5 Stories to Follow During UN Week

Hundreds of world leaders descend on New York City for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly.  Here are the topics that will drive the agenda at the United Nations this week.

1. Stuck on Syria

“I have 120 bilateral meetings,” Ban Ki Moon told press assembled for his annual briefing on the upcoming General Assembly last week. “Syria is at the top of my agenda.”

Ban’s focus is warranted. Since last year’s UN Summit, the Syrian rebellion morphed from a brutally suppressed uprising to an all out civil war. All the while, the Syrian crisis has exposed deep fissures at the Security Council between the western countries on one side and Russia and China on the other. On three separate Russia and China cast rare double vetoes to block the Security Council from taking measures that might undermine Bashar al Assad’s tenuous grip on power.

Last month, Kofi Annan resigned from his post at the joint UN-Arab League envoy for Syria after his ceasefire plan went unheeded. He was replaced by Lakhdar Brahimi, a capable, competent and highly accomplished international trouble shooter. Alas, all the diplomatic acumen in the world might not be able to overcome the fundamental dynamic that has paralyzed the Security Council. Unless Russia decides it’s time for Assad to go, the Security Council will remain divided and Brahimi’s job will be impossible.

Brahimi will addresses the Security Council for the first time on Monday after returning from Syria and the surrounding countries. With all eyes on the UN, and all eyes at the UN focused on the Syria crisis there might be an opportunity for a diplomatic breakthrough, but don’t hold your breath.

2. Crisis in the Sahel

When the regime of Muammar Gaddafi fell in Spring 2011, the complex web of tribal and ethnic militias he supported suddenly lost a patron. One of these groups were ethnic Tuareg militias near the border with Libya and Mali. In the ensuing chaos, Tuareg militias sought to revisit longstanding aspirations to carve out a homeland in the rugged terrain of Northern Mali. They took their guns across the border, teamed up with some al Qaeda inspired militant groups, and easily routed the Malian army.

It did not take long for the the Islamist militias to turn on their erstwhile Tuareg allies. They are now firmly in control of large swaths of northern Mali, including the historic city of Timbuktu. In scenes reminiscent of the Taliban, militants in Timbuktu destroyed ancient local holy cites and are exacting medieval forms of justice.

The conflict has exacerbated an already dire food and humanitarian crisis in the Sahel region of western Africa. Over 250,000 Malians have fled to neighbouring countries. Some 174,000 Malians are estimated to be internally displaced. UN humanitarian agencies are struggling to keep up with the demand.

The group of West African countries known as ECOWAS has been clamoring to mount an intervention in Northern Mali, in part to try and contain this crisis before it spreads any further. They want western countries (namely, France) to provide support. This means ECOWAS must bring its case for intervention to the Security Council. The USA and France have not ruled out supporting this intervention, but they have so far been cool to ECOWAS’ proposals.

On Wednesday, the Secretary General is convening a high level meeting on the crisis in the Sahel. Countries in the region and key donor countries like the USA and France will participate. The real action on the Sahel, though, will probably occur in side rooms and private conversations between ECOWAS leaders and members of the Security Council. Everyone agrees that the situation is intolerable. Diplomats this week will be working hard to find a way out of the crisis.

3) There’s a US Election! 

You may have noticed there’s a presidential election in the USA. Though UN Headquarters in New York is not officially American soil, it can’t quite escape the fact that its host country is at the tail end of a feverish presidential campaign.

In past years President Obama has camped out in New York for a couple of days or more during the UN General Assembly. He’s used the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings with other heads of state, hos receptions, and speak at various side events. During his first UN summit he even became the first US President to personally chair a meeting of the Security Council (the topic was nuclear proliferation).

This year, expect a much more scaled back agenda. His trip will be brief.  Very brief. President Obama will drop in. Give a speech. And head back to the campaign trail (after brief detour to the Clinton Global Initiative). No bilateral meetings are planned.

About that speech: President Obama has traditionally approached his speech to the General Assembly as something of State of the Union style address for the global set. This year, expect the speech to play more to a domestic audience.  President Obama will likely use the green marble backdrop of the General Assembly to make the case for how his policy of global engagement. It will very much be a foreign policy focused campaign style speech, but with emphasis on the value of multilateral cooperation to American interests.

For his part, Mitt Romney is also floating around New York. If past is precedent, expect Romney to take some shots at the UN–particularly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers his address.

4) Iran, Israel and the Nuclear Drama

Speaking of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this will be his final speech at the UN General Assembly so and expect him to go out with a bang. Chances are he will say something untoward about Israel, and the USA will lead it’s annual walkout as other countries follow.

But Ahmadinejad’s bluster is not the full story. Rather, all eyes will be on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address as high drama plays out between the Israelis and Iranians, with the USA caught in the middle.

It is no secret that there is not much love lost between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Just prior to the summit, Netanyahu’s office leaked to the press that Obama had turned down his request for a bilateral meeting at the UN. And then there was the time last year when Republicans in Congress invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress, which was an opportunity he used to not-so-subtly criticize the Obama administration.

Netanyahu’s address to the General Assembly this year will very much be intended for a domestic audience in the USA, just not the one that will likely vote for Obama. He has he has not been coy about his intention to use military means to disrupt Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. President Obama, however, is insisting that there is still time for diplomacy and is eager to avoid any conflagration before the election.

5) Sustainable Development Goals, or What Happens After the MDGs Expire?

The UN Summit is not all speechifying. Actual work will get done this week! One of the most important tasks before the General Assembly is coming up with a strategy for creating a new set of international development targets once the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.  The MDGs were a set of eight global health and poverty eradication goals world leaders agreed to at the UN in 2000. They expire in just three years time.

A panel of “eminent persons” lead by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia; President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia; and Prime Minister David Cameron of the United Kingdom will convene this week to help set a post-2015 international development agenda. (The USA will be represented by President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff and Center for American Progress founder John Podesta).

One thing that may creep into the agenda are the so-called Sustainable Development Goals. At a major UN Conference in Rio de Janeiro in June, governments agreed to create a set of “Sustainable Development Goals” that incorporate environmental sustainability with economic development. The thing is, they did not decide what these goals should be, how they should be decided, or who should make them.

If concepts of sustainability are included in the international development agenda, it could have a  powerful galvanizing effect as governments, civil society and the private sector coalesce around concrete targets. We saw this with the MDGs as Malaria deaths, HIV infections and child mortality have plummeted over the past 12 years.  If the “SDGs” are done right, the result could drive the global environmental and development agenda for a generation.