a photo of the UN building in New York, via Wikimedia Commons

The 4 Big Stories this UN Week

New York City streets are clogged. The Social Good Summit is uptown, the Clinton Global Initiative is in mid-town, and the eyes of the world are squarely focused on Turtle Bay. UN Week is here.

Here are the four big stories that will dominate the diplomatic agenda in New York this week.

1) The UN Climate Summit 

On Tuesday, hundreds of heads of state and key global leaders will descend on Turtle Bay for a one day summit on climate change. This meeting is not part of any formal negotiating process for an international binding treaty on climate change. Rather, it was called by Ban Ki Moon to help provide some momentum toward that agreement. (And the historic march in New York City on Sunday, in turn, was intended to build momentum for Tuesday’s meeting. )

That momentum is sorely needed. This will be the second largest gathering of world leaders to discuss climate change since the Copenhagen summit four years ago failed to produce a strong international agreement. The next chance to do so (perhaps even the last chance) will be in Paris in 2015. Between now and then, the international community will need to step up its game.  

Countries will likely use the UN stage as an opportunity to make policy statements and announce financial commitments that they will bring to the table during the heat of negotiations leading up to the Paris Summit. In particular, expect developed countries to announce contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which is a funding mechanism established by the Copenhagen accord to help developing countries finance their economic development in environmentally sustainable ways. 

(You can learn more about the diplomatic intricacies of this negotiation by listening to this Global Dispatches Podcast episode).

2) A Turning Point in the Fight Against Ebola?

The bad news: the outbreak is getting worse at an alarming rate. The number of people infected is rising exponentially, doubling every three weeks. The international response has been hampered by a lack of funding, lack of personnel and poor coordination. The outbreak was extraordinary. The response was not. 

But things may finally be turning around.

The Security Council last week held an unprecedented meeting on the ebola crisis, elevating the outbreak in West Africa to a threat to international peace and security.  The resolution, co-sponsored by 134 countries (the most ever for a UN Security Council Resolution), is an international call to arms against the outbreak and provides for a massive scaling up of assistance to affected countries. At the meeting, Ban Ki Moon announced the creation of a special United Nations Mission for Emergency Ebola Response to on-the-ground organization and logistic capacity to centralize the response from the UN system and NGOs that work closely with the UN.

The emergency session was convened at the behest of the United States and came two days after President Obama announced a huge scaling up of America’s ebola response. The USA is now firmly in the lead. And at least on paper, it has the backing of the rest of the world. The goal now is to turn the unity of the Security Council into specific actions that could help contain the outbreak. Expect UN diplomats to harness the momentum of the Security Council resolution for tangible commitments that member states can to bring to the fight against ebola.

3) Foreign Terrorist Fighters

An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 foreigners have flocked to Syria in the past three years to take up arms. Most of those foreign fighters have joined al Qaeda’s affiliate or it’s offshoot, ISIS. To put this figure in perspective, this number far exceeds the number of jihadis who traveled to Afghanistan to take up arms against the Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s—a group that included the core of people who later form al Qaeda. 

The prospect of thousands of would-be jihadis flocking to a war zone, then returning home battle-hardened is positively frightening to the governments of most UN member states. On Wednesday, President Obama will chair a meeting of the Security Council dedicated to stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fighters to and from war zones in the Middle East. This is only the second time in history that the a US president has personally chaired a Security Council meeting, which demonstrates both the priority to which the United States holds this issue, and the value that the United States believes the United Nations holds in helping to mitigate this threat. 

The Council is expected to pass a legally binding resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter that compels states to do more to monitor their borders and prevent their citizens from taking up arms in Syria. The resolution also contains measures—again legally binding — to compel countries to counter violent extremism by undertaking policies that reduce the “push” factors that inspire would-be jiahdis to want to flock to war zones. In a security council that has been so divided over Syria for the past three years, this resolution provides a moment of unity around a threat that affects most countries on the planet.  No one wants their citizens to join ISIS. 

4) 2030 Starts…Now

The Millennium Development Goals expire next year. This year will be dedicated to replacing them. Or, in UN speak, setting the “Post 2015 Development Agenda.” The aim i set this agenda for the next 15 years by the time world leaders return to New York one year from now. 

“The general view is that it needs to be bolder, more ambitious and more transformational than the MDGs,” says Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Program.  So far, that seems to be happening. For the past 18 months, disparate parts of the UN system have contributed to the process of deciding what should replace the MDGs. This included a group of 30 UN member states from a broadly representative cross section of counties charged with coming up with a first draft of what will be called the “Sustainable Development Goals.” In August, this group recommended 17 goals, which includes eliminating extreme poverty by 2030, to be forwarded to the entire UN General Assembly for debate and discussion.   

“This set of SDGs says what we need to do,” says Hungarian Ambassador to the UN Csaba Korosi, who co-chaired the 30 member group. “Now, we need to decide how we do it and we have one year more to decide this.”  The 69th General Assembly is when that will be decided. That starts this week.