What UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres Says Are His Top Priorities for UNGA

In my 18 years of covering the United Nations, I’ve always caught the annual pre-UNGA press conference from the UN Secretary General — stretching back from Kofi Annan to Antonio Guterres! I wouldn’t say that the Secretary General can set the tone for UNGA— that comes more from the speeches of the Presidents and Prime Ministers. But the UN Secretary General can certainly influence the tenor of this most important week on the international diplomatic calendar.

For Antonio Guterres, the 2023 opening of the United Nations General Assembly is the culmination of several frenetic weeks of international summitry. In the last couple of weeks he attended the African Climate Summit in Nairobi, the ASEAN Summit in Jakarta, the G-20 meeting in New Delhi, and the G-77+China confab in Havana.

In his Pre-UNGA press conference this week,  the UN Secretary General acknowledged each of these meetings. “But next week begins the greatest ‘G’ of all,” he told the UN press corps. “The “G-193.” (This is referring to the 193 member states of the UN).

You watch his full remarks here. I’d offer two key takeaways:

First: It is clear from his remarks that Antonio Guterres sees as his top priority next week to be the instigation of rapid progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. These, of course, are the set of 17 Goals and 169 targets that members states agreed in 2015 to reach by 2030 — top among them: the total elimination of extreme poverty. 2023 marks the halfway point and the sad fact is, we are not close to reaching those targets. In many cases, progress has been reversed. COVID, in particular, had a devastating impact on progress towards several goals.

High Level Week kicks off on Monday with a day long summit specifically on the SDGs. Guterres expressed a degree of optimism that the SDG summit and the rest of UNGA will re-invigorate collective action on the SDGs. “I believe that next week there will be an important breakthrough in creating the conditions to rescue the Sustainable Development Goals.” he said. “I am very hopeful that the SDG Summit will indeed represent a quantum leap in response to the dramatic failures we have witnessed until now in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. That will be my most important objective next week.” He repeated the “quantum leap” line again, later in the presser.

I would not characterize Guterres as a perennial optimist. He has conveyed and expressed plenty of doom and gloom over the years! So the fact that he is teeing up UNGA78 to “represent a quantum leap” in achieving the SDGs is quite notable. I will certainly be watching for any concrete outcomes that might suggest that his optimism here is warranted.

Second: Antonio Guterres will use UNGA to try and revive the Black Sea Grain Initiative. In his press conference, he announced that he will be meeting with Zelenskyy, Erdogan and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks about rescuing this now dead deal. The UN and Turkey negotiated the deal with Ukraine and Russia, in which Russia permitted the export of Ukrainian grain to Turkey, where it would be inspected then sent off to its destinations around the world — mostly to Africa and the Middle East. When this deal was struck last year it helped bring down surging food prices in some of the poorest countries. But Russia unilaterally let the grain deal expire in July — and immediately began targeting Ukrainian food infrastructure, including bombing ports, grain silos and wheat fields.

Guterres has been testing the waters in recent weeks to see what sort of assurances Russia might demand in exchange for re-entering the grain deal. The Secretary General clearly sees UNGA as a prime opportunity to discuss this issue face-to-face with diplomats and leaders gathered in New York, including Lavrov. However, do not expect his Ukraine-focused diplomacy to venture far beyond the limited goal of seeking a revival of the Grain Deal. “I would love to have a chance to be able to mediate and have peace talks,” Guterres said. But it’s clear the parties are not ready for that just yet.

A few other updates of note:

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Be in touch: My UNGA schedule is packed. But if there’s an event you think I should attend or person you think I should meet, feel free to reach out. You can send me an email here.

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