The 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) came to a close last week in New York. Attended by the majority of the world’s Heads of State and senior diplomats, the UNGA saw a range of discussions concerning people trafficking, the elimination of nuclear weapons, and tackling racial discrimination; however, the dominant themes of the fortnight were the climate crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
President Biden announced that the United States would be nearly doubling its climate financing commitment from $5.7 billion to US $11 billion; a significant increase given that this commitment had already been doubled in April of this year. Prime Minister Johnson, with an eye on the UK’s position as host of COP26, stressed the urgency of a global effort to tackle the climate crisis in a call for this to be a “turning point for humanity.” President Xi Jingping concluded the UNGA with a rare moment of unity with the West, committing to ending Chinese financing for international coal-fired projects.
This display of common purpose is a positive global step in the fight against climate change, yet an undercurrent of geopolitical jostling still ran throughout the UNGA. Biden espoused Western democratic values and criticised the disregard for them by authoritarian governments, while UN General Secretary, António Guterres, went one step further by stating plainly, “it will be impossible to address the dramatic economic and development challenges, while the world’s two largest economies are at odds with each other.”
The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic was similarly juxtaposed by UNGA representatives. Many Heads of State used their speeches to praise the speed and success of vaccine development, however several condemned the emergent disadvantage for countries in the Southern Hemisphere – and in particular low- and middle-income countries, where the vaccine roll-out is much slower and the negative impacts on health systems are severe. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari called for a more equitable global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly with the threat of more contagious strains as the virus mutates. South African President Cyril Rampahosa lamented that more than 82 per cent of vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries but less than 1 per cent have been sent to low-income countries (LICs). To address this disparity, he urgently called for a temporary waiver of some trade related aspects of intellectual property rights provisions, which would allow LICs to produce vaccines.
The most damning statement of all came from Hage G. Geingob, the Namibian President, who claimed that the current state of affairs is so severe that it amounts to “vaccine apartheid… in some countries vaccinated citizens are receiving their booster shot, while in others many are waiting to receive their first dose.” Disagreements between LICs and HICs are not new to the UNGA, but given the uniquely destructive nature of the global pandemic, words such as this seem particularly poignant. For its part, the World Health Organisation used its influence to call on world leaders to find a fair solution on vaccines that will allow all countries to get back on track and for a renewed focus on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Despite Malaria not being a central issue, the assembly did adopt a new resolution on “Consolidating gains and accelerating efforts to control and eliminate malaria in developing countries, particularly in Africa, by 2030.” This resolution called on all UN Member States, in particular malaria-endemic countries, to establish and/or strengthen national policies, increase investment in research, and develop new, safe and affordable malaria-related medicines, products and technologies. However, as with the climate and vaccine discussions, a positive development was tarnished by division. Representatives speaking on behalf of the EU and the UK both heavily criticised the process by which the resolution came to pass, stating there was no opportunity to review or negotiate the wording prior to its approval by the Assembly.
It seems then, that the outcome of the 76th session of the UNGA was in many ways one step forward, one step back. Meaningful debates were held on the most pressing global issues with commitments made to tackle them, yet in each instance geopolitics seemed to obscure a clear pathway towards these important goals. UN Member States must be more transparent with one another and work harder to collaborate around global challenges of climate change, COVID-19 and malaria and step-up support for countries that are disproportionately affected.