People walk along a plaza at United Nations Headquarters
People walk along a plaza at United Nations Headquarters. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — the most ambitious undertaking ever to transform our world — is divided into 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Image Credit: AP

NEW YORK: The annual United Nations General Assembly will unfold on Tuesday against a backdrop of crises — from the warming planet to economic uncertainty to flaring conflicts that threaten to further entangle the United States in the volatile Middle East.

Trade wars, migration, energy supplies, climate change and the eradication of poverty underpin the basic themes of the 193-member General Assembly agenda. But the actions of the Trump administration, which has sometimes expressed disdain for international institutions like the United Nations, have created a common denominator.

“All of the major topics that I think people will be talking about in the corridors are related to: What is US policy?” said Jeffrey D. Feltman, a veteran US diplomat and former UN undersecretary-general for political affairs.

Who’s not coming?

Some leaders are not coming, notably Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, as well as Benjamin Netanyahu, the embattled prime minister of Israel. Also not expected is President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, regarded by the Trump administration and about 50 other governments as an illegitimate leader.

But one prominent figure, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, will attend. The Ukrainian leader plans to meet with President Donald Trump amid growing concerns that Trump had pressured him over US domestic political issues.

Some of the biggest moments and confrontations could happen early in the week. Here is what to expect:


States are part of General Assembly

Who speaks first?

Trump, whose penchant for bombast, scaremongering and diplomatic bombshells is well known, will be surrounded by like-minded company on Tuesday when the speeches begin.

Trump will be preceded by President Jair M. Bolsonaro of Brazil, a polarising figure at home who, like Trump, dismisses fears about climate change and ridicules critics on Twitter.

After Trump comes President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi of Egypt and then President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

United Nations Headquarter
Seen through the bars of a temporary security barrier, people walk along 1st Avenue in New York in front of United Nations Headquarter. Image Credit: AP

US-Iran talks unlikely

Until recently, speculation abounded that Trump would make history by meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. But the September 14 attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, which US and Saudi officials blame on Iran, has made such a meeting unlikely at best.

US officials are expected to present what they have described as evidence that Iran carried out the attack with drones and cruise missiles. Iran has denied the accusation.

Rouhani speaks on Wednesday, and he will almost certainly assert that Trump ignited the cycle of conflict by withdrawing last year from the 2015 nuclear agreement with major powers and reimposing onerous sanctions that are crippling its economy.


Leaders to speak at climate summit

The United States is trying to build a coalition to deter Iran, even if it is unclear what form such deterrence would take. The General Assembly gives the administration an opportunity to “continue to slow walk a military response in favour of more coalition-building and political and economic pressure,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Climate crisis on top of agenda

The climate crisis is at the top of the General Assembly’s agenda. About 60 heads of state plan to speak at the Climate Action Summit on Monday, and officials aim to announce initiatives that include net-zero carbon emissions in buildings.

The United States has no such plans — Trump announced in 2017 that he was withdrawing the country from the Paris Agreement on climate change. But some state governors who have formed the US Climate Alliance said they would attend the summit and meet with other delegations.

Trade negotiations

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was expected to meet with his Chinese counterparts on the sidelines, suggesting that the administration was seeking to create a more productive atmosphere for resumed trade negotiations after weeks of acrimony. The two governments recently paused their escalating tariff battle.

But some administration officials are pushing for Trump to address other issues considered sensitive by China, including the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the repression of Tibetans and the detentions of more than 1 million Muslims, mostly ethnic Uighurs. One official said Trump should at least criticise China for trying to intimidate Uighur-American activists.

Trump has never spoken strongly about human rights, and he has openly expressed admiration for Xi and other authoritarian leaders. But lawmakers in both parties of Congress are pressuring Trump to act. Bills on the Uighurs, Tibet and Hong Kong are aimed at compelling Trump and the administration to take harder stands.

Korea in focus

A protracted feud between Japan and South Korea, rooted in the legacy of Japan’s wartime occupation, has led to downgraded trade relations and the end of an intelligence-sharing agreement. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Moon Jae-in of South Korea are not expected to meet with each other. Whether Trump can induce them into a three-way conversation remains unclear. And an objective shared by all three — North Korea’s nuclear disarmament — may see little or no progress.

While Moon is expected to urge Trump to renew his push for diplomacy with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, no senior North Korean official plans to attend the General Assembly.

Afghanistan to speak last

Someone has to speak last in the list of national delegations addressing the General Assembly. This year, that place falls to Afghanistan, just a few weeks after the collapse of talks between the Taliban and the United States that were aimed at ending the 18-year-old war.

With national elections slated for next Saturday, President Ashraf Gani was not expected to attend. Instead, Afghanistan’s delegation will be led by Hamdullah Mohib, Gani’s national security adviser.

Mohib infuriated the Trump administration in March, when he predicted the peace talks would not end in peace.

Key issues that will be tackled

1 Climate Action – September 23

UN chief Antonio Guterres has made the fight against the climate crisis one of his top priorities. Guterres aims to boost ambition, and hold countries to the international commitments they made to cut global warming, as part of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

2 Making Universal Health Coverage a reality – September 23

On the same day as the Climate Action Summit, the UN will host the first-ever High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage, with the tagline Moving Together to Build a Healthier World, which, the UN says, will be the most significant political meeting held on universal health coverage ever.

3 Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals - September 24 and 25

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — the most ambitious undertaking ever to transform our world, boost prosperity and ensure well-being for all, while protecting the environment — is divided into 17 Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.

Among them are a commitment to:

End poverty and hunger; expand access to health, education, justice and jobs.

Promote inclusive and sustained economic growth.

Protect the planet from environmental degradation, and alleviate the climate crisis.

4 Financing for development – September 26

The High-Level Dialogue on Financing for Development will bring together leaders from government, business and the financial sector, in a bid to unlock the resources and partnerships needed, and accelerate progress.

5 Supporting Small Island Developing States – September 27

The review will discuss progress made on combating the devastating impact of climate change, building economic and environmental resilience, and other challenges. These issues will also be featured prominently in the other four summits taking place the same week. The planet is getting hotter, and tackling that climate peril will grab the spotlight as world leaders gather for their annual meeting at the United Nations, facing an undeniable backdrop: rising tensions from the Arabian Gulf to Afghanistan and increasing intolerance.

So who speaks when?

Tuesday, September 24

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks first on the work of the organisation.

The President of the General Assembly will also deliver a statement.

The first country to speak will be Brazil followed by the US, Egypt, Turkey and Nigeria.

Wednesday, September 25

The first speech of the day comes from Ukraine. The other speeches to watch for will be from Iraq and Iran.

Thursday, September 26

Yemen will be speaking in the morning to be followed by Palestine and the EU representatives. In the afternoon, Somalia, South Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Spain will speak.

Friday, September 27

Israel speaks early on Friday, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not be present. Other interesting debates to look out for are India, Pakistan, China and Russia. Sudan speaks later on Friday afternoon.

Saturday, September 28

The UAE will speak on Saturday, as well Germany, Sweden, Syria, Oman and Bahrain.

Monday, September 30

The last day of the general debate opens with Eritrea and will feature speeches from Saudi Arabia, Thailand, North Korea and Afghanistan.

Alongside the customary speeches from heads of state, five important high-level summits and meetings will be taking place, covering many of the key issues facing today’s world.