Government leaders from around the world are gathering in New York for the opening on Tuesday of the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, an event haunted by momentous crises demanding undivided attention and action from all member countries. Responses in both the General Assembly (whose powers are limited) and the Security Council (stalemated by big power divisions) have been generally considered inadequate to the scale of the challenges.
There will be sustained pressure to act on finalizing a climate change agreement, taking concrete steps to create national mechanisms to advance an ambitious new global development agenda and addressing with greater urgency the murderous fallout of conflicts in Syria, Iraq and pockets of Africa, which are driving millions of desperate refugees into risky flights across land and sea.
Much of the activity in the assembly and some related events on the margins will be webcast and archived by UN Web TV, giving people across the world the opportunity to watch global leaders speak without interruption, superfluous commentary or commercial intrusions. [Go to www.untvweb.com for daily information on live streaming.]
The 71st session is already marked by milestones.
It will be the last such annual global assembly session for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose tenure in office finishes at the end of December. Who his successor may be is still cloaked in the mystery and silence of the Security Council. (PassBlue’s latest article on the process is here.)
It will be the last appearance before the assembly of President Barack Obama, whose administration has been more engaged with the UN than most of his predecessors. Future United States-UN relations under a new American president are already questioned.
It will also be the final official appearance of an outstanding assembly president, Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, who has worked with unrelenting determination during his one-year term on forging innovations among the disparate collection of 193-member nations. His major legacy is likely to be opening to public view, through televised hearings, a campaign by candidates seeking to succeed Secretary-General Ban.
Lykketoft, who will call to order the opening session on Tuesday, Sept. 13, at 3 p.m., New York time, will clear, among his first tasks, a long agenda of assembly business, the high point being the election of his successor, Peter Thomson of Fiji. Thomson has been Fiji’s ambassador to the UN since 2010 and is currently president of the Council of the International Seabed Authority.
The interesting, often controversial and occasionally outrageous speeches by heads of state or government start on Tuesday, Sept. 20, led traditionally by Brazil, whose recently installed new president, Michel Temer, replaces Dilma Rousseff, ousted from office on a conviction of budget violations. The US president always speaks second.
Among leaders who are expected to address the assembly will be most Europeans — including Theresa May, the new British prime minister — as well as Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is not attending. Russia remains at odds with the European Union and under sanctions for his invasion of Crimea, part of Ukraine, and assistance to Ukrainian rebels who seized territory on the Ukraine-Russia border. Russia also stands accused internationally of carrying out lethal airstrikes on civilian targets in Syria in support of the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
The annual opening of a new General Assembly session is far more than just a UN event. New York becomes a hive of diplomatic activity as government leaders — some of them adversaries — meet one another, often in as much secrecy as they can assure themselves. Civil society organizations lobby for their own causes; demonstrations in streets near the UN pop up, and press conferences abound as nations not always heard internationally get to meet an army of media. Television and social media beam back news to leaders’ home countries.
And, of course, New Yorkers caught up in the scrum of motorcades and harried city police complain bitterly about the interruption of their hectic lives. (For street closings, check here.)
Among the major events surrounding the opening of the UN General Assembly this year will be a summit-level conference on the global refugee-migration crisis, planned for Sept. 19, a day before the major speeches by world leaders begin. This first very high-level meeting has been called to confront the many issues surrounding the exploding human migrations of all kinds, from refugees fleeing the horrors of conflict to people trafficked by the rapidly growing ranks of international criminals whose lucrative abuse of vulnerable people is being called a form of modern-day slavery. (PassBlue’s article on the conference is here.)
In the draft of a final document to be adopted during the migration conference, buried among its many worthy paragraphs, are pointed statements that speak directly not only to the movement of people but also to the uglier reactions to the flow of refugees and migrants, as well as to the political crises that ensue, threatening to tear apart democracies. The draft, set out for adoption by all UN member nations — however much its lofty ambitions may be ignored in many places — will resonate in rich and poor countries. This is what it says about attitudes toward displaced people:
Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. We recall that our obligations under international law prohibit discrimination of any kind on the basis of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status . . . . “We strongly condemn acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance against refugees and migrants, and the stereotypes often applied to them, including on the basis of religion or belief. . . . Gathered today at the United Nations, the birthplace and custodian of these universal values, we deplore all manifestations of xenophobia, racial discrimination and intolerance. We will take a range of steps to counter such attitudes and behavior, in particular hate crimes, hate speech and racial violence.”
A day after the migration conference, President Obama and his co-hosts, Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico and Sweden, will convene a government heads’ meeting on treatment of refugees, which is intended to raise significant new global commitments to accept more people seeking resettlement. The US has taken in 10,000 Syrians but has been criticized for not accepting a far larger number — a political trip-wire in this year’s US presidential campaign.
Other national governments have also begun to experience political pressure and the growth of anti-immigrant groups, including Germany, where about a million refugees arrived in 2015. Despite losing popularity and political ground in her own constituency to an anti-immigration movement, Angela Merkel, the chancellor, is standing firm on a generous refugee policy. She warned members of the Bundestag, the lower house of the German parliament, last week to avoid populist tactics and stay true to the country’s values of “liberty, security, justice [and] solidarity.”
“What sort of a country do we want to be in the 21st century?” she asked, according to an official government text in English. “Change is not a bad thing. Change is an essential part of our lives.”
She closed her speech by saying that “Germany will still be Germany, with all that is precious to us.”
This article was updated on Sept. 15, 2016.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.