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What to expect at the UN General Assembly

Washington D.C.   /   Mon, September 24, 2018   /   02:45 pm
What to expect at the UN General Assembly US President Donald Trump addresses the 72nd Annual UN General Assembly in New York on Sept. 19, 2017. (Agence France -Presse/Timothy A. Clary)

It is that time of the year, time for the largest international political gathering of heads of states, thought leaders, civil society members, development practitioners, and other industry professionals. The 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York opened on Sept. 18.

This year’s theme is all about “Making the United Nations relevant for all people”, but will this year’s General Assembly bring new hope or new criticism for multilateralism? 

The  General Assembly convenes every year in mid-September for three months, a deliberative platform for 193 member states to allow their high-level heads of state to discuss issues ranging from humanitarian, security to development.

Established in 1945 under the UN Charter as the UN’s main deliberative, policymaking and representative of the UN,  the General Assembly is a unique form of multilateral discussion for all member states. Thus, with the amount of actors involved in one sitting, consensus might not be the main focus of the body. It is the only UN body that has equal representation from every member nation and often influences the codification of international laws.

Making the UN inclusive to all individuals, as this year’s theme suggests, is highly ambitious. In this polarized world, global leadership is in distress and shared responsibilities are shared by too few. 

The UN meeting is always a bit of a circus. The stakes are high, but expectations are manageable. This is because with different issues being brought to the table along with the different actors involved, it is difficult to focus on one particular issue and deep-dive to create concrete and specific solutions for it.

So, here are just three broad issues that we can expect to be in the spotlight:

Humanitarian

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and his top human rights official have described the killings and persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority as a textbook example of ethnic cleansing. With over 600,000 Rohingya refugees now in Bangladesh and daily evidence of atrocities in Myanmar, what will world leaders say? Will the UN Security Council (UNSC), which is empowered to do something to halt the killings, maintain its conspicuously mild response despite increased pressure to act quickly? These are several questions to think about.

Security

United States President, Donald Trump will reportedly attend the UNSC session for next week’s agenda. However, due to his repeatedly expressed distrust of the UN since his debut in UNGA last year, it will be interesting to see Trump’s view on security as he has constantly been dismissing the UN’s effective role as a multilateral agent. This is seen in the withdrawal of funds for UN activity by the US government.

On the other hand, this will also be Indonesia’s first time after 10 years to debut its role as a non-permanent member of the UNSC. Winning the non-permanent bid is an invaluable opportunity for Indonesia to achieve its goals of global peace and security, to enhance its reputation, and draw attention to regional issues.

However, Indonesia will unlikely push for any big changes during its tenure on the Security Council. While some have wondered whether Indonesia will raise the South China Sea issue, this seems exceedingly unlikely pending significant changes to the situation. How will Indonesia position themselves as the peace-broker will be interesting to observe.

Development

From climate change to rural migration, these issues will be a hot topic that directly relates to this year’s theme. Mobilizing the 17 Sustainable Development Goals is the way to move forward, and echoing the words of Ammina J. Mohammed, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, the SDGs is for everyone.

Governments cannot achieve them alone. Networks, coalitions and alliances of global actors can achieve them.  This includes big companies, philantrophies, NGOs, that when combined can create major progress towards reaching the goals.

Climate change action will be of particular interest to member states, especially with the US recently withdrawing from the Paris Accord.  Climate change is the defining issue of our time and we are at a defining moment. Questions include: how will the talking points brought up in this assembly shape the upcoming Conference of Parties convening in Poland this December knowing that the US will likely be present?.

Therefore another question is, “is constructive diplomacy possible at this year’s UNGA with the diversity of issues?” As the theme states, the focus should be more on reaching out to individuals who the policies and goals are created for rather than just the states, and to continue emphasis on pursuing equal human rights for all. Still, the world needs the General Assembly to show the value of international cooperation. So get ready to watch the Assembly unfold, especially regarding issues which catch your interest.    

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The writer is a recent graduate of the Master of International Affairs program at the George Washington University. She is now working as a partnerships analyst in the UN Office of Project Services in Washington DC. She is also active in youth development and digital activism. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.