In Depth

UN General Assembly: five global clashes to watch out for

From climate change denial to the Kashmir conflict, this year’s meeting looks set to be a tense affair

The annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is set to take place this week, with at least 60 world leaders due to descend on the body’s New York City headquarters for a series of talks on topics ranging from climate change to the Middle East.

The stakes have rarely been higher. “Trade wars, migration, energy supplies, climate change and the eradication of poverty underpin the basic themes of the 193-member General Assembly agenda,” the New York Times says of this year’s assembly.

One of the big questions this year, like all other years, is “who is going to meet whom on the sidelines of the assembly”, The Guardian says, describing UNGA as having “the same compelling appeal as a dating show, watching two people who plainly hate each other try to find something in common”.

Also of interest will be the leaders who have chosen not to appear. So far, that list includes Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping - who rarely attend - while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela have all cancelled.

So what are the meetings and debates to look out for this year?

Trump vs. Rouhani

In recent months, tensions between the US and Iran have reached boiling point, with the two countries exchanging barbs over allegations Tehran sanctioned the bombing of Saudi oil fields earlier in September.

With the war of words between Tehran and Washington sparking fears armed conflict could be imminent, CNN, along with many other news outlets, has declared that the “biggest question on the eve of UNGA” is: “Will President Trump meet Iranian President Rouhani?”

This week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was quoted as saying that Rouhani is willing to meet Trump in New York this week if sanctions are scrapped in exchange for “permanent monitoring” of Iran’s nuclear activities, Radio Farda says.

Zarif told CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour: “The olive branch has always been on the table, but we’re showing it again.”

This represents a change in direction by both sides, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last week completely ruling out any talks with the US at any level.

However, most experts say the attacks on Saudi Aramco make the possibility of a one-to-one meeting unlikely.

'Like-minded leaders' vs. the rest

Tomorrow a number of leaders with a “penchant for bombast, scaremongering and diplomatic bombshells” will take to the stage, according to the New York Times.

Donald Trump - no stranger to unusual diplomatic behaviour - will be preceded by climate change-denying President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. The two will be followed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt.

“Then comes President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, an autocrat who has bullied critics and whose government is a leading jailer of journalists,” the paper says.

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Modi vs. Khan

Fresh off the back of a rally in Texas attended by tens of thousands of Indian-Americans, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to attend UNGA this week.

The leader of India often makes an appearance at the assembly with little turbulence, but this year he will likely face a bumpier ride as his Pakistani counterpart Imran Khan is also due to attend.

Tensions continue to run high between the the two leaders, following Modi’s controversial decision to revoke the autonomy of Muslim-majority Kashmir, along with an order for jets to enter Pakistani territory in response to a suicide bombing.

According to France 24, “no talks are scheduled between them for now”, but this is still a duel to watch.

Johnson vs. the world

Likely making his debut at UNGA this week is UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will be looking to smooth over foreign relations and reassure world leaders amid a period of parliamentary turmoil over Brexit.

Vox reports that the PM is expected to attend “as he deals with the political chaos of Brexit at home and a standstill with European leaders over a revised Brexit deal”, and is “expected to meet with European leaders on the sidelines of the UN, though it seems doubtful there will be a breakthrough in Manhattan”.

UNGA vs. climate change protesters

One of the most bitter feuds of the assembly is taking place outside its doors. Ahead of the meeting, ”people all over the world are going on strike to demand leaders respond to climate change, led by teen activist Greta Thunberg”, Vox says, a move which is “intended to call attention to the climate emergency and force countries to make concrete commitments to meeting the obligations of the 2015 Paris Climate Accords”.

And the UNGA appears to be listening. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said last week he wanted to showcase the United Nations as a “centre for solutions” on climate change, adding: “Let’s face it: we have no time to lose. We are losing the race against climate change.”

Once again, this element of the assembly will see all eyes fall on Bolsonaro who, after a summer of letting the Amazon rainforest burn, is expected to stir considerable controversy with his speech. His anti-climate change stance has seen him feud with G7 leaders over the fate of his country’s rainforests.

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