September 25th, 2012
10:31 AM ET

The five big issues at the U.N. General Assembly this week

By Mark Leon Goldberg

Mark Leon Goldberg is editor of U.N. Dispatch where a version of this originally appeared. The views expressed are his own.

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 U.N. 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 Western countries on one side and Russia and China on the other. On three separate occasions, 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 as the joint U.N.-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 al-Assad to go, the Security Council will remain divided and Brahimi’s job will be impossible.

2. Crisis in the Sahel

When the regime of Muammar Gadhafi fell in spring 2011, the complex web of tribal and ethnic militias he supported suddenly lost a patron. One of these groups was 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 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. More than 250,000 Malians have fled to neighboring countries. Some 174,000 Malians are estimated to be internally displaced. U.N. 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 United States 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 U.S. 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 U.S. election! 

You may have noticed there’s a presidential election taking place in the United States this November. Though U.N. 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 U.N. General Assembly. He’s used the opportunity to hold bilateral meetings with other heads of state, host receptions, and speak at various side events. During his first U.N. summit he even became the first U.S. president to personally chair a meeting of the Security Council (the topic was nuclear proliferation).

This year, there’s a scaled back agenda. His trip will be brief. Very brief. President Obama is dropping in, giving a speech this morning, and heading back to the campaign trail (after a brief detour to the Clinton Global Initiative). No bilateral meetings had been planned as of the time of writing this.

4) Iran, Israel and the nuclear drama

Speaking of Ahmadinejad, this will be his final speech at the U.N. General Assembly, so and expect him to go out with a bang. Chances are he will say something untoward about Israel, and the United States 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address as high drama plays out between the Israelis and Iranians, with the United States caught in the middle.

Netanyahu’s address to the General Assembly this year will very much be intended for a domestic audience in the United States, 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. 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 U.N. 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 United Nations 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 United States will be represented by President Bill Clinton’s former Chief of Staff and Center for American Progress founder John Podesta).

One thing that may creep into the agenda is the so-called Sustainable Development Goals. At a major U.N. 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.

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soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. Freedtoo

    Not an Obama supporter, but I must say I thought his speech was quite good. He was eloquent as usual and seemed sincere in his message. Important observation was his inclusion of Israel with the United states and the West when referring to riots and hatred issues. He also referred to Israel as a "Jewish state" in the context of Arab recognition of two States for Israeli's and Palestinians.

    September 25, 2012 at 11:25 am | Reply
    • Line Magnum

      Europeans would wanna USA to strenghten its' ties, political and business cooperation with EU and NATO members, and not allow South Korea to have that strong influence in the West. Thank you.

      September 25, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply
      • j. von hettlingen

        Your comment amused me! Nevertheless we have freedom of speech and thoughts!
        Indeed, the Syrian conflict will preoccupy the UN-GA, because of the unpredictable outcome his spillover effect has in the wider region. Iraq is torn by sectarian violence and the power-sharing among various ethnies and sects in Lebanon still leaves much to desire.

        September 26, 2012 at 7:12 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        please read, THIS spillover.... leaves much TO BE DESIRED.
        It's unclear whether the nuclear drama will see an end soon, if Israel insists on launching an attack on Iran'. Ahmadinejad is stepping down next year after 2 terms in office. There will be a power struggle. Sanctions bite and many ordinary Iranians have to struggle to make ends meet. The leadership is more concerned about the immediate woes than engaging in a war with Israel.

        September 26, 2012 at 7:23 am |
    • Noba-ma

      Ya all of you lib-tar-ds say you're not an Owebama supporter but you still vote for him.

      September 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
    • namis melek

      My brother you are right. Thats jealous because Isreal is choosen. Who are we to ask God why. Is of mercy not by merit or what have you. They that are against Isreal has already be judged. They are only looking for their doom which is almost at hand. Thats the Lord"s war and no nation can with stand God's anger, I mean God not muhammed.

      September 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  2. 100 % ETHIO

    Mr. Goldberg, your Cousin Natanyahu, must stay away from US.
    He keep beating the war drum, that his Ultra-Orthodox does not participate. But, he want Americans to die for him. What a FROG! He should come back to Chicago and continue his leftover financial advisor position.

    How much is enough for Jewish?

    Since 1907, Great Britain contributed too much, to make your Cousins to stand on their own foots. But, still now, they can't! They want US to keep changing their Diaper.

    My advise, stop hitting the war drum, you are not yet old enough.

    Smart, eh?

    September 25, 2012 at 11:27 am | Reply
    • Freedtoo

      Not one American has died for Israel in all it defensive battles. 1948,1967,1973. Not one American ,with the exception Jewish Americans living in Israel, has died in any of it's skirmishes with the surrounding terrorist states. Israel does not want a war, they want Iran to understand that if one should happen, they have the support of the US.

      September 25, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
      • nick

        Nice try with :defensive". Iraq war was in a large part for Israel and I still cannot forget the USS Liberty or Pollard. How Patriotic American are you that would like to keep Israel tied to our hips at any cost

        September 25, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
      • Freedom

        Israel does want a war they cant live with their neighbors period look at their history, if anyone wants to sign up and fight in this new war the u.s,a. Can't afford be my guess and that china we be funding?

        For the person that stated no American died during the 1967 Israel war ask me this why did Israel sink the USS LIBERTY

        September 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm |
      • Thinker23

        The war in Iraq was not "for" Israel but "for" Kuwait and other Arab states. You should recall that in addition of Israel Saddam managed to attack all it's neighbors except two. Further, if you "can not forget" USS Liberty you should know that it was A TRAGIC MISTAKE. Contrary to claims of those saying that the Jews are "chosen by God" and are, therefore, superhumans who can not make mistakes the Jews can and do make mistakes sometimes.

        September 25, 2012 at 12:46 pm |
      • Thinker23

        The war in Iraq was not "for" Israel but "for" Kuwait and other Arab states. You should recall that in addition of Israel Saddam managed to attack all its neighbors except two. Further, if you "can not forget" USS Liberty you should know that it was A TRAGIC MISTAKE. Contrary to claims of those saying that the Jews are "chosen by God" and are, therefore, superhumans who can not make mistakes the Jews can and do make mistakes sometimes.

        September 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm |
      • Thinker23

        Freedom... WHY did Israel sunk USS Liberty? WHAT did Israel gain from it?

        September 25, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • History Bear

      Your inability to draft and present a clear thought shows that you aren't even an american HS drop out. From the gist of your text your are pro-palistinian and anti-western. Please learn to write correctly before getting on the soap box. Otherwise you do a a few cogent points.

      September 25, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
  3. stephen jward

    I see on the U.N. Agenda not one of the five issues up for discussion has anything to do with RHINO POACHING.Now this is a REAL ISSUE that needs to be addressed,400 rhino killed,poached since Jan 2012!

    September 25, 2012 at 11:36 am | Reply
  4. HenryMiller

    "...all eyes will be on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s address as high drama plays out between the Israelis and Iranians, with the United States caught in the middle."

    "In the middle" is the last place the US ought to be. What Iran and Israel do to each other is none of our business.

    "Sustainable Development Goals"

    Yeah, the infamous Agenda 21, that authoritarian repudiation of freedom, "an amalgamation of socialism and extreme environmentalism brushed with anti-American, anti-capitalist overtones," and yet another good reason for the US to drop out of the UN.

    September 25, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • History Bear

      The UN is a dinosaur in many ways, but talking beats fighting in most cases. My problem with the SDG is that nowhere is there a mandate to reduce population growth. Too freaking many people in the world.

      September 25, 2012 at 11:48 am | Reply
      • HenryMiller

        You're right about the too many people, but the biggest "issues" with the UN has been signally unsuccessful in preventing wars and spend way too much of its time trying to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations–particularly Western ones.

        September 25, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
    • Thinker23

      HentyMiller... If Iran will start a war and Israel will have no other options but to fight back possibly turning the largest oil fields on the planet into radioactive wasteland it will very much become YOUR business, my friend.

      September 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
      • HenryMiller

        Not if we develop our own resources, which we should be doing anyway.

        September 25, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
      • Gene

        Simple research skills would enable you to discover the huge amount of work in alternate resources.
        What? you thought you were the first to think of it? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...

        September 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  5. History Bear

    The UN, like any organization , is only of value when the participating parties agree to honor it's mandates. I'd be more in favor of listening to it if it's body wasn't so biased and if the West , particulary the US, weren't paying the bills for all the members to live in luxury even while most of their fellow country men suffered in abject poverty and ignorance. The idea behind this dinosaur is still valid, but it badly needs restructuring .

    September 25, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
    • opinion4

      Easy, HB: Get the other members to put up equal financial support for the UN.

      September 25, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  6. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    While the world is nearly not as bad as the war mongers in the GOP (only some of them) might want us to believe, it SURELY is not as peaceful as Obama thinks it is, for the following reasons:.

    a) Iranian & Pakistani ISLAMIC BOMBS – imagine a volatile ME awash with Nukes with the Saudis, Turks, Egyptians all jumping-in to counter the Iranian threat!

    b) Unadaptable Pakistani & Muslim diaspora who per FBI & MI-6 analysis remain an OMNI-POTENT internal danger to western civilization.
    c) The very real threat of the Chinese-politically, strategically, economically, and finally & MOST IMPORTANTLY

    c) Western world's own complacence on several key issues MISLED by people like CNN's own Fareed Zakaria with a COVERT agenda to Islamisize the west, and bring America & Europe down on its knees, as a response to our PERCIEVED INJUSTICES against the Muslim world.

    Unless we tame all these demons the demise of AMERICA & EUROPE that we know of is NOT a question of "IF", but "WHEN"!

    September 25, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  7. Amit-Atlanta-USA

    While most wars are evil, some are NECESSARY EVILS which may just be needed to avoid MUCH GREATER CATASTROPHY later...and the Iran war may actually be one such war!

    Without imposing my religious beliefs on any of you, it's almost tempting to draw a parallel here to the ancient Hindu mythology of "MAHABHARATA" acknowledged to be one the greatest epics of all time.

    It's a war that Lord Krishna forces on the Pandavas' (the good forces) on their own cousins -the Kauravas (the evil forces). While the story is set in the backdrop of the war, it has over 152,000 shlokas (verses) that deals with Dharma (right & wrong), war & treatment of prisoners, civility, relationships, human rights, the value of family & motherhood, childcare (I can quote a 100 other topics here!), literally every subject that has great relevance to mankind today.....without injecting religion into it. This ancient scripture has in it, scientific knowledge such as the growth of the human foetus (its learning abilities as a direct result of stimulus such as Music, Excercise, Food, Atmosphere etc.), art of warfare, propulsion systems etc. that modern science is even today discovering!

    Again, NOT to impose my Hindu religion on anyone, I would advise anyone just to spend a few minutes reading "MAHABHARATA" on wikipedia to gain a perspective on what may be ailing mankind today and what can be done to alleviate that!

    September 25, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • netaji

      Yes. I have read the Mahabharatha. What part do you like to recommend? 5 Brothers Sharing 1 Wife? The Pandavs Betting their wife in a Game OR Krishna having RAAS Lila OR Krishna deceiving Duryodhana to cover his private parts
      when his mother wanted to bless him with KAVACH that could protect him only to point out that place to BHIMA as a
      SOFT SPOT. It was a STORY written by Drunk Sadhoos. Nothing more.

      September 25, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  8. Jack 3

    Letterman should stay out of politics. We made him famous for being a late show host not a political analyst. It's wrong for him to now use his position to influence politics. Plus, he's a lowlife liberal.

    September 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • mb2010a

      But, of course we should listen to you instead...a low-life conservative tea bagger. Hmmmm....

      September 25, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  9. dubs

    I love the smell of Napalm in the morning, smells like victory!!

    September 25, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  10. Chuck

    So I guess Reed's last slam against Mitt is not news worthy? Check it out on fox they reported it. Guess it makes the Dems look bad so it's not reported here.

    September 25, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Reply
  11. sharif wali khrmangi

    This could be five most important issues in your eyes, but the issue of the Nuclear program
    of Iran is most important. Iran is right to its peaceful nuclear program and no one has a law to enforce them to stop this right. US and all other world atomic powers are using Nuclear tech for their energy needs, then why they are barking at iran? If US and UN feels iran should stop this, why they dont talk to the Israel and other nuclear powers to vanish their atomic weapons first????? Its the dual policy that must be ended.

    September 27, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  12. Paul

    You know that world is in a shambles when you have things like ki moon running the united nations and then still appointing his friend zuma in education – what a shocking state of affairs but then I guess useless things are appointed to useless organizations

    September 27, 2012 at 3:03 am | Reply
  13. Paul

    Agreed – isn't fareed zakaria the total pits – repulsive thing – thought he had been fired for plagiarism ?

    September 27, 2012 at 3:06 am | Reply

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