Biden Focuses on Ukraine, Food Security, Global Health at UN General Assembly

President Joe Biden addressed the UN General Assembly in New York Wednesday morning, where he highlighted US efforts to strengthen global food security, replenish the Global Fund to fight AIDS and other pandemics, tackle supply chain issues and the climate crisis.

In his speech, Biden also focused on Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

“Russia has shamelessly violated the core tenets of the UN Charter. None more important than the clear prohibition against countries taking the territory of their neighbor by force,” Biden said about the invasion of Ukraine.

Biden pointed out that “The United States has marshalled massive levels of security assistance, humanitarian aid, and direct economic support to Ukraine. More than $25 billion to date. Our allies and partners around the world have stepped up as well.”

On Friday, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that while leaders will not ignore Ukraine, the gathering will not be dominated by it.

“We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world. There are conflicts taking place elsewhere,” she told reporters.

Greenfield outlined three US priorities for the General Assembly: addressing global food insecurity; advancing global health and global health security; upholding the UN Charter and shaping the future of the United Nations.

“We believe this is a moment to defend the United Nations and to demonstrate to the world that it can still take the world’s most pressing global challenges on,” she said.

Observers say Biden will seek to balance US and European allies’ interests of supporting Ukraine and isolating Russia, with the myriad problems faced by the rest of the world.

“The US and its allies will be trying to convince non-Western countries that while there is a very strong focus on Russia’s war on Ukraine, the West also cares about the global food crisis and [it] becoming [a] global recession, and what that will do to the developing world,” Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group told VOA.

Gowan said that during the early phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Western diplomats demanded support for Ukraine from their African and Asian counterparts but did not hear their concerns about food security and the economic shocks linked to this war.

“Now, the US and the Europeans are really trying to send the message that they are sympathetic to the developing world’s economic concerns, and that they will work to address those concerns,” he said.

Food and health security

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, exports of food and fertilizer from the region have been disrupted, pushing post-pandemic food prices even higher. Some 828 million people go to bed hungry every night, according to the World Food Program.

The world is now not on track to achieve the UN goal of zero hunger by 2030, said Rob Vos, economist at the International Food Policy Research Institute.

“We need to invest a lot more in agriculture and food systems or particularly, to change things around in food systems such that they become more inclusive so that poor people can reap more benefits from it, that food prices stay low so that they’re accessible, and that production becomes more resilient and sustainable,” Vos told VOA.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will co-host a food security summit on the sidelines of the General Assembly Tuesday. On Wednesday, Biden will host a conference on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The US has given $2 billion out of the $6 billion committed, to meet the $18 billion needed globally.

“As COVID-19 reminded us, global health threats do not respect borders. We must tackle COVID-19, monkeypox and other outbreaks and we must do it together,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

FILE - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Security Council via video link during a meeting on threats to international peace and security, Aug.  24, 2022, at United Nations headquarters.

FILE – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the Security Council via video link during a meeting on threats to international peace and security, Aug. 24, 2022, at United Nations headquarters.

Security Council reform

The US will seek to advance efforts to reform the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), including “forging consensus around sensible and credible proposals to expand Security Council membership,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

The UNSC is composed of five permanent members with veto rights – China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK, and 10 non-permanent members elected by UNGA.

While UNSC reform is a decadeslong recurring narrative at the world body, the US has only recently said that it wants to work on it, Gowan said.

“I don’t think the Biden administration has a very clear plan for what sort of reforms he would like to see to the UN Charter,” Gowan said. “But since Russia’s assaults on Ukraine in February, a lot of diplomats in New York have been asking if this organization is fit for [its] purpose, and the US is responding to that general sense that you do need some reforms to the UN in light of this conflict.”

Gowan added that by showing it’s open to reform, the Biden administration can corner China and Russia by highlighting their reluctance to reform the council where they have the right to veto important decisions on global security.

Thomas-Greenfield noted that the US has and will continue to refrain from wielding its veto power except in “rare, extraordinary” circumstances. “Since 2009, Russia has cast 26 vetoes, 12 of which they were joined with China, and the US has only used our veto four times since 2009,” she said.

She said Biden will consult with other leaders during the assembly’s high-level session to reach consensus on expanding the council.

Observers say prospects of UNSC reform are dim. A key point of contention is whether new permanent seats should be created and whether they should have veto power. Proposals are under discussion to create a new category of permanent members without veto rights.