Everything You Need to Know About the 2013 UN General Assembly


As heads of state and national delegations descend on New York City for the 68th UN General Assembly meeting, New Yorkers are dreading the annual, massive traffic meltdown on the East Side.

The chaos in the streets surrounding the UN’s 18-acre site will resemble the difficult – sometimes outright uncomfortable – situations some members will face inside. The issues the UN General Assembly has set out in its agenda are some of the historically most challenging to date – some long-time entrenched problems, such as the reform of the Security Council – others dictated by recent events, such as the Syria question and finally key frameworks that enhance the institution’s long-term credibility, such as the discussion of progress on the Millennium Development Goals.

What to Watch: People, Problems and Progress

All the world is a stage at the annual meeting: Who could forget Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s graphically simple explanation of his red line on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program last year, or Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez calling then-President George W. Bush a “devil” in 2006. Similarly dramatic: The walkout by the Israeli delegation following then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s comments from the podium in 2012.

This year is no different and promises to have its share of possible eyebrow-raising moments. Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on genocide charges, reaffirmed over the weekend that he had booked his flight and a hotel to attend the meeting in New York, despite stern warnings from the State Department that his welcome would “not be a warm one.“

Traditionally, bilateral meetings surrounding the official discussions achieved as much, if not more momentum, than the meetings inside the UN HQ. On the back of the delicately negotiated Syria plan to disarm the country’s chemical weapons (discussions in the Security Council on a binding resolution will continue this week), the United States has also made additional diplomatic advances toward the other country often seen as an obstruction to Western-led advances in the UN Security Council: China.

Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Friday to discuss areas of mutual concern, including Syria, Iran and territorial disputes Beijing is having with its neighbors. The talks were labeled as constructive by both sides.  Instead of working around Russia and China, as Western members of the UN Security Council have in the past, active diplomacy seems to be returning as the order of the day. Useful, as China and Russia have been the hold-outs (read: threatened the use of their UNSC veto) on key questions with respect to the international community’s response on volatile issues, such as the sanctions regime against Iran.

With an overt thirty-plus-year long diplomatic freeze between the US and Iran, the tentative thawing of the relationship following the recent exchange of letters ahead of a possible in-person meeting between the U.S. and Iranian Presidents in New York on Tuesday (at a luncheon hosted by the UN Secretary General) is awaited with bated breath. The President signaled his interest in advancing discussions in good faith in his speech to the General Assembly this morning. Eager to use his visit to the UN as an opportunity to show “the true face of Iran,” President Rouhani has made advances toward more than one Western leader, including Germany’s president. Tone should never be discounted in easing discussions on substance in diplomacy, hence, the steps will likely have an effect in the discussions of the P5+1 representatives (the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) will have with Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday.

While the new ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, expressed frustration with multilateral diplomacy within the UN system just a few weeks ago, the deployment of UN chemical weapons inspectors, the subsequent Geneva talks and the unveiling of their findings in an official UN report on September 20, 2013 has underlined that the institutions remains a powerful locus of legitimation in international politics. While the matter of achieving a binding resolution invoking Chapter VII powers, which allows the Council to "determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression" and to take military and nonmilitary action to "restore international peace and security," is still at risk, multilateral diplomacy will drive these deliberations.

Nevertheless, we should expect to see little progress on reform of parts of the institutions itself. Much to the disappointment of hopeful future Security Council members, including India, Brazil and Germany, changes to the composition of the UNSC will likely remain but an agenda item. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is widely expected to take up the failure of the Security Council to alter its structure to be more reflective of changing international realities in his speech to the General Assembly on Saturday.  Though again, most of the Indian press will be listening less for these pronouncements than for what might be a near-chance encounter between Prime Minister Singh and his counter-part from Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, might discuss on the Line of Control and Kashmir mid-week.  

The best news of the week will likely receive the least amount of news coverage: There has been real progress on achieving the Millennium Development Goals, the guidelines that have redefined what constitutes ‘development’ from a holistic view since their elaboration. The May 2013 report takes a cautiously optimistic tone highlighting that key targets have already been met or are “within close reach.” The proportion of people living in extreme poverty around the world has been halved; over two billion people have achieved access to clean drinking water; a lowered debt burden is helping to level the playing field and allowing countries to close crucial economic and social development gaps. To make additional progress on the existing gaps, including on sanitation and the availability of essential medicines, the UN will need its global partners and increasingly other, diverse actors with shared, if not entirely overlapping agendas. Those actors – private, philanthropic, non-governmental, will be contributing to the traffic chaos in New York in their own way, as they discuss how to leverage partnership for impact at the annual Clinton Foundation Global Initiative meeting just a few blocks away at Times Square.