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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Topics: United Nations

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soundoff (72 Responses)
  1. 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 |
  2. 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 |
  3. 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 |
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