78th session of the UNGA: deliberations on multiple issues of global importance

Muhammad Zamir,
Oct 01, 2023 09:40 PM

The 193-member UN General Assembly debated matters of human rights, international law and cooperation in “economic, social, cultural, educational, and health fields”. As anticipated, it also passed resolutions and declarations consistent with the guiding principles of the organisation. As expected, consistent with the UN Charter, various participants in different sideline meetings also addressed matters of international peace and security, not currently being addressed by the UN Security Council (UNSC). There were also subtle discussions about the UN’s vastly increased budget and the various aspects pertaining to the funding of peacekeeping missions around the world. It provided world leaders, Heads of State and Governments the opportunity to lay out not only their priorities for the coming year but also the opportunity to urge cooperation on pressing issues.

We need to understand that 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.

The UNGA President Dennis Francis from Trinidad and Tobago delivered the first speech of the General Debate and underlined that he wants to prioritise greater multilateralism and equal opportunity during his tenure. As expected, Brazil, then true to tradition, delivered the first country speech, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva referring to climate change as the centrepiece of his address. He also vowed to make his country a global leader in the environment arena and bolster the protection of the critical Amazon rainforest after years of destruction.

The United States, as the host country, then followed Brazil, with US President Joe Biden addressing the General Assembly on September 19 where emphasis was on asserting Washington’s role as a global leader.

Biden was the only top leader of the UN Security Council’s five permanent, veto-wielding countries – the US, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – to attend the high-level meeting of this UNGA. The British Prime Minister R. Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron missed the event, citing past scheduling of other programmes.

This UNGA session had significance for both Bangladesh and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It gave her the opportunity to not only meet many leaders on the sideline, exchange views with them on multiple subjects but also the opportunity to address the United Nations General Assembly for the 19th time, in Bangla on September 22 as had been done by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman when he delivered his address in the UNGA on September 25 in 1974.

In addition to joining a banquet hosted by US President Joe Biden in honour of the world leaders attending the ongoing UNGA session in New York, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also exchanged views with many of them on the sideline in different meetings.

Bangladesh Prime Minister drew attention to the efforts that had been undertaken by her government over the past decade towards addressing not only the evolving critical situations but also on ways and means to overcome these challenges.

Consistent with the anxiety expressed by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in one meeting underlined that Climate Vulnerable Forum’s repeated calls for an equal distribution of climate finance between adaptation and mitigation had received little response and she expected major economies to do their fair share. She also had sideline meetings with several persons with regard to the importance of renewable energy.

“The Adaptation Fund needs to live up to expectations,” she said while speaking at a High-Level Thematic Session of Climate Ambition Summit– “Delivering Climate Justice: Accelerating Ambition and Implementation on Adaptation and Early Warnings for All” at the UN Headquarters. Hasina said that as a climate justice advocate, Bangladesh stands ready to align with any constructive move that advances the agenda. “We also expect the world’s major economies to remain honest about climate change and do their fair share to avert the impending crisis,” she said.

In this context she asserted that we all need “a number of nature-based, structural, and technical solutions in place that can be replicated in other parts of the world.” She also asserted that Bangladesh ” would like to see the Adaptation Pipeline Accelerator come up with a viable model for financing and technological support.” She also informed that Bangladesh is using mobile technology to provide regular updates on weather forecasts and had not only “requested the UN system to conduct a table-top exercise on nation-wide earthquake modelling” but also hoped that “our development partners will seize these opportunities to deliver climate justice.”

In another development, Hasina also urged the world leaders to draw on collective lessons to scale up good practices and avoid past mistakes to face any future pandemic like Covid-19. “Equity and solidarity must form the core of our efforts,” she told a high-level meeting on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness, and Response at UN Headquarters. To achieve that target, she flagged five priorities. These are: concessional international financing for health system strengthening in developing countries; mobilising resources and expertise for pandemic surveillance, prevention, preparedness, and response in a science-based manner; ensuring equitable and unrestricted access for all to quality, affordable, and effective pandemic products, including vaccines; production diversification of pandemic products through access to technology and know-how; and developing an international cooperation framework for access and benefit sharing among concerned parties, with WHO in the lead.

Sheikh Hasina also shared her views on the matter of Community Clinics with participants during the plenary session of the high-level side-event on “Sheikh Hasina Initiative of Community Clinics: Innovative Approach to Achieving Universal Health Coverage Inclusive of Mental Health and Disabilities” held at UN Headquarters in New York. Hasina drew attention to the fact that there are now nearly 14,500 community clinics operating across the country and that they are designed to act as a one-stop centre for health, family planning, and nutrition-related services. She pointed out that these clinics were playing a critical role in reducing infant, child, and maternal mortality and was also effective for offering facilities for skilled birth attendance. The Premier also observed that the community clinics had become the local hub for universal immunisation and had played a crucial role in securing Covid-19 vaccination coverage.

This event was organised by Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, and Malaysia. This measure was particularly appreciated by World Health Organisation Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who praised Bangladesh government’s measures for overall development of the health sector to ensure health services to all during his sideline meeting with the Prime Minister.

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi also made a courtesy call on Sheikh Hasina. During the meeting, the Prime Minister stressed the need for peaceful use of nuclear energy and reiterated Bangladesh’s steadfast commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. She also recalled that Bangladesh ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty after she formed the government for her first term. In addition, she expressed her sincere thanks to IAEA for providing technical support to the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission and Savar Nuclear Reactor Research Establishment.

Prime Minister Hasina and Foreign Minister Momen also joined a high-level meeting of the Rohingya Contact Group of OIC and called for resource mobilisation from OIC members to speed up the ongoing legal process at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for the repatriation of the Rohingyas to Myanmar. They pointed out that the Rohingya crisis was not just Bangladesh’s problem but also a global issue. Attention was drawn to the fact that though Bangladesh had given them shelter on humanitarian grounds, others also had a responsibility to ensure their safe repatriation to their homeland with the status of full citizenship. Consequently, it was underlined that others also had the responsibility to maintain pressure on Myanmar to solve the crisis.

The Prime Minister also demonstrated her country’s resolute commitment towards conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction by officially signing the ‘Biological Diversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction’ (BBNJ) Treaty in New York. Through this she reiterated Bangladesh’s unwavering support for responsible extraction and equitable utilisation of deep-sea resources.

Bangladesh Prime Minister also reiterated that Bangladesh will continue to promote democracy, rule of law and freedom of expression consistent with its Constitution. She also pointed out that human rights issues should not be politicised to put pressure on developing countries. She observed that this year marked the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and all should take collective actions to advance equality, justice and freedom for all.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also had bilateral meetings with Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Timor-Leste President Dr Jose Ramos-Horta and Denmark Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York.

Any survey of the UNGA Session also requires reference to points raised by the US President Joe Biden regarding the ongoing Ukraine and the Russian conflict and the need for implementation of international law. This dynamic was also taken forward by President Zelensky of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, there were some other significant issues raised by Biden that need to be mentioned. Biden indicated his Administration’s efforts toward fighting the climate crisis, including investment toward clean energy, climate financing in developing countries, and steps toward the climate finance pledge outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, and also called for additional public and private sector investment.

Biden stressed the importance of the United Nations in facing new challenges and finding required solutions. He also noted the need to be able to “break the gridlock” that too often stymies progress and blocks consensus in the Security Council. He observed that the United Nations must not only continue to preserve peace, prevent conflict, and alleviate human suffering but also reiterated that the USA “will defend democracy– our best tool to meet the challenges that we face around the world.”

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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