The 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly opens tomorrow; yet most people won’t pay attention to news coming out of the UN until next week, when the world’s leaders descend upon New York for their annual gathering. While UNGA comes into session this week with little fanfare, the high-level general debate will kick off on September 24, with the international media following heads of state and government giving their annual address to the world.
The official theme of this year’s general debate will be “making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies”. Quite the title. Making the UN relevant to all people is a goal to be lauded. Global leadership is in distress and shared responsibilities are shared by too few in a polarised world.
However, there are concrete issues at stake. Palestinian leaders will be going to New York to secure a future beyond the dramatic steps the US has taken to undermine their bid for statehood – even though the UN itself has largely abandoned its responsibility towards Palestine and failed to enforce resolution 242, which was passed unanimously 50 years ago.
That is despite 137 out of the world’s 193 countries recognising Palestine as a state. In November 2012, the majority of members of UNGA voted to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a “non-member observer state” after the UN Security Council blocked efforts to make it a full member. The role of UNGA will be crucial this time to voice global support for Palestinians in response to American blows to the aid agency UNRWA and UN-mandated parameters for a two-state solution.
As ever, each country comes to New York with its own priorities and ambitions.
For the Arab world, developments regarding Palestine, Yemen, Libya and Syria top the agenda. Each of these countries has its own UN envoy, yet little traction can be expected out of the general assembly for any of them. The exception could be Iran.
This will be Donald Trump’s second UNGA and the American president is expected to chair a UN Security Council meeting on Iran on September 26. Months after Washington’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal, the American administration wants to use this international platform to highlight the Iranian regime’s activities in the region and beyond. How that will translate into action on a multilateral level will become clearer next week.
Known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the word “deal” was always kept out of official documentation. What Mr Trump will most likely do is explain why a deal is not possible with Iran under current circumstances.
For their part, Iranian leaders will repeat their so-called charm offensive in New York. A staple of UNGA, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif often court the world’s press with interviews and comments to think tanks, skirting over real concerns of their arming of militias in a number of Arab countries.
Another nuclear issue that is expected to dominate the headlines is that of North Korea. After years of Pyongyang flouting international concerns over its ballistic missiles and nuclear programme, the rogue country will attend after its first summit between Mr Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. All eyes will be trained on how that peace track progresses in the coming months.
This year’s marathon of diplomatic meetings will not have the same momentum as last year. It has been a year-and-a-half since Antonio Guterres picked up the mantle of leading the UN. He has encountered the same frustrations as his predecessors – with the root concern being the conflicting interests of rivals at the Security Council.
As with every year, certain countries continue to promote multilateral efforts to tackle the world’s biggest challenges. On September 24, there will be a Nelson Mandela peace summit to honour the centenary of the late leader’s birth. The president of South Africa and prime minister of Ireland are expected to give speeches, with a global declaration to be announced in support of peace.
The reality is that the declaration is highly unlikely to resonate outside the meeting room. Judging from previous world declarations on climate change and migration, it is hard to be optimistic that this declaration will fare any better.
Yet some progress should be noted and lauded. The Sustainable Development Goals, passed in 2015 by all member states of the UN, continue to provide a framework for collaboration. On September 26, UNGA will hold a high-level meeting on the fight against tuberculosis. This will be followed the next day with a day of reviewing the progress in tackling and preventing non-communicable diseases.
While headlines from these meetings might not set the internet on fire, progress on health issues cannot be achieved without international co-operation. It is in everyone’s interest to achieve progress on disease control and prevention. It is here that the UN plays the most active role but it cannot be a substitute for the pressing need for peace and conflict resolution.