The essential guide to the 2018 UN General Assembly

A man pauses outside the entrance to the Assembly Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, September 21, 2015. As leaders from…
A man pauses outside the entrance to the Assembly Building at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, September 21, 2015. As leaders from…
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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In perhaps the most powerful human migration wave in the world, heads of state, philanthropists and business leaders from hundreds of countries are flocking to New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly. This week, they’ll have their work cut out for them, to right an increasingly rudderless global ship.

Several UN member states have questioned the UN’s authority in the past year, and in June, IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned that clouds over the global economy were “getting darker by the day.” While last year’s fears that Donald Trump might radically defund the UN haven’t come to pass, he has already pulled the US out of the Human Rights Council, quit the Paris Climate Accord, and boycotted efforts to set global rules on migration.

The US president’s unpredictability has set the international community into something of a holding pattern, says Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “There is a real desire to try to hold things together while the “America First” bull is in the UN’s china closet—to try to limit the damage…and not to try to antagonize the president and get into shouting matches with him,” he says.

Few have serious hopes that UNGA 73.0 is going to solve its issues—especially with no-shows from China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Germany’s Angela Merkel. But the global meeting does offer an opportunity to publicly discuss the past year’s tensions, and its second week promises political theater aplenty, from the opening of general debate among UN member states to high-powered side events like the Concordia Annual Summit and Bloomberg Global Business Forum.

Here’s what to watch for:

Fiery speeches at the UN General Debate

The centerpiece of the United Nations General Assembly (just call it “Unga”) is the “General Debate,” in which a representative from each country supposedly steps up to discuss a central theme. This year’s theme—”Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies”—isn’t likely to get many a mention, however.

In practice, what you’re more likely to hear is a lengthy diatribe from each, on themes of their own choosing. The speeches begin on Sept. 25, and can be watched live on UN TV, which updates its programming schedule each morning.

Read more: Do we still need the United Nations? 

The future of work

On Sept. 24, White House sent Ivanka Trump and labor secretary Alexander Acosta to the satellite Concordia summit in New York to talk up the US’s low unemployment figures and extemporize on how to train workers for the labor market’s rapidly shifting needs. Execs from Uber and Postmates also headline a panel focused on workers keeping up with technological innovations.

Read more: The future of work will raise difficult questions. Are we prepared to confront them?

Cracking down on narcotics

Trump led a short event on narcotics on Sept. 24. The event was expected to show Republican voters that the president cares about the US opioid crisis, says James Cockayne, a drug policy expert at the United Nations University. It also gave Trump the chance to demonstrate he can get along with powers like China and Russia, as he attempts to “rally a caucus of conservative powers that want to signal the continuation of the war on drugs,” says Cockayne.

Watch for the response from UN secretary general Guterres, who enacted very liberal drug reforms as prime minister of Portugal.

Read more: When Trump calls for the death penalty to drug dealers, does he mean Big Pharma?

Peace through space

While the US and Russia are stuck in a geopolitical tit-for-tat, US and Russian astronauts have been happily living in a tiny shuttle hundreds of miles from Earth. Since the 1950s, the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs has encouraged peaceful cooperation in space, and now an NGO called Space Trust thinks space activities could be a means of creating peace on earth. On Sept. 24 and 25, the nonprofit will gather with UN space reps and heads of state to chat about it.

Read more: California will built its own satellite to fight climate change

Trump’s Security Council meeting on “counter-proliferation”

Donald Trump is planning to chair a special Security Council meeting on Sept. 26 about nuclear non-proliferation. The meeting had initially seemed designed to attack Iran, but its agenda was broadened to discuss “counter-proliferation” generally, after the UK and France quietly made clear they would have to defend the Iran nuclear deal.

Nonetheless, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has hinted that the meeting could still be explosive: ”I’m sure that is going to be the most watched Security Council meeting ever,” she told reporters.

Read more: Quitting the Iran deal cements America’s place outside the global order

Dark clouds over global trade

The US’s latest $200 billion in tariffs against China go into effect today (Sept. 24) and there are no public plans for US representatives to meet their Chinese counterparts at UNGA. This week is the administration’s deadline for the renegotiation of NAFTA, however, and we could see Canada and the US announce some sort of deal by Friday. One closely-watched speech will be US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer at the Concordia Summit on Sept. 25.

Read more: The US-Canada fight over dairy exposes an inconvenient truth about free markets

Humanitarian disasters

 in Yemen and South Sudan

Conflicts across the world are killing thousands of civilians and endangering millions more. A five-year war in South Sudan has put more than 7 million people in need of assistance and protection. Meanwhile, a three-year proxy war in Yemen has created what some call the world’s largest humanitarian emergency, with military blockades causing widespread starvation.

The UN’s office of humanitarian affairs will hold events to mobilize global funding and improve emergency responses, with a meeting about the humanitarian response in Yemen on Sept. 24, and on South Sudan on Sept. 25.  Somewhat less urgently, one session will explore how data could be used to prevent, prepare for, and respond to natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies.

Read more: The world’s youngest country is close to ending its brutal five-year civil war

The UN’s peacekeeping issues

On Sept 25, secretary general Guterres is convening member states to discuss improving UN peacekeeping missions. More than 120 countries are backing a declaration to develop political solutions to conflict, ensure civilian safety, and stop sexual abuse by UN officials, says Jake Sherman of the International Peace Institute. On the morning of Sept. 26, a UK-led panel will specifically examine sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in humanitarian work.

But Paula Donovan, co-director of Code Blue, which campaigns against sexual abuse by peacekeepers, is highly skeptical that the sessions will bring progress on sexual abuse: “They don’t want to hear constructive criticism,” she says. Lori Handrahan, who conducted an agency-wide sexual abuse review for the UN’s humanitarian affairs office (OCHA) in 2009, adds that action so far has been so minimal that they haven’t even installed software to stop employees who download and trade child pornography at OCHA. “They’re not even starting to address [sexual abuse],” she says.

Read more: To understand the UN’s failure to address sex crimes committed by peacekeepers, follow the money

Global health and disease prevention

On Sept. 26, the fight against tuberculosis will take the stage at UNGA. Even though it is preventable and curable, tuberculosis remains the world’s most lethal infectious disease. Other discussions will focus on non-communicable diseases.

Noncommunicable diseases, from cancer to diabetes, count for 63% of annual deaths worldwide. At UNGA, several governments will announce a partnership aimed at tackling these kinds of diseases.

Read more: Why infectious bacteria are winning

Gender equality, opportunity, and safety

The world has changed a lot since the last UNGA. Only a few weeks after world leaders left New York in 2017, the first allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein were made public, sparking the global #MeToo movement. Now, even as accusations of sexual harassment emerge from the UN ranks, women- and gender-focused events will take stock of global progress towards gender equality.

High-profile events such as the #SheisEqual Summit on Sept. 28, and the Sept. 26 HeforShe meeting will center on equal opportunities in business, politics, and the social arena, and safety for girls and women. Not much attention, however, has been reserved for LGBTQ communities; dozens of UN member states still criminalize homosexuality.

Read more: #MeToo is not about the fall of men

“Digital cooperation” and governance

To get countries and industries on the same page about digital innovation and governance, Guterres will convene a high-level panel of global experts on “digital cooperation” during UNGA. Chaired by Melinda Gates and Jack Ma, the panel is expected to deliver a report on the transformative impact of digital technologies and identify policy and information gaps.

Not everyone’s excited about that broad mission. Peter Micek, the general counsel at digital rights advocacy Access Now, says his and other organizations have written an open letter to Guterres expressing concern with the panel’s goals and composition. The letter notes, “We suggest that the panel, at its first meeting, clarify what it means by “digital cooperation.”

Read more: Can India take the pole position in global cyber governance?

Political conflict and Israel-Palestine

Numerous side meetings will address global political tensions, including Libya’s upcoming elections, violence in Cameroon, and a political crisis currently unfolding in Comoros.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is also top of mind, following the recent US announcement that it would cut more than $200 million in aid for the Palestinians. The administration also withheld $65 million from the UN relief agency UNRWA, which funds essential services like schools and health clinics for nearly two million people in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.

The economic crisis in Venezuela, riots and protests in Nicaragua, and Myanmar’s Rohingya are some of the other issues world leaders will confront in the coming days.

Read more: Trump’s plan for peace in the Middle East: Pick a fight with Palestine

Debunking stereotypes about migration

There are more than 65 million refugees in the world. Earlier this year, UN member states agreed on a shared approach to migration, and are working on a proposal for handling the refugee crisis, to be presented this fall. Continuing throughout the week, public events and private meetings will highlight inclusion for refugees and migrants, international cooperation in dealing with migration flows, and debunking the stereotype of immigrants as burdens to host countries.

Read more: Could you migrate to the US, Canada, or Hong Kong? Check our merit calculator