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Afghanistan tops laundry list of challenges at U.N. debate

Vaccine Inequality And Climate Change Also Big Topics As Leaders Gather In Person

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The United Nations Headquarters in New York: global leaders will be returning to the building after a mainly online General Assembly in 2020.   © Reuters

The situation in Afghanistan, the coronavirus vaccine and climate change are expected to dominate discussions at the U.N. General Assembly starting Tuesday, with dozens of global leaders meeting face to face for the first time in two years.

Despite U.S. requests that countries send prerecorded messages instead to curb the spread of the coronavirus, 83 heads of state, 43 prime ministers, three deputy prime ministers and 23 foreign ministers were scheduled to address the General Assembly in person as of Friday.

Each delegation will be permitted to bring up to seven members to the general debate, including the chief representative, according to outgoing General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir. Other meetings and events will be held online.

U.S. President Joe Biden will speak on the first day of debate Sept. 21. In addition to the fight against climate change, he will call for the protection of human rights in Myanmar and Afghanistan, from which American forces withdrew in August.

At last year's General Assembly, held largely online due to the pandemic, then-U.S. President Donald Trump said he was "proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first," making it difficult for countries to present a united front.

This year, Biden will aim to restore American leadership within the U.N., breaking with Trump's approach in order to counter China's growing clout within the body.

Biden is organizing a summit to address global vaccine inequalities on the sidelines of the General Assembly, according to a U.N. source.

Discussions at the assembly will likely largely focus on Afghanistan's interim Taliban-led government. Canada and the U.K. have been reluctant to recognize it over concern for women's and minorities' rights.

The U.N. Security Council issued a statement in August urging a new Afghan government "that is united, inclusive and representative -- including with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women."

That the interim government includes senior members who are under U.N. sanctions, and no women or minorities seems to indicate the Taliban are not receptive to pleas from the international community.

China and Russia have distanced themselves from Western criticism of the Taliban government. Both were absent from a meeting last Wednesday attended by the Group of Seven and the European Union to discuss the Afghan situation.

Beijing has welcomed the interim government as a key step toward ending a power vacuum in Afghanistan. The Taliban reportedly invited representatives from Russia, China and Pakistan to attend a ceremony to mark the launch of the new government.

Originally opposed to the restoration of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, the U.N. Security Council switched tack after the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani's administration, and called for a new government that reflects the will of the Afghan people

But recognition of the interim government by multiple countries could normalize human rights abuses and destabilize the region in the long term -- a major dilemma for the U.N.'s multilateral principles.

The Security Council will meet Sept. 23 to discuss the impact of climate change on security issues as more frequent heat waves, torrential rains and other extreme weather events necessitate effective steps against global warming.

The U.N. Climate Change Summit -- formally the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26 -- will be held in the U.K. starting October.