20 Sep 2022

PM Jacinda Ardern heads to New York for UN General Assembly

7:44 am on 20 September 2022
Jacinda Ardern

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

From the Big Smoke to the Big Apple. Fresh from the Queen's funeral, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is winging her way to New York to take part in this year's United Nations General Assembly.

She took the opportunity to join Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on his flight back across the Atlantic, and will arrive later this afternoon to pick up a busy programme of events.

Ardern joins a throng of world leaders leaping the North Atlantic to attend the UN's annual summit, having paid their respects in London.

The prime minister's travel agenda was swiftly re-worked in the wake of the Queen's death. Ardern will arrive in New York a full two days later than first planned, meaning a significant amount of business has been canned or rescheduled.

Some events - like Air New Zealand's ritzy roof-top party celebrating its new direct flight - went ahead in her absence. Tourism Minister Stuart Nash took her place but does not exactly inspire the same reaction Ardern does abroad.

This is the PM's second trip to the United States this year and, like her previous visit, was to have a heavy focus on promoting New Zealand as a destination for travel and investment.

That will now, necessarily, take more of a back seat both for logistical reasons and new sensitivities around what is appropriate during the royal mourning period.

Note that Ardern has no planned media appearances on the likes of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert - as on previous trips.

The UN programme has also been disrupted: the US President traditionally speaks on the opening day, but Joe Biden will now wait until day two.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were also to make an appearance but have unsurprisingly shelved their visit.

Similarly, Prince William was to speak at a sideline summit centred on the Earthshot Prize, an environmental award he founded in 2020. Ardern's role at the event has been elevated in his absence.

But while the Queen's death has upset the programme and consumed global attention, it will not derail attendees' diplomatic objectives.

The meeting marks the UN's first full-scale general assembly since the pandemic and comes at a time of serious peril and tense geopolitical relations.

Otago University international relations expert Robert Patman said he expected the Queen's death would cast "a bit of a shadow" over the atmosphere, but it would be the "perfect storm" of Russia's war in Ukraine and a global food crisis that would shape the debate and most the leaders' conversations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been allowed to give his address in a pre-recorded video, an exception to UNGA's rules. His speech will be closely watched after he last year used it to castigate the UN as a "retired superhero".

Patman said he expected Ardern would use her "strong international standing" to lobby for increased cooperation between countries as she has in previous years.

"The world is confronted with problems which do not respect borders and cannot be solved by great powers acting alone or even together," Patman told RNZ.

In an example of cooperative effort, Ardern will co-host a Christchurch Call to Action Leader's Summit with French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday (NZT).

Patman said the challenge of online extremism had deepened in recent years, proving the need for more momentum.

"The technology's got ahead of many of our regulations and laws - and we've got to have a catch-up. The Christchurch Call is part of the catch-up, but it's got to be refined and developed."

Ardern will also find time to sit down with a rollcall of world leaders on the event's sidelines in what is sometimes described as "diplomatic speed-dating".

When she was last at UNGA in 2019, Ardern met with heavyweights like then-US president Donald Trump and then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson.

Her full list of bilateral meetings has yet to be finalised but seems substantially lighter this year. Ardern had been expected to meet new UK Prime Minister Liz Truss in New York, but they instead met in London prior to the funeral.

In a change from previous years, Covid-19 restrictions mean the meetings will predominantly take place away from the UN headquarters complex.

Waikato University international law professor Al Gillespie said those leader-to-leader encounters were often more important than the event itself.

"UNGA is a pivot, it's a chance for [leaders] to come together and talk about everything else... and the importance of those personal relationships that leaders build up talking to one another."

As the world grapples with war, climate change, the pandemic, and economic instability, those relationships are becoming only ever more important.

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