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World leaders are gathering in New York for U.N. General Assembly

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This is the week when world leaders gather at the United Nations for the General Assembly. And this year they're taking stock of a set of ambitious goals to fight poverty and hunger around the world - so-called Sustainable Development Goals. Ukraine's president is also expected to attend the General Assembly as he tries to get more countries to push Russia to end its aggression. NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look at a very big agenda.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says the world is falling behind in its goals and facing massive challenges - climate change, conflict and soaring inequalities.

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ANTONIO GUTERRES: People are looking to their leaders for a way out of this mess. Yet in the face of all these and more, geopolitical divisions are undermining our capacity to respond.

KELEMEN: Russia's war against Ukraine has upended world food markets and stymied work in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia holds a permanent seat and veto power. The council will be meeting on Ukraine on Wednesday, and Guterres is hoping to use his meetings this week to try to revive a deal that allowed Ukraine to export food via the Black Sea. He's not sounding very optimistic about that, though, nor are U.S. officials. U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield says Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine struck at the heart of the U.N. Charter.

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LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: Right now, we are at an inflection point, and the actions we take over the next week and in the months ahead will be consequential.

KELEMEN: Humanitarian organizations are worried that the global divides make it hard to get anything done at the U.N. David Miliband is a former British foreign secretary who runs the International Rescue Committee, an aid group.

DAVID MILIBAND: Ukraine has united the West, but it has divided the West from the rest. And it's led to allegations that Ukraine is getting some kind of extra treatment or extra focus.

KELEMEN: He's just back from visiting Ukraine and says the conflict there has a direct impact on other countries. Russia has been striking grain depots and blocking Ukrainian exports, and many countries in Africa depend on Ukrainian grain. U.S. officials say they are committed to both helping Ukraine and the rest of the world. That's necessary, says Elizabeth Cousens, who runs a nonprofit that supports the U.N. called the UN Foundation.

ELIZABETH COUSENS: We have to deal with issues about - of aggression and violation of the U.N. Charter and countries that are at war that need to be at peace. We have to deal with natural disasters. Look at, you know, the catastrophic toll that has been taken in Libya with these recent floods, the recent earthquake in Morocco. And we have to be able to keep our sights on the goals that we set for ourselves.

KELEMEN: This is the halfway point for countries to meet those Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs. Cousens helped to negotiate the ambitious targets.

COUSENS: They're incredibly important. They're the world's plan for a healthier, safer and fairer planet for us all. And they are off-track.

KELEMEN: While world leaders focus on these broad goals, there will also be meetings on the sidelines on some specific conflicts, from recent coups in Africa to the wars in Sudan and Yemen, as well as the plans for an international intervention for Haiti, a country currently overrun by gangs.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.