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Most of U.N.'s most powerful members to skip high-level meeting

Despite the absences, the politics of catastrophe and climate inaction toward Earth's impaired health await the assembly's annual gathering of world leaders next week in New York.

Diplomats inside the U.N. General Assembly Hall
Diplomats inside the U.N. General Assembly Hall (AN/J. Heilprin)

Just one of the United Nations' permanent seat-holders on its most powerful arm, the Security Council, plans to attend the General Assembly's annual high-level meeting.

That's the United States, the world body's host nation. The leaders of China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – all of whom also have veto power on the 15-nation Security Council, plan to skip the assembly's September gathering.

The United Nations – particularly the council's "P-5" members with permanent seats – reflects a power structure frozen in time since the end of World War II. Russia's war on Ukraine and the growing multipolarity of the world have given new impetus to longstanding calls for reform that went nowhere.

In a rare exception last year, the assembly adopted a new measure championed by Liechtenstein that triggers debate anytime a council member uses veto power.

"We are moving to a multipolar world. Multipolarity creates new opportunities for leadership on the global stage. But alone it doesn’t guarantee peace and justice. Those require strong, effective multilateral institutions," U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Friday.

"But many of today’s institutions – particularly the United Nations Security Council and the Bretton Woods institutions – reflect a bygone era, one when many developing countries were shackled by colonial rule and had no say on their own affairs, or on global affairs."

Despite the expected absence of China's President Xi Jinping, France's President Emmanuel Macron, Russia's President Vladmir Putin and the U.K.'s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the politics of catastrophe and climate inaction toward Earth's impaired health await the assembly's annual gathering of world leaders next week in New York.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi also plans to skip the event. That leaves U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to capture the spotlight.

Days after Libya's flooding and Morocco's earthquake brought more epic tragedies and public health disasters, world leaders will decry the sinking prospects of fulfilling the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, and perhaps renew vows to keep the idealistic agenda from capsizing.

The 17 Global Goals for protecting the planet and spreading univeral peace and prosperity won unanimous backing from 193 nations in 2015, yet halfway to 2030 most goals remain off-track and likely unattainable.

“In order to achieve the SDG targets by 2030, significant innovative efforts are still required," the World Economic Forum's chairman, Klaus Schwab, a German-born economist and engineer who founded the Davos forum in 1971, said on Thursday.

More meetings pegged to the assembly's high-level general debate this month will try to prod nations to honor their climate obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement, prepare better for future pandemics, promote universal health coverage, and end the tuberculosis epidemic.

"Action is what the world needs," Guterres told a press conference on Wednesday. "People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess. ... This is not a time for posturing or positioning.”

Ahead of the assembly's high-level gathering, the International Crisis Group said on Thursday that major power divisions are shrinking the space for multilateral cooperation, making the U.N.'s role in managing international peace and security crises is increasingly uncertain.

"The breakdown in Russia-West relations is taking an increasingly serious toll. The Security Council has been slow and indecisive in reacting to crises in 2023 to date," the Brussels-based organization says.

"Developed and developing countries in the General Assembly have sparred at length over the global economy’s direction," it says. "As leaders consider how the U.N. can serve peace and security in the year ahead, their bywords should be flexibility and adaptability."