Developing: 5 stories to watch at the UN General Assembly

World leaders are convening in New York this week for the 72nd United Nations General Assembly.

Documents released by the UN indicate that education, trade and inequality are priorities for discussion. However, those topics may get sidelined by a range of volatile diplomatic issues such as Myanmar and North Korea.

North Korea

Statues of kim il sung and kim jong il in Pyongyang, North Korea
By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader,, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The war of words between Pyongyang and Washington is in focus amid fears it could escalate further.

On September 3, North Korea claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, the most dangerous weapon it has yet developed. It then fired a missile over Japan on September 10. The following day, the UN agreed to ratchet up sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s regime.

The U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told CNN on September 17 that the UN had “exhausted” its options regarding North Korea’s threatening behavior, but added that “none of us want war.”

President Donald J. Trump will be participating in a UN General Assembly for the first time. In a tweet on Sunday, Trump said that he was in discussions with South Korean president Moon Jae-in and referred to Kim Jong-Un as “rocket man” – signaling that the subject of North Korea will likely dominate discussion.

Myanmar’s “ethnic cleansing” of Rohingya

Aung San Suu Kyi
By Htoo Tay Zar (File:Aung San Suu Kyi gives speech.jpg) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Nobel laureate and de facto President of Myanmar Aung San Suu Kyi last week withdrew from attending the General Assembly amid criticism over her failure to act on or forcefully condemn Myanmar’s military campaign against the majority-Muslim Rohingya.

An estimated 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar over the past three weeks to escape what the UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Myanmar officials say that they are tackling “extremists.”

Ahead of the General Assembly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the UN to impose targeted sanctions and an arms embargo on Myanmar. HRW urged leaders gathering in New York to make the crisis a “priority” and consider imposing travel bans and asset freezes on individuals linked to the violence.

Reform agenda

The workings of the UN institutions are themselves set to come under the spotlight as Trump opens Monday’s proceedings with a high-level meeting to promote reform. Trump previously has criticized the UN for being bureaucratic and mismanaged and might call for a renegotiation of contributions. The U.S. is the biggest contributor to the UN, providing 22% of the body’s core budget and 28% of its peacekeeping budget.

UN Secretary General António Guterres, who took office in January, has previously spoken of the need to reform the UN to make it more responsive. At the opening session of the General Assembly he condemned the “endless red tape” and “bureaucracy” that he says undermine the UN.

Climate change

Hurricane Irma satellite image
Flickr/Karl-Ludwig Poggemann


Extreme weather has battered the U.S. and Caribbean over the past few weeks as Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas then Hurricane Irma left a trail of damage across the Caribbean and Florida.

A third storm, Hurricane Maria, is also bearing down on the Caribbean as leaders gather and is expected to follow Irma’s path to the U.S.

In addition to considering the immediate damage, particularly to poorer communities in the Caribbean, some leaders and activists may see the assembly as an opportunity to shine the spotlight on climate change.


President Trump
Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Any of the above issues could become the story of the week – or all could be entirely sidelined by the actions of President Trump.

Trump’s history of criticizing the UN is likely to come under scrutiny and his unorthodox style of diplomacy will be followed closely as global leaders gather.

It remains to be seen whether the U.S. president will use the assembly as an opportunity to drive debate on issues such as North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal and the isolation of Qatar.


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