Despite COVID-19’s fast-spreading Delta variant and lack of access to vaccines for a good 2/3 of the world, more than 80 world leaders plan to speak in person at this year’s UN General Assembly in New York. However, outside of the UN Headquarters, high-level side meetings and events continue to be in hybrid or virtual format.
As the UN tries hard to avoid a superspreader event, it is notable who will be there in person and who will not. On the agenda to speak at the building are U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian President Narendra Modi, Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Notably absent will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
This is a tough spot for diplomats and civil society leaders to be in. During the pandemic, hybrid and virtual diplomacy flourished. But diplomacy is a contact sport and the relationships and negotiations that are forged behind the scenes at UNGA cannot be replicated via Zoom.
So, we find ourselves in this paradox: while UNGA this year is the most open it has been in decades, the hybrid format actually widens diplomatic inequity.
There is another issue at play: we know the UNGA that was established after World War II is not the body that can adequately respond to the multiple threats—some of them existential—humanity faces today. But does it have to be?
The solutions—as I have been saying for a while now—will come from all corners of the world and not just the power halls of Washington, New York, and Geneva. This is what we set out to demonstrate with our selection of essays and features in our special UNGA 76 edition and with the series of events and meetings we are broadcasting with our partners this week.
While the pandemic, climate change, inequity, and the slowdown of progress towards the SDGs weighs heavily on our minds, we believe inviting additional actors—besides the usual leaders attending UNGA in person—will widen our opportunity for interdisciplinarity and transformative solution-making. Because the UN SDGs are everyone’s business.