The UN General Assembly (UNGA) runs from Sept. 12-29, but this week is when the key events kick off. The centerpiece of the gathering of world leaders is the “general debate,” Sept. 19-29, when countries get to present their views to a plenary session of the UN on whatever topics take their fancy.
But with hundreds—possibly thousands!—of other official meetings, side conferences, panels, presentations, receptions, galas, and cocktail hours, and more organizations than you ever knew existed vying for a slice of attention from the world’s highest powers, it can be hard to know how to even begin to make sense of what the UNGA is about or what to pay attention to.
We’ve distilled a summary of the most important topics of discussion.
Recent UNGAs have tackled specific themes, such as the setting of the sustainable development goals, the run-up to the Paris climate agreement, and refugees. This year’s theme, “Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet” is as vague as they come.
According to Richard Gowan, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, UN officials and most diplomats were wary of putting any specific issue on the agenda for a simple reason: “There are 190-plus countries and it’s a one-man show: It’s all Trump.”
“The main theme will be, ‘What does America First mean for the UN?'” says Stewart Patrick, a director at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World. “Does the US no longer see itself as an indispensable power? Do the other countries feel like it’s dispensable?”
Trump has openly and repeatedly expressed his distrust of the UN—just last week he dismissed the security council’s latest sanctions on North Korea as “not a big deal,” undercutting his own UN ambassador, Nikki Haley—so all eyes will be on whether he uses his first appearance at a general assembly to rail at the organization from the podium or limits himself to demanding cuts in financing to UN programs and complaining in less formal settings. “I think everyone’s goal is to get to the end of next week without some sort of major diplomatic incident resulting from the president going off-beat,” says Gowan. So far, so good: Trump was calm and measured in his remarks at a meeting on UN reform this morning.
The US will bring a much smaller delegation than usual, Patrick says—about 300 people from the State Department, compared to the usual 1,000 or so. However, since Trump’s nationalistic chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has left the White House, Patrick says there may be “a pivot back to a more mainstream foreign policy.”
First and foremost, North Korea. After yet another missile test on Sept. 15, North Korea clearly wants to keep the pressure high during UNGA. For his part, Trump has not tried to diffuse the tension, using strong words and outright threats in response to the tests. Many, including Japan’s Shinzo Abe, will still argue that diplomacy is the only way out of the crisis, but with neither China’s Xi Jinping nor Russia’s Vladimir Putin attending the UNGA, much diplomatic progress this week is unlikely.
Less tense, yet related, is Iran‘s nuclear program. The situation there is less acute, Gowan says, but the prospect of the US dismantling the deal in the coming months is definitely there.
Another interesting moment will be Emmanuel Macron‘s first UNGA meeting as president of France. “He will come with a big pitch about the importance of multilateralism,” says Gowan, “and will almost inevitably portray himself as the alternative leader for global governance in the face of US retreat.”
Other important conflicts and international crises that will hopefully be brought to the attention of world leaders: Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Venezuela, and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar.
With hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose (which will dump rain on New York City this week), and even more deadly floods in Southeast Asia and Nigeria in the span of a couple of weeks, climate change will be on UN delegates’ minds. Secretary general António Guterres has flagged it as one of his priorities for the assembly. Some mixed messages emerged from the US over the weekend—the Wall Street Journal reported (paywall) that the administration is trying to find a way for the US not to leave the Paris Agreement as Trump announced in June, but officials have reiterated that Trump’s position has not changed.
Refugees were the focus of last year’s UNGA, and since Guterres was formerly head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, they will likely remain high on the UN’s agenda. Guterres has been making pleas to help the Rohingya, the Muslim minority being persecuted in Myanmar, but to little effect so far; Russia and China have blocked any serious action by the security council.
Gowan says many humanitarian organizations see eye to eye with Guterres and are pushing to make the Rohyingya crisis “the story of the General Assembly.” But it is likely to be a lower priority for many world leaders.
Under a new director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization will try to bring several health issues to attention. Universal health coverage is one of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, a set of targets for countries to aim for by 2030, and senator Bernie Sanders’ recent “Medicare for All” proposal has made it an unexpectedly topical US issue too. Other discussions will focus on the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant superbugs and on tuberculosis, which kills more people worldwide than AIDS and malaria and will be the subject of a high-level meeting at next year’s UNGA.
In the past few years “there’s been a tremendous rise in the focus on gender equality,” says Katja Iversen, the CEO of women’s advocacy group Women Deliver. She says governments and NGOs have become much more willing to listen to women’s and girls’ views when tackling anything from land rights, to access to clean water, to peacekeeping. During this UNGA, women’s-rights groups will be focusing on adolescent girls—in particular their nutrition, education, and access to birth control.
Sexual abuse and assault by UN peacekeepers has been a chronic problem: Over 2,000 allegations have been made since 2005. The UN has been under growing pressure to reform its peacekeeping operations, but is hobbled by the fact that it can’t investigate allegations against peacekeepers itself—that’s up to the country that sent the troops, which usually has an incentive to keep abuses quiet. Guterres has proposed a plan (paywall) to stop paying countries for peacekeeping operations if they don’t investigate accused troops, and instead put the money into a fund for survivors of abuse. There’s a high-level meeting on the subject at this UNGA.