Rishi Sunak is to become the first UK prime minister in a decade to skip the UN General Assembly, despite calls from non-governmental organisations for him to attend an event to achieve sustainable development.
Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly will lead the British delegation at the annual gathering of world leaders in New York in September, Downing Street said.
A No 10 spokesperson pointed to the Prime Minister’s busy schedule for the autumn, noting that he will meet counterparts at the G20 leaders’ summit in New Delhi on September 9 and 10 and the Cop28 UN climate summit in Dubai in November.
🗓 Save the date: SDG Action Weekend!
The SDG Mobilization Day on 16 September and SDG Acceleration Day on 17 September are perfect opportunities for all stakeholders to get engaged in the SDG Summit and help advance the #SDGs.
Learn more and register: https://t.co/M7nmRArXuj pic.twitter.com/HtOcaoGGBh
— UN DESA Sustainable Development (@SustDev) August 25, 2023
It is unusual for a modern British premier to miss the UN’s so-called high-level general debate.
Mr Sunak’s predecessors, including short-lived former prime minister Liz Truss, made time to travel to New York to deliver speeches on the world stage.
The last no-show from a UK leader was David Cameron in 2013.
More than a hundred aid and development leaders wrote to Mr Sunak, calling on him to go to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) summit – the centrepiece of this year’s UN gathering.
The SDG summit is held once every four years and marks the halfway point to the 2030 deadline for achieving the global plan to improve the planet and the quality of human life.
In a letter on Friday, the NGO leaders urged the Prime Minister to “walk the talk and show leadership by turning these commitments into action” and “rebuild the UK’s reputation as a trusted partner to lower-income countries and global actors”.
Stephanie Draper, chief executive of Bond – the UK network for international development organisations - said Britain appeared to have “stepped back from leadership on globally agreed goals”.
“The upcoming UN SDG Summit is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to show leadership on the global stage and rebuild the UK’s reputation as a trusted partner to lower-income countries, and this requires being present as a starting point,” she said.
Labour shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said earlier this month that Mr Sunak’s absence at the UN General Assembly “would mark a low ebb of the Conservatives’ isolationist foreign policy”.
Last year, the Prime Minister faced a backlash when he indicated he would miss Cop27 in Egypt and eventually decided to go after all.
The upcoming UN [Sustainable Development Goal] Summit is an opportunity for the prime minister to show leadership on the global stage and rebuild the UK’s reputation as a trusted partner to lower-income countries, and this requires being present as a starting point
— Stephanie Draper (@SDStephDraper) August 26, 2023
A No10 spokesperson said: “The UK delegation at the UN General Assembly High Level Week will be led by the Deputy Prime Minister, accompanied by the Foreign Secretary and others.
“The Prime Minister is expected to hold discussions with a number of world leaders in the coming weeks, including at the G20 Summit in New Delhi and the Cop28 Summit in the UAE.
“He and other ministers will continue to use all their engagements with their international counterparts to drive forward the Government’s priorities, including on growing the economy, stopping illegal migration and supporting Ukraine.”