In his speech opening the annual United Nations gathering of world leaders this week, Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres vowed – to applause – that he would “not give up” trying to get food and fertiliser from Russia and Ukraine to global markets.
After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 the United Nations blamed the war for worsening a global food crisis and a new diplomatic frontline emerged, with Moscow and Kyiv fighting to win over those hit hardest: poor and developing countries.
That battle has been at the forefront this week at the high-level UN General Assembly, where the applause for Guterres’ remarks on Tuesday underscored the push from those countries, particularly from the Global South, to get big powers to focus on their most important challenges.
“We are no longer willing to come to this annual parade merely to lend our voice to support of this or that global conflict or to condemn whoever from year to year as the new global enemy,” said Saint Lucia’s Prime Minister Philip Pierre. “No powerful nation’s global agenda is more important than our own,” he told the General Assembly.
It is not clear, however, that meetings at the UN this week will yield any quick relief to countries struggling to feed their people – specifically the revival of a landmark deal that had allowed the safe Black Sea export of Ukrainian grain, which Russia quit two months ago.
Guterres this week met separately with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and is also due to meet Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, but with no apparent breakthrough in efforts to revive the deal brokered by the UN and Turkey in July 2022.
The absence of four of the five leaders of the permanent UN Security Council members – US President Joe Biden was the only one attending – has further deepened the skepticism among developing nations.
“That is not how you build trust. That is not how you show solidarity. That is not accountability, and that is not leadership,” Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera told the General Assembly, referring to the absence of the other four leaders.
With geopolitical tensions looming over this week’s meetings – especially the rivalries between the United States, Russia and China – developing countries made the most of their position, said Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group.
“Developing countries know the US, China and Russia all want their support at the UN. They successfully leveraged their new influence to make sure the UN focused on their economic concerns this week,” said Gowan.
High on that list of concerns is addressing a global food crisis. Ukraine and Russia are both major grain exporters and Moscow is also a big supplier of fertiliser to the world.
“The world badly needs Ukrainian food and Russian food and fertilisers to stabilise markets and guarantee food security,” Guterres told the General Assembly.
Kenya’s President William Ruto, speaking at a World Economic Forum in New York, said that the war in Ukraine had “led to soaring prices of essential commodities such as food, fuel and fertiliser, amplifying the plight of vulnerable countries and communities.”