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Six Issues to Watch at the UN General Assembly 78

United Nations General Assembly Hall

WASHINGTON DC, Sep 14 2023 (IPS) - Another UNGA (UN General Assembly High-Level Week, September 18-23, 2023) is almost here. Leaders and other senior representatives of the world body’s 193 Member States will gather again for this truly one-of-a-kind annual congregation in New York for high-stakes diplomacy and plenty of domestic political posturing.

While who’s not coming this year has already garnered some headlines (including Presidents Xi, Macron, and Putin, as well as Prime Ministers Modi and Sunak), the international community has rarely faced so many concurrent challenges on a colossal scale requiring global leadership—from extreme poverty, climate change, and unconstrained artificial intelligence to Great Power tensions, destructive conflicts, and a bulging global youth population in urgent need of new skills, opportunities to take initiative, and, perhaps most of all, hope.

In particular, here are six key milestone gatherings and sets of issues to watch during the 78th High-Level Week – in these major civil society-led UNGA side-events:

SDG Summit | September 18-19

Marking the halfway point to the deadline set for achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, world leaders will adopt the SDG Summit’s centerpiece Political Declaration following, at times, tumultuous negotiations.

The declaration seeks to provide high-level guidance on “transformative and accelerated actions” for all countries delivering on the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals.

Regrettably, two anticipated topline messages from the summit are that only fifteen percent of the Sustainable Development Goals’ targets are on track to be reached this critical decade, with over 500 million people likely still to live in extreme poverty by 2030.

For the SDG Summit to succeed, the states people convening in New York must demonstrate renewed political will—combined with concrete actions and backed up by financial resources and other support infrastructure—in the fight to reverse these trends.

Representatives must also push-back against ill-founded, yet lingering concerns among influential developing countries that the Summit of the Future (SOTF) might divert scarce resources and attention away from their core development priorities. At the recent conclusion of India’s presidency (now passed to Brazil for 2024 and South Africa for 2025), the G20 just lent its “full support,” through the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration, to both the SDG Summit and SOTF.

Summit of the Future Ministerial Meeting | September 21

The Summit of the Future, to be hosted next September 22-23, 2024 in New York, has a stated goal to reaffirm the Charter of the United Nations, reinvigorate multilateralism, boost implementation of existing commitments, agree on concrete solutions to challenges, and restore trust among Member States.

As elaborated in the Stimson Center and partners’ recent Global Governance Innovation Report 2023(section six) and Future of International Cooperation Report 2023(section four), the intertwined nature of the SDG Summit and Summit of the Future has the potential to yield multiple mutually reinforcing dividends, beginning with the SOTF preparatory Ministerial Meeting to immediately follow next week’s SDG Summit.

In a recent decision of the President of the General Assembly, the SOTF will feature a “Pact for the Future” with chapters on: (i) Sustainable Development & Financing for Development, (ii) International Peace and Security, (iii) Science, Technology and Innovation and Digital Cooperation, (iv) Youth and Future Generations, and (v) Transforming Global Governance.

In short, whereas the SDG Summit arrives at a relatively brief high-level political statement that acknowledges global governance systems gaps in need of urgent attention to accelerate progress on the 2030 Agenda, the preparatory process for next year’s Summit of the Future is designed to realize—through well-conceived, politically acceptable, and adequately resourced reform proposals—the actual systemic changes in global governance needed to fill these gaps.

Climate Action Summit | September 20

UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s Climate Ambition Summit aspires to garner new momentum for effective climate action among representatives of governments, business, finance, local authorities, and civil society, as well as “first movers and doers.”

According to leading climate scientists, we may have as few as six to seven years to catalyze the monumental set of actions required to shift course and to avert the worst impacts of unchecked climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscores the connections between climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, and the UN has warned that climate impacts threaten to reverse many of the gains made over previous decades to improve lives.

With the looming potential to overwhelm progress achieved on the wider UN agenda, the climate crisis represents the present era’s quintessential global governance conundrum, making bold and urgent action all the more critical.

Last week’s Africa Climate Summit brought much-needed ingenuity and energy for positive change from many of the countries and communities already experiencing the wide-reaching effects of climate change.

Following just on the heels of this first-of-its-kind climate summit in Nairobi, the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit aims to catalyze action from the private sector, finance, and civil society, as well as local and national governments. To this end, Stimson is also proud to support the Mary Robinson, María Fernanda Espinosa, and Johan Rockström-led Climate Governance Commission, whose Governing our Planetary Emergency recommendations will be released around COP-28 (November 30-December 12, 2023) in Dubai.

Ukraine, Sudan, Afghanistan, and other Hotspots (UNGA General Debate and UNSC Ministerial)

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, attending his first General Assembly High-Level Week in-person since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, has landed a coveted speaking slot on the first morning (Tuesday, 19 September) of the Assembly’s General Debate, shortly after the traditional lead-off statements by the new President of the General Assembly (Ambassador Dennis Francis of Trinidad and Tobago), Brazil (President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva), and the UN’s host nation, the United States (President Joe Biden).

Ukraine will also feature again next week on the Security Council’s agenda in a special high-level session, “Upholding the purposes and principles of the UN Charter through effective multilateralism: Maintenance of peace and security of Ukraine.”

General Debate statements by world leaders are also anticipated to speak to other hot conflicts and fragile states – including Sudan and Afghanistan – and the Secretary-General’s recently introduced New Agenda for Peace.

Mr. Guterres’s related Emergency Platform proposal may also garner some attention, building on this month’s Security Council open debate, “Advancing Public-Private Humanitarian Partnership” featuring World Food Programme Executive Director Cindy McCain and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

New UN Youth Office and Assistant Secretary-General for Youth

Further to last year’s adoption of General Assembly Resolution 76/306, the seventy-eighth session of the General Assembly will further be remembered for the establishment of a new United Nations Youth Office, led by a soon-to-be-appointed Assistant Secretary-General for Youth (while bidding farewell and appreciation to the outstanding UN Youth Envoy, Jayathma Wickramanayake, and her office).

Together, they will, inter alia, advance youth issues across the UN agenda, while working to promote “meaningful, inclusive and effective engagement of youth” across the UN system.

Well-timed to coincide with the one-year-to-go preparations for the September 2024 Summit of the Future, a successful UN Youth Office will need, according to my colleague Nudhara Yusuf and Search for Common Ground’s Saji Prelis, to understand the urgency and responsibility to act in upcoming UN policymaking and programming, to coordinate across existing youth engagement mechanisms, and to embrace new forms of leadership suited to a highly interconnected planet.

Financing for Development (September 20), the Bridgetown Initiative, and Global Financial Architecture Reform

On September 20, the General Assembly will convene its second High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development since the adoption of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. Against growing calls for Global Financial Architecture reform and greater climate financing (through Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s Bridgetown Initiative, which she is widely expected to showcase during the 78th High-Level Week), developing countries will likely continue to express concerns that rich nations are still not doing enough to finance the SDGs and other development priorities, while donors will emphasize the importance of Addis commitments on domestic resource mobilization and fighting corruption.

Two related policy ideas to keep a close eye on next week are the Secretary-General Guterres’ recent proposals: (i) for the G20 to agree on a $500 billion annual stimulus for sustainable development through a combination of concessional and non-concessional finance (as mentioned in the recent G20 Declaration); and (ii) for a Biennial Summit on the Global Economy bringing together the G20, World Bank, IMF, and UN for enhanced global economic governance.


As the United Nations enters its seventy-eighth year, questions continue to swirl about the world body’s vitality and its ability to keep pace with fast-changing trends in socioeconomic dynamics, the environment, peace and security, and technology.

If world leaders, together with diverse partners across civil society and the business community, step up next week with genuine pledges of support for concrete actions in the above areas—and on related subjects such as preventing future pandemics and other health crises, bolstering food security, and safeguarding human rights—they can go a long toward quieting critics who consider the UN to be merely a talk shop.

Importantly, doing so will dramatically improve conditions and expand the window of discourse, priming global leaders to seize the generational opportunity to renew and innovate our global governance system in the run-up to next September’s Summit of the Future.

Richard Ponzio is Director of the Global Governance, Justice & Security Program and a Senior Fellow at Stimson. Previously, he directed the Global Governance Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice, where (in a partnership with Stimson) he served as Director for the Albright-Gambari Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance.

Source: Stimson Center, Washington DC

IPS UN Bureau


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