It’s that time of year! World leaders are gathering at the United Nations this week for the start of the 71st General Assembly. These five issues will drive diplomacy around Turtle Bay and beyond.
1) Diplomatic Intrigue: Who Will Be The Next Secretary General?
This is Ban Ki Moon’s final UNGA. His term expires midnight on December 31, but his replacement has yet to be selected. Over the past several months, about a dozen global leaders have put their hat in the ring to become the next UN Secretary General. Now, after several public hearings, debates, and behind-the-scenes politicking the race to replace Ban Ki Moon is heating up.
His successor must pass muster with the 15 member Security Council, and then be approved by the entire UN membership. Since July, there have been four informal straw polls held at the Security Council and a few clear frontrunners have emerged. Top among them is the former Prime Minister of Portugal and former UN high commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres. But despite leading in the straw polls, his candidacy may face a veto threat by Russia, who could insist that the next S-G be selected from eastern Europe. Other contenders include Irina Bokova, the UNESCO chief who hails from Bulgaria, Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcak, and Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and current head of the UN Development Program.
Selecting the next leader of the United Nations is one of the most pressing issues facing the UN this year. Expect a great deal of backroom negotiating among key international players gathered in New York to help winnow down the field to pick the 9th Secretary General.
2) Obama’s Farewell Tour
When President Obama assumed office in January 2009, the reputation of the United States at the United Nations was in the gutter, largely due to the global unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration and its sometimes dismissive attitudes toward international law in general and the UN in particular.
President Obama first entered the United Nations promising a new era of American leadership at the UN and he largely delivered. Unlike his immediate predecessor Obama typically spends several days in New York, in and around the UN. He has used his time there to gather support around specific causes, issues, and ideas that are American priorities at the UN. He is the first and only US president to have ever personally chaired a Security Council meeting (on non-proliferation); and has lead mini-summits on the sidelines of the General Assembly around things like bolstering international cooperation on combating terrorism and strengthening UN peacekeeping. His address to UNGA is among the most anticipated foreign policy speech of the year.
This year, President Obama is hosting a “Leaders Summit on Refugees” in which global leaders are expected to bring concrete pledges to the table in terms of responding to the global refugee crisis. This is a typical example of the “pay to play” strategy that the Obama administration has employed to advance discreet causes at the United Nations. Expect new pledges from governments around the world and key private sector players. It would be a fitting sign-off for Obama, who during his farewell address to the General Assembly can be expected to tout some of his key foreign policy accomplishments, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the Sustainable Development Goals.
3) Fighting Over Syria
Standing in stark contrast to these accomplishments is Syria.
As world leaders gather in New York a shaky ceasefire in Syria is poised to collapse, and friction between the United States and Russia might lead to its total unraveling.
The current ceasefire was negotiated on September 9th, largely between John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The specific text of the agreement has not been made public, but it did call for humanitarian access to besieged populations; a halt to government-lead offensives, including barrel bombing of population centers; a ceasefire by mainstream rebel groups; and joint Russian and American cooperation against extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda affiliates.
Both men will be in New York this week, but a planned Security Council meeting meeting on Syria was cancelled last Friday after Russia and the United States clashed over the question of whether or not to publicly release the text of the ceasefire agreement. (Russia is in favor. The USA is opposed, citing “operational security” of their joint operations against terrorist groups).
Things took a further turn for the worse on Saturday, when Russia called an emergency meeting of the Security Council after American jets bombed Syrian government troops, killing scores. The Americans expressed regret for what it deemed a targeting error, but the Russians insisted on a special Saturday night meeting of the Council. A fiery exchange of words between Samantha Power and her Russian counterpart erupted at the meeting, and by Sunday there was news of Syrian government bombing of rebel held areas of Aleppo.
In the meantime, the humanitarian situation in cities like Aleppo is as dire as ever. Access to besieged populations is halting, and there still appears to be key roadblocks to the delivery of aid that are being imposed by the Syrian government.
4) Refugees, Migrants
There are more people displaced around the world today than at any time since World War Two. Some 65 million people have fled violence or persecution, and that number is only increasing. The top driver of the global displacement crisis is the conflict in Syria. But instability and persecution in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, and Honduras, among other places, are forcing more and more people to flee their homes every year. “We are in an age of conflicts that never end,” says UN Refugee Agency spokesperson Melissa Fleming. “Refugees are in exile for an average of 20 years.”
There will be two key events at the UN this week intended to help mitigate this crisis. The first is a meeting convened by the United Nations itself, called the “Summit for Refugees and Migrants.” This summit will produce an outcome document that represents a consensus statement by all UN membership on steps that need to be taken to better confront this crisis. There are helpful elements of this document, but it has largely been criticized by advocates for being too week for the challenge, and riddled with caveats inserted by governments that have little interest in living up to their international obligations.
On the other hand, advocates are far more hopeful for a second big meeting at the UN: The “Leaders Summit on Refugees” hosted by President Obama. As the price of attending this meeting with the US president, governments and other key players like the World Bank are expected to make big pledges to support refugees around the world. You can expect traditional donor governments like Japan and Europe to announce new funding streams, but also you can expect refugee host countries like Turkey and Jordan to announce big policy changes (like lowering barriers to education and workforce entry) that would make life easier for the refugees in their midst.
In the midst of the worst refugee crisis in three generations, the world can be rightly criticized for not doing enough. But there is some hope that this meeting at the UN could be an important step in the right direction.
5) Fight the Resistance!
For most of human history, microbes (especially disease-causing bacteria) held the upper hand in their fight against humanity. Then, about 90 years ago, the first antibiotics came on the market and diseases that sickened or killed humans for millennia were tamed. But in recent years humanity has started to lose the edge.
At issue is the overuse of antimicrobials, which is causing new resistant strains of bacteria to emerge that can sicken and kill humans who can no longer turn to traditional antibiotics. If current trends continue, some 10 million people around the world could die each year by 2050, a number on order of the magnitude of global cancer death today. “Around the world we are beginning to see that the infections we are worried about on a day-to-day basis are untreatable,” says Dr. Keiji Fukuda Assistant Director General of the World Health Organization. “These are not esoteric infections. We are talking about pneumonia, urinary tract infections, a tooth abscess — it’s an amazingly broad range of infections.” When you can’t turn to antibiotics to treat common infections “the whole basis of modern medicine becomes shaky,” he says.
On Wednesday at the UN, the international community will hold the first major global gathering to address the overuse of antibiotics and the rise of anti-microbial resistance. This is only the fourth time in history that UNGA has focused on a health issue and the outcome document from this meeting is intended to slow the overuse of antimicrobials in agriculture and human medicine; and spur the development of new antibiotics. “We have something that is historic,” says Dr. Fukuda. “This is an issue on order of magnitude as the emergence of HIV years ago or climate change today.”
Want to go deeper? Check out this 25 minute podcast episode about the big storylines that will drive the agenda at the UN this week.