5 stories to follow during UN week
September 18th, 2011
11:35 PM ET

5 stories to follow during UN week

Editor's Note: Mark Leon Goldberg is the managing editor of the UN Dispatch blog.

By Mark Leon GoldbergUN Dispatch

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.”

Read: More about noncommunicable diseases.

4) The World’s Shame in Somalia

The worst drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa has led 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.

Read: The plight of southern Pakistan.

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 Moammar Gadhafi.

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 choose. Then, in a dramatic televised speech, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said the will go for option 1: full membership.

Read: Palestinians' UN vote and the International Criminal Court conundrum.

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 enough other countries to abstain, they won’t have to cast a potentially embarrassing veto. Stay tuned.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Mark Leon Goldberg.

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soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. Ishwari Adhikari

    The one thing that makes me confused is The UN always tries to solve the things happen, why they aren't able to avoid the situation before. It's better to use the power not to wound than to apply the treatment.

    September 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  2. sailer

    All these problems started in the Middle East with the advent of Islam in 632 A.D. They cannot co-exist with people of different religions and races or even among themselves which is the sad part of the story and the root cause.

    September 20, 2011 at 1:32 am | Reply
  3. sailer

    Palestinians do not believe in peace period! Israelis are fighting for their survival in the Middle East.

    September 20, 2011 at 1:38 am | Reply
    • Don


      September 21, 2011 at 1:10 am | Reply
  4. Josh

    Two states for two peoples. Jewish people is a nation state with the Palestinians. An Arab community that wants to stay right in the Jewish state. As above who wants to remain a Jewish settlement in the state of Palestinians. Must be reciprocity. Impossible for Palestinians to say that the state should be free of Jewish settlements and the same thing in reverse. The only problem which prevents peace today is not jewish settlements but the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the Jewish state.
    They say "2 states solution". they refuse to say "2 states for 2 nations". when palestinians say "2 states" they mean – 2 states for palestinians. unfortunatly, people are not aware to that of this important nuance.

    September 20, 2011 at 4:18 am | Reply
  5. Basim

    5 millions palestinians live inside israeli boarders, while the number of Jews is not more than 5 millions also, but the Jews control every thing and every thing, and the palestinians (muslim and christians) have no right as human right, palestinians live under siege and israel keep steal their land to build settlmets for Jews immigrants who come from outside of israel, israel do that and do it's racial discrimination against palestinians from decades. This what CNN and anothar american media not show, but all other world know it.

    September 20, 2011 at 7:36 am | Reply
  6. Friedrich

    A possible 6th story to follow would be the promotion of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly as recommended by the European Parliament earlier this year: http://en.unpacampaign.org/news/563.php

    Yesterday in Germany around 40 NGOs and 150 VIPs published an open letter to Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle urging them to step up for democracy also within the United Nations. Here is a brief report: http://en.unpacampaign.org/news/577.php

    I would appreciate GPS reporting on this possible 6th story.

    September 21, 2011 at 1:43 am | Reply
  7. Bribarian

    there's the US veto waiting, swindlers have corrupted america

    September 21, 2011 at 4:41 am | Reply
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