A Look Ahead at the United Nations General Assembly


Bianca Herlory

The United Nations will be kicking off a week of meetings and negotiations at the annual General Assembly starting on Monday, September 23rd. Leaders of 193 countries will be convening at the UN Headquarters in New York to discuss some of the most pressing global issues during High-Level Meetings and during the Tuesday General Debate.

Highlighted by the recent climate youth strikes around the world, the Climate Action Summit is the first, and most anticipated, meeting of the week. Led by Director General António Guterres, the summit’s objective will be to reinforce countries’ commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement and increase national ambitions to develop strategies for addressing the climate crisis. It will focus on transitions to renewable energy, sustainability, and reduction of emissions. The UN Secretariat asked participants to present concrete plans addressing the “full transformation of their economies in line with sustainable development goals.” The United States will not be one of the 60 countries present, which will likely set the stage for more tensions during the week.

Universal Health Coverage is the second High-Level Meeting that will take place on the same day as the Climate Action Summit. Topics of discussion will include the provision of  high-quality services, affordable access to medications and vaccines, and patient protection against financial risk. For the most significant meeting ever organized on this issue, all participating countries committed to implement universal health coverage by 2030. 

Other High-Level Summits later in the week will include topics such as: Sustainable Development, Financing for Development, and Supporting Small Island Developing States. These meetings will enable countries to collaboratively develop efficient solutions to these global problems.

But will these High-Level events be the highlight of this week? The UNGA is not only a place for official diplomatic negotiations, but also an opportunity for leaders to engage in discussion and confrontation off the podium. This General Assembly occurs at a time riddled with global crises such as trade wars, democratic instability, and collapsing peace agreements that necessitate substantive cooperation, such as the kind offered in less public and often informal forums.

Avoiding international discourse this year are Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s participation is still uncertain. Although these leaders will not be present for the meetings, their UN envoys will be attending to engage in unofficial negotiations.

Discussions this week surrounding the United States’ tensions with Iran, China, and Afghanistan could lead to improved relations or instead to heightened conflict. Since the U.S. pulled out of its nuclear agreement with Iran, relations between both countries could be characterized as strained at best. While it is unlikely that President Trump and President Hassan Rouhani of Iran meet during the Assembly, the U.S. will be compiling evidence against Iran for the alleged nuclear attacks on U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. 

The U.S. – China Trade War is also a subject likely to be discussed on the sidelines, with the outcomes of this situation still very much unclear. Although both countries have relaxed their positions in the tariff battle, the constant risk of escalating competition continues to restrict potential agreements.

As the United Nations General Assembly unfolds and hundreds of meetings take place, both on- and off-podium negotiations will hopefully bring favorable solutions to global issues in the face of growing transnational conflict.