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COVID, Climate Top List at UN Meeting  09/20 06:17

   With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, 
leaders from more than 100 nations are heading to New York this week for the 
United Nations' annual high-level gathering -- a COVID-inflected, semi-locked 
down affair that takes place in one of the pandemic's hardest-hit cities of 
all. It will be a departure from the last in-person meeting of the General 
Assembly in 2019 -- and far different, too, from last year's all-virtual 
version.

   UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Last year, no leaders came at all. This year will be 
quite different -- sort of.

   With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in many parts of the world, 
leaders from more than 100 nations are heading to New York this week for the 
United Nations' annual high-level gathering -- a COVID-inflected, semi-locked 
down affair that takes place in one of the pandemic's hardest-hit cities of 
all. It will be a departure from the last in-person meeting of the General 
Assembly in 2019 -- and far different, too, from last year's all-virtual 
version.

   Awaiting them: daunting challenges enough to scare anyone who runs a 
country, from an escalating climate crisis and severe vaccine inequities to 
Afghanistan's future under its new Taliban rulers and worsening conflicts in 
Myanmar and the Tigray region of Ethiopia.

   U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pointed to many other signs of a 
more chaotic, insecure and dangerous world: rising poverty and hunger; 
technology's advances "without guard rails" like lethal autonomous weapons; the 
risks of climate breakdown and nuclear war; and growing inequality, 
discrimination and injustice bringing people into the streets to protest "while 
conspiracy theories and lies fuel deep divisions within societies."

   The U.N. chief keeps repeating that the world is at "a pivotal moment" and 
must shift gears to "a greener and safer world." To do that, leaders need to 
give multilateralism "teeth," starting with joint action to reverse the global 
failure to tackle COVID-19 in 2020 and to ensure that 70% of the world's 
population is vaccinated in the first half of 2022.

   But as is often true with the United Nations, it remains to be seen whether 
the high-level meetings, which start Monday and end Sept. 27, make actual 
progress.

   After COVID-19 forced leaders to deliver remote, pre-recorded speeches at 
last year's meeting, more than 100 heads of state and government and more than 
two dozen ministers decided to come to New York this year despite the pandemic. 
That reflects the United Nations' unique role as a global town square for all 
193 member countries, whether tiny or vast, weak or powerful.

   The assembly's annual gathering of world leaders -- called the General 
Debate -- has always been a place where presidents, prime ministers, monarchs 
and other top officials can discuss local, regional and global concerns at 
public or private meetings and receptions, and over lunches and dinners. In 
other words, it creates a space to carry out the delicate business of diplomacy 
face to face, considered far more productive than virtual meetings online.

   Richard Gowan, U.N. director of the International Crisis Group, said the 
General Assembly's first in-person meeting since the pandemic began -- though 
about 60 leaders have opted to deliver pre-recorded speeches -- is not only 
symbolic but an opportunity to "show that international cooperation matters."

   "For leaders from poorer countries, this is also a rare opportunity to speak 
publicly about the ongoing aftershocks of COVID-19," he said. "It's also, 
frankly, quite fun to come to New York. A lot of these leaders have been stuck 
in their capitals."

   After four years of Donald Trump representing the United States at the 
meetings, this week will see Joe Biden make his first appearance as president 
at Tuesday's opening of the General Debate. Gowan said "the really significant 
question is exactly how he frames relations with China."

   "He won't be as forthright in criticism of China as Trump was, especially in 
2019 and 2020," Gowan said. "But I think that Biden will try and cast China as 
a country that is challenging the rules-based world order and a country that 
should not be trusted with leadership of the international system."

   The pandemic is not only something for world leaders to discuss but also for 
them to deal with on the ground: A key issue ahead of the meetings has been 
COVID-19 entry requirements for leaders to the United States -- and to the U.N. 
headquarters itself.

   By tradition, the first speaker after the secretary-general delivers his 
state of the world report is Brazil. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, who isn't 
vaccinated, reiterated Thursday he doesn't plan to get the shot any time soon. 
Bolsonaro's justification: He had COVID-19 and thus, he says, he has a high 
level of antibodies.

   Entering the United States requires a vaccination or a recent COVID-19 test, 
but New York City has a vaccination requirement for convention centers, and it 
considers the General Assembly hall -- which isn't technically U.S. soil -- to 
be one of those.

   Assembly President Abdulla Shahid said in a letter Thursday that the U.N. is 
relying on an honor system only. That means there will be no New York City 
police checking people entering U.N. headquarters.

   Many diplomats say they will be closely watching the last scheduled speakers 
on the final day, Sept. 27, because each has something contentious percolating.

   North Korea just tested new cruise missiles that could deliver nuclear 
weapons. In Myanmar, generals ousted the democratically elected government in 
February. Guinea's military toppled the democratically elected president a 
month ago. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban took power on Aug. 15 when the 
Afghan army didn't put up a fight as the last U.S. troops were withdrawing from 
the country after 20 years of war.

   The credentials of Myanmar's current ambassador, from the country's ousted 
democratic government, are being challenged by the military junta, but U.N. 
officials say the General Assembly's Credentials Committee won't meet to hear 
the challenge until after the week's meetings conclude. And the Taliban haven't 
yet submitted a letter challenging the credentials of the previous government's 
ambassador.

   Among those delivering prerecorded statements this year will be the 
presidents of Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. French 
President Emmanuel Macron was supposed to deliver a pre-recorded statement, but 
the government said Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will now deliver the 
country's address in person on the final day.

   France and China have reacted angrily to the surprise announcement by Biden, 
alongside the leaders of Australia and Britain, of a deal to provide Australia 
with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines. Australia had signed a contract 
worth at least $66 billion for a dozen French conventional diesel-electric 
submarines and their construction was already under way.

   France, the United States' oldest ally, responded by recalling its 
ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia on Friday, and the dispute's 
implications for Asian and global security are certain to be hot topics in 
private meetings this week.

   The action begins Monday morning when the secretary-general brings world 
leaders and the global pop sensation band BTS together to put a spotlight on 
the 17 U.N. goals for 2030 ranging from ending poverty and protecting the 
planet to achieving gender equality, providing every child a quality education 
and ensuring healthy lives for all people.

   An hour later, some 40 world leaders will attend a closed meeting on climate 
change co-chaired by Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the 
run-up to November's major climate event in Glasgow, Scotland.

   "We need urgent progress on cash, cars, coal and trees," said Britain's U.N. 
ambassador, Barbara Woodward. That means raising $100 billion to help 
vulnerable countries deal with climate change and getting ambitious plans from 
countries on cutting emissions, she said.

   Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, said world leaders 
must address human rights crises as well.

   "They should be clear that there can be no business as usual with serious 
rights abusers and support U.N. action that will impose real costs," he said. 
"Abusive leaders around the globe need to know that that the world is watching, 
and that they may one day be held to account for grave violations."

 
 
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