Everything You Need to Know About the 2014 UN General Assembly

It has been called “diplomatic speed dating,” and for all of the bilateral talks taking place between world leaders in New York City this week outside the newly renovated UN Assembly Hall, the image is not far off. This will be one of the most closely watched UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings in recent history.

Long days of negotiations are already behind international members of the P5+1 group—the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany—working with Iran on advancing both the negotiations around that country’s uranium enrichment program and possible participation in an international coalition to combat the advance of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

On Sunday, Iranian officials indicated they could be willing to work with the United States and its allies if increased flexibility on the nuclear issue was forthcoming. In bilateral talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicated the West would like to keep the two issues separate to make concrete progress on the atomic questions ahead of the November 24 deadline. Key issues at the heart of these talks are the number of centrifuges Iran can retain for peaceful purposes of fulfilling its energy needs, a timetable for ending international sanctions on Iran, and the future of research facilities that could weaponize nuclear materials. Conversations on these individual points will continue on the sidelines of the General Assembly until at least September 26.

Converting talk to action

Following a “summer of crises,” the agenda of the UN General Assembly seems more charged than in recent years: climate change, population and development, refugees and internally displaced persons, Ebola, and violent conflict across the globe.

On top of these concerns, those countries long clamoring for a seat in the Security Council have promised to make increasingly fervent pitches for the reform of that body. Before departing Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced he would be meeting with his counterparts from India, Brazil, and Japan to specifically discuss a renewed internal discussion on Security Council reform. Structural reform is the subject of debate elsewhere, too; France is sponsoring a Thursday afternoon meeting on abandoning the five permanent representatives’ veto powers in cases of mass atrocities. Given Russia and China’s reluctance to support initiatives that threaten sovereignty, this debate is unlikely to produce a result.

While the UNGA has become as much a stage for sweeping policy pronouncements by world leaders—few will forget Benjamin Netanyahu’s bomb-shaped infographic or former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi overstretching his allotted time by an hour and fifteen minutes—the beacon of multilateralism works much more quietly, deliberately and possibly more effectively through its multitude of agencies around the globe during the rest of the year. This year, however, action is already palpable. Hastened by vocal and dramatic demonstrations across the globe, government, business and NGO leaders actually outlined goals at Tuesday's climate summit that will be measurable by COP 21, the Paris climate conference scheduled for December 2015. While cities far outperformed their countries in committing themselves to achieving concrete measures, these deliberate and concerted efforts offer a chance for optimism in these otherwise difficult times.

Multilateral means to counter a the ISIL threat

As news broke early Tuesday morning that the United States and coalition partners had launched airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Wednesday session on producing a binding agreement requiring action from member countries will be one of the most closely watched of the week’s debates. It will be only the second time a UNSC meeting has been chaired by a US President. The President is looking to convince skeptics that the coalition his team has been designing is indeed “broad” and “international,” driving home the thing that the struggle against extremism is “not America’s fight alone” in his address earlier today.

President Obama will have to create additional momentum to devise strategies to curb the “global supply chain” of foreign fighters currently spilling into ISIL. A binding resolution under Chapter VII of the Charter could allow for additional countries to criminalize support for foreign fighters. More importantly, his speech and the ensuing debate will hopefully begin to map out paths toward a long-term eradication of this particular threat by setting up effective cross-national means to share deradicalization, counter-threat finance, and anti-recruitment efforts between member states.

Affirming a commitment to development and human security

In addition to the economic, social and environmental effects of climate change addressed separately, other issues of truly global significance will take center stage mid-week. Recent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan have displaced close to eight million people; Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan alone account for 53% of the forcibly displaced, according to the UN High Commission on Refugees. New estimates from the International Rescue Committee show that displacement can last up to 20 years. The special sessions on Somalia and Syria (Tuesday) and discussions on how to consistently combat Ebola and its devastating effects on African economies (Thursday) will be watched with urgency by the global NGO community, whose doctors and relief workers have been on the front lines of these conflicts waiting for reinforcements.

Faced with global instabilities, the world’s most global institution must resist short-termism in its discussions this week. As time begins to run out on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), policy-makers must link crisis and instability prevention to meeting the eight goals and 21 targets outlined in the MDGs. Lifting humanity out of poverty through development assistance, education and disease prevention—ultimately no less a task than making human life worth living—remains the most cohesive, long-term conflict prevention strategy.

Steering this progress must thus remain a critical focus area. This is what the Secretary General alluded to when he noted that a “responsibility to protect” must be accompanied by a “responsibility to prevent.” If the UNGA does nothing but prove to the global public how much can be done to prevent conflict and human suffering by continued investment in these policy areas, it will have accomplished a critical goal.

Recent crises have proven that the UN has lost none of its relevance. When individual nation states violate sovereignty, territorial integrity, and ultimately human life, the UN remains the locus both of arbitration and of action. A UN for the 21st century must be equipped with the financial and human resources to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

Cathryn Cluver is the Executive Director of the Future for Diplomacy Project and a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.