And we are off. Delegations from all over the world have made their way to New York for a week filled with speeches, meetings and glitzy receptions. According to the UN, there will be 81 heads of state and 47 heads of government in town, with 342 meetings scheduled during the week, and 741 requests for bilateral meetings between member states. And that is not counting the countless dinners and side conversations between diplomats and journalists.
Peace is a key word being tagged on to several of this year’s meetings – while concerns are raised about heightened tensions on the world stage. Issues ranging from the US-China trade war to fears about the future of Palestine have increased concerns as multilateral cooperation regresses. At an event on Friday commemorating the late UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s life, which coincided with Peace Day, UN Secretary Antonio Guterres quoted his predecessor in saying that the UN is “the last best hope of humanity”, adding “we vow to carry forward his ideals and his peace-making spirit.” The championing of peace seems to be resting on two dead international figures – Mr Annan and Nelson Mandela whose memory will be celebrated on Monday with a Nelson Mandela Peace Summit. World leaders are expected to renew their commitment to peace, according to organisers.
How that commitment is translated will be seen over the course of the week. Hopes for an India-Pakistan Summit have been dashed before the week even starts and Iran has refused to respond to any of the concerns raised about its support of militants in the region.
One important development this year is a positive turn of events concerning North Korea. Only a year ago, concerns at the UN were of a possible military confrontation. This year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to meet his North Korean counterpart, following a successful summit between Korean leaders. While the US continues to perceive a threat from North Korea, it sees that threat as reduced with Pyongyang stopping its nuclear tests and missile launches.
While the US has taken the lead on North Korea, it was the UN’s efforts in late 2017 that helped pave the way for talks. Former Undersecretary General Jeffrey Feltman made several trips to Pyongyang to facilitate talks. UN peace efforts in Syria and Libya are being challenged but remain crucial, while UN Envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths is the lead contact point on the push for diplomatic progress in Yemen. Mr Guterres has made strengthening the UN’s secretariat and political arm a priority and these envoys are integral to that effort.
However, much remains to be done to enable the UN to play an effective role in peace-making. The international organisation continues on its own internal reform process, expected to feature heavily in Mr Guterres’ meetings with senior officials this week. That reform includes making the UN more representative across the board.
It is quite fitting that in the era of #MeToo, this year's president of UNGA is a woman, Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces, foreign minister of Ecuador. Only the fourth woman to hold the presidency in UNGA's 73-year history, Ms Garces is the first female President of UNGA since 2006 and the first from Latin America. She has said that her priorities this year will be to "revitalise and boost multilateralism, revitalise the General Assembly, revitalise the UN system… we all need and we will all benefit from a strong rules-based international system."