Watch CBS News

Ukraine war, threatening nuclear disaster and highlighting U.N.'s divisions, taking center stage at General Assembly

Leaders gather for U.N. General Assembly
77th United Nations General Assembly to kick off in New York 03:48

United Nations — United Nations officials had hoped that this year's General Assembly in New York — the first annual gathering held by the nearly 200 nations of the global body since the coronavirus pandemic struck — would take a broad focus on the many crises facing humanity right now. But with the war in Ukraine threatening to add a nuclear disaster to that long list, it's hard to imagine the UNGA having much attention to spare on the other burning issues.

After two years of video and hybrid meetings, the World Series of diplomacy returns to New York this week: Representatives from 193 governments gathered in the iconic General Assembly Hall, including more heads of state than ever before, according to the White House.  

This year they meet as the ongoing war in Ukraine presents Europe with a very real nuclear threat. On Monday, Ukraine accused Vladimir Putin's regime yet again of "nuclear terrorism" after a Russian missile struck close to a nuclear power plant in the country's south.

Ukraine makes horrific discoveries in land reclaimed from Russians 02:24

The leaders gathered at U.N. headquarters in the coming days will hear a direct video appeal from Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for help to defend his nation from Russian aggression. 

U.N. delegations had to vote on whether Zelenskyy should even be allowed to address the assembly from his home country as, this year, speakers are required to be there in person. Russia objected, but the other members voted to allow it because of the "ongoing foreign invasion, aggression, military hostilities that do not allow safe departure from and return" to Ukraine.

Putin is not attending the General Assembly.

Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, is going to be in New York this week, however. Underscoring a focus on Ukraine, she is set to launch her charity, the Olena Zelenska Foundation, to raise funds for medicine, education, and humanitarian help for Ukraine at a Thursday evening event at the Metropolitan Opera.

"Never before has Ukraine sent a representative to the U.S. to ask for help from the American people," historian and CBS News  Contributor Dr. Amanda Foreman said. 

Climate change

Despite the sharp focus on the Ukraine war and the world food crisis it has fueled, the world leaders will also meet as record floods in Pakistan continue to take a high toll, both economically and in human lives, and just after Hurricane Fiona slammed into the Dominican Republic, causing "catastrophic" damage. A massive storm also hit Alaska earlier this week.

"Don't flood the world today; don't drown it tomorrow," U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters last week, warning that his recent visit to flood-ravaged Pakistan had offered him a worrying look into a "future of permanent and ubiquitous climate chaos on an unimaginable scale." 

ClimateWatch: The dramatic effects of climate change from coast to coast 22:17

Guterres underscored the climate crisis in his opening address to the high-level debate on Tuesday, noting that geopolitical divisions paralyze "the global response to the dramatic challenges we face."

"Let's tell it like it is: Our world is addicted to fossil fuels," he told the gathered delegations on Tuesday. "It's time for an intervention. We need to hold fossil fuel companies and their enablers to account."  

He called on developed economies to tax fossil fuel companies' profits and use the funds to compensate other nations for climate change damage, and to help people struggling with high energy prices.

"Polluters must pay," said the U.N. chief.  

Reforming a gridlocked U.N. 

U.N. General Assemblies have brought news — and traffic gridlock — since 1945. Since then, 13 U.S. presidents have used speeches to the assembly to define America's place in the world — as President Biden is expected to do with his address on Wednesday.

The U.S. is leading the chorus for U.N. reform at a time when the global body appears mired by the structure created when it was founded after World War II. The U.N.'s rules — which grant permanent members of the Security Council the unilateral ability to block resolutions — have left it unable to stop the war in Ukraine, or to prevent that war from wreaking havoc on global supply chains and food distribution.

U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield discusses General Assembly agenda 05:49

On Wednesday, Mr. Biden will focus on renewing engagement with all regions of the world with a message stressing that "respect for the core principles of the international order is needed now more than ever," according to John Kirby, the U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications.

"Right now the United Nations faces a crisis of confidence," U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. "It's a crisis of confidence that has been brought about by Russia's unprovoked war in Ukraine. Even as the world was facing the threat of climate change, a pandemic, global food crisis, one of the Permanent Members of the Security Council invaded its neighbor."

"This war tests the fundamental principles the U.N. was founded on, but our response to Russia's flagrant violations cannot be to abandon the founding principles of this organization that we believe so strongly in," she said, adding that the General Assembly would "not be dominated" by Ukraine. 

Guterres was to open the high-level sessions on Tuesday with a "sober, substantive and solutions-focused report card on the state of our world, where geopolitical divides are putting all of us at risk," according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

The U.N. Security Council will hold a sideline meeting Thursday on Ukrainian sovereignty and Russian accountability, with the U.S. Secretary of State and the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine and Russia present. The U.S. will seek to highlight the atrocities being committed in Ukraine, to further isolate Russia.  

Ukraine's top prosecutor says he's pursuing genocide case 07:34

But Guterres has voiced no optimism about potential breakthroughs during that meeting.

"Anything that can help rebuild confidence is useful, but it would be naive to think that we are close to the possibility of a peace deal," he told CBS News at a press briefing

Former U.N. chief Dag Hammarskjold once said: "The United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell."

This week will give world leaders time to reflect on the urgency of that goal.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.