional assistance to try to prevent a new refugee crisis.

Western governments are especially worried that the Taliban will impose repressive restrictions on women and girls, jeopardizing 20 years of hard-won gains.

"We're going to hear European leaders in particular talk about the need to protect women's rights and human rights in Afghanistan," Gowan said. "There's not very much the General Assembly can do to force the Taliban to protect those."

G-20 foreign ministers will discuss the situation on Wednesday, and it is likely to be a dominant topic in bilateral meetings.

Diplomats say nations need to coordinate a united approach to how they will deal with the Taliban going forward.

The foreign ministers of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States) are also planning a meeting, and diplomats say Afghanistan will certainly be on the agenda.

Biden debut

The U.N. secretary-general's spokesman said Guterres and President Biden will meet in person Monday in New York.

The U.S. president's speech always draws a full General Assembly. This year, due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place at the U.N., delegations will be allowed to have only their leader plus three other people seated in the hall.

Biden will make his debut address to the assembly Tuesday morning as the annual debate gets under way.

"I think Biden will have a message for the leaders, which is that they shouldn't let China gain too much power in the U.N. system," said International Crisis Group's Gowan. "The Biden administration, just like the Trump administration before it, is concerned that the Chinese are gaining influence rapidly in multilateral institutions, and Biden will want to send the message that the U.S. is still the natural leader here."

Thomas-Greenfield said the president will deliver his speech in person and then return to Washington where he will continue to participate in U.N. meetings virtually.

"President Biden will speak to our top priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, combatting the climate crisis and defending human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order," she said Friday. "All three are challenges that stretch across borders. They involve every single country on earth."

Secretary of State Blinken will be in New York Monday through Thursday to engage with international officials. Special presidential envoy for climate, John Kerry, will also be in New York.

COVID-19 precautions

The Biden administration, New York City officials and the U.N. are eager to keep this gathering healthy.

Inside the General Assembly hall, everyone is expected to be vaccinated, although an honor system is in place and delegates will not have to show proof. If they want to sit down and eat in a U.N. cafeteria, they will have to show their vaccination status, as that is required in all city restaurants now.

The U.N. will also have a reduced number of staff in the building, and the hundreds of foreign and visiting journalists who cover the annual meeting have not been granted access this year.

The city will be providing a mobile COVID-19 testing unit outside U.N. headquarters all week, where delegates can also get vaccinated with the single-dose Johnson and Johnson shot.

Thomas-Greenfield said she would be having a COVID-19 test Monday morning before meeting other officials.

"Stopping the spread of COVID is our top priority, both here next week and everywhere going forward," she said.