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U.N. meets amid state of 'permanent' emergency

U.N. leaders summoned heads of state and government to the General Assembly's annual high-level meeting with unmasked alarm and consternation.

A woman points to flooded areas of Bangladesh's Gaibandha district in August 2020
A woman points to flooded areas of Bangladesh's Gaibandha district in August 2020 (AN/U.S. Embassy Dhaka)

United Nations leaders summoned heads of state and government officials to the General Assembly's annual high-level meeting with unmasked alarm and consternation over the war in Ukraine, widespread hunger, climate change and economic woes, saying hope remains but unity is desperately needed to overcome a world of dysfunction and paralysis.

“We gather today at the most consequential moment of the last four decades," the 77th General Assembly's president, Csaba Kőrösi, said after gaveling the meeting open on Tuesday. "We live, it seems, in a permanent state of humanitarian emergency. The world needs solutions through solidarity, sustainability and science.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the world is in big trouble, with deepening divides and inequalities, in need of hope and more.

"We are in rough seas. A winter of global discontent is on the horizon. A cost-of-living crisis is raging. Trust is crumbling. Inequalities are exploding. Our planet is burning. People are hurting — with the most vulnerable suffering the most," said Guterres.

"We have a duty to act. And yet we are gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction," he said. "Our world is in peril — and paralyzed."

Foremost on the minds of some 150 heads of state and government leaders gathering at U.N. headquarters in New York City, the first such fully in-person gathering in three years, is Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — the first major war in Europe since World War II — and its globally disruptive impacts on food and energy shortages and supply chains already crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic, global climate emergency, and a world full of conflicts.

Hope, the 'rarest' of all commodities

The past several years have all but ruined chances of fulfilling many of the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, including the elimination of deep poverty and hunger, that the assembly approved in 2015 for the world to accomplish by 2030.

"Because of our decisions, sustainable development everywhere is at risk," said Guterres. "Even the most fundamental goals — on poverty, hunger and education — are going into reverse. More people are poor.  More people are hungry.  More people are being denied health care and education. Gender equality is going backwards and women’s lives are getting worse, from poverty, to choices around sexual and reproductive health, to their personal security."

Guterres emphasized there is reason to be encouraged by the multilateral Black Sea Grain Initiative, involving Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and the United Nations, that allows dozens of ships to export the region's badly needed grain and fertilizer. "Each ship is also carrying one of today’s rarest commodities: Hope," he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said nations that do not take a stand against Russia will deserve a share of the blame for its illegal aggression. “Those who are silent today are serving — whether against their will or secretly with a certain complicity — the cause of a new imperialism,” he said.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine but said he opposed “one-sided or unilateral” Western sanctions against Russia.

On Wednesday, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will deliver a pre-recorded speech as the only leader to be granted an exemption to the rule calling for all addresses to be given in person. U.S. President Joe Biden also is due to speak.