5 Stories to Follow During UN Week

UN Week is here. Soon, world leaders will descend on Turtle Bay for the annual ritual of speeches, press conferences and back-room wheeling and dealing. Here are the top five stories on the agenda this week in New York, ranked in descending order of likely media interest. So, without further ado–5 stories to watch during UN Week.   

5) Non-Communicable Diseases

One of the major thematic focuses of this year’s UN General Assembly is the rise of non-communicable diseases in the developing world. Long thought of as diseases only suffered in rich countries (we are talking about heart diseases, diabetes, respiratory illness, cancer) NCDs are becoming increasingly common in developing world countries. This is partly a success of economic development, but it is also a challenge for the international community. The fact that there are four oncologists in a country of 82 million people is problematic.

In June, the World Health Organization released a first of its kind global snapshot of the toll that NCDs take worldwide. It found: “Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, are by far the leading cause of mortality in the world, representing 63% of all deaths. Out of the 36 million people who died from chronic disease in 2008, 29% were under 60 and half were women.” The report also finds that the burden of suffering from NCDs is disproportionately felt by the developing world,which accounts for 80% of all NCD related mortality. Oh, and it should not come as a surprise, but tobacco use is one of the leading causes of  NCD-related mortality, killing some 6 million people a year.

On Monday and Tuesday, health ministers and other world leaders will gather for a first of its kind summit on NCDs. This is only the second time the General Assembly has met on a health issue—the first time was on HIV/AIDS in 2002. According to the WHO “The aim is for countries to adopt a concise, action-oriented outcome document that will shape the global agendas for generations to come.”

4) The World’s Shame in Somalia

The worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa has lead to the first famine of the 21st century. The United Nations warns that 750,000 people could die in the coming months if international humanitarian assistance to the Horn of Africa is not scaled up.  Six regions of Somalia are suffering from famine..so far—it is expected to spread further as population disruptions continue.  About one in every three Somalis are living as refugees or as internally displaced persons. Kenya and Ethiopia are also bearing the brunt of the crisis.  Refugee camps over the border from Somalia are overflowing with families who have fled famine stricken areas.

The UN says that humanitarian groups on the ground like the World Food Program, Red Cross/Red Crescent, UNICEF and others need a total of $2.4 billion to meet the basic humanitarian needs of 13 million people affected by this crisis. So far, they have only been able to raise about or 62% of that total, leaving a funding gap of $943 million (as of last week).  The United States is by far the most generous donor to this crisis–having contributed over $590 million. But unless world leaders are content to watch nearly 1 million people needlessly waste away in the coming months, more funding is going to be required. Expect tapped out Americans and Europeans to lean on non-traditional donors, like the Chinese and Arab oil states to pick up some of the slack.

3) Syria

Over 2,600 people have been killed in the violent suppression of a popular rebellion in Syria. The Security Council, though, is basically stuck. The United States, United Kingdom and France are pushing hard for a resolution that would, at the very least, impose an asset freeze and travel ban on top members of the Assad regime and impose and arms embargo. So far, this move has been steadfastly resisted by Russia and China.

The key swing vote in this debate is the Arab League. If the Arab League backs sanctioning one of its own, it is almost certain that Russia and China would abstain from the vote. So far, though, the Arab league has tried to play the role of peace broker. Last week, its head visited Damascus to press Assad into accepting its proposal for a transition to democracy by 2014.  Protesters seem almost as displeased with this proposal as Assad himself.

The summit provides the opportunity for some face to face meetings in which western powers may try to convince key regional players to support sanctions against the Syrian regime. Until they do so, the UN’s role in Syria remains in limbo.

2) Libya and the Arab Spring

Fixtures like Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali will be conspicuously absent from the General Assembly podium this year. And to the delight of overworked translators and chagrin of late night comics, there shall be no long rambling  speech from Muammar Ghaddafi.

This is the first major global meeting since the Arab Spring movement. Without a doubt the rhetorical nods that leaders tend to give to themes of democracy and good governance will take on new meaning. Expect the Arab Spring to play a prominent role in nearly every speech by every global leader who speaks at the General Debate next week.

This will take on particular urgency on Libya. Last Friday night, the Security Council  approved a new UN Mission to Libya. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) is tasked with supporting the National Transitional Council organize elections, help draft a constitution, coordinate the international humanitarian response and promote economic development activities.  Divvying up national responsibilities in each of these areas (and deciding who will staff the new mission) will likely be a big topic of discussions in the corridors of the UN this week.

1) “Member State of Palestine?”

One year ago, President Obama boldly stated “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

It would appear that the Palestinians are prepared to take him up on that.

For weeks, the Palestinians have said they will ask the General Assembly to vote on Palestinian membership to the United Nations. Until last Friday it was unclear what, exactly the Palestinians would ask of the General Assembly. A vote on full membership to the UN would have to be referred to the Security Council, where it almost certainly faces an American veto.  A vote to confer “observer state” status for Palestine would grant Palestine the same level of membership as, say, the Vatican (and probably allow it to join other treaty based organizations), but would not require any action by the Security Council. Until last Friday it was unclear which path the Palestinians would chose. Then, in a dramatic televised speech, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the will go for option 1: full membership.

This puts the Palestinians on a collision course with the United States.  After the GA vote this week the Security Council will take some time to act on the resolution—and in the meantime there is going to be some heavy jockeying for votes.  To pass the Security Council requires 9 affirmative votes and no vetoes. If the USA can convince at least 14 6 other countries to abstain, they won’t have to cast a potentially embarrassing veto. Stay tuned.