5 stories to watch at the UN General Assembly

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The 72nd United Nations General Assembly began on 12 September but proceedings ramp up as world leaders convene in New York this week.

Documents released by the UN indicate that education, trade and inequality are priorities for discussion. That agenda may get sidelined as politicians take the opportunity to meet while facing 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, http://bjornfree.com/kim/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32400550

The war of words between Pyongyang and Washington DC rumbles on amid continuing tensions and the prospect that the spat could upgrade into something less hyperbolic.

On September 3, North Korea claimed to have detonated a Hydrogen Bomb, the most dangerous weapon it has yet developed. It followed this by firing a missile over Japan on September 10 and the UN agreed to ratchet up sanctions against Kim Jong-Un’s regime the following day.

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 behaviour, though she added that “none of us want war”.

The subject is likely to dominate discussions as President Donald J. Trump participates 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”.

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 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/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. She has been facing withering criticism for failing to act on or speak out against Myanmar’s military campaign against the majority-Muslim Rohingya.

An estimated 400,000 Rohingya have been forced to flee Myanmar over the past three weeks, facing a targeted campaign that UN human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein last week 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 called on 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, as well as considering economic sanctions.

Reform agenda

UN Secretary General António Guterres
By U.S. Mission Photo by Eric Bridiers [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The workings of the UN institutions are themselves set to come under the spotlight as President Trump opens Monday’s proceedings with a high-level meeting to promote reform.

Trump is expected to continue with his previous criticism, calling the UN bureaucratic and mis-managed. He might call for a renegotiation of contributions, with the U.S, 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 first Hurricane Harvey deluged Texas then Hurricane Irma left a trail of damage across the Caribbean and Florida.

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

As well as 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.

Trump

President Trump
Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Any of the above could become the story of the week or all could be entirely sidelined according to the actions of President Trump.

The U.S. president may try to take the assembly as an opportunity to be seen as a leader on the world stage, driving debate on issues such as North Korea, the Iran nuclear deal and the isolation of Qatar.

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

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