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Sep 19, 2016 | 22:46 GMT

7 mins read

What Matters at the U.N. General Assembly

What Matters at the U.N. General Assembly
(Johannes Simon/Getty Images)

World leaders are converging on New York City for the United Nations General Assembly meeting, which is set to officially begin Sept. 20. The following are the key players and bilateral meetings we will be watching this week:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is skipping the summit so he can oversee the results of the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections and prepare for a budget battle in the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will instead be the main Russian player to watch in New York. Last week, Moscow was busy setting the next stage for its broader negotiation with the West in implementing cease-fires in Syria and Ukraine, two theaters that require Russian collaboration for de-escalation. However, the Syrian cease-fire has effectively collapsed, and the Ukrainian cease-fire remains on shaky ground. Lavrov is nonetheless expected to advance the dialogue with the West to exchange cooperation in Syria and Ukraine for concessions, such as easing sanctions when the Europeans vote on trade restrictions on Russia early next year.

Specifically, Lavrov will be holding meetings throughout the General Assembly with representatives from the United States, France, Germany and the United Kingdom and will likely press his Western counterparts to persuade Kiev to deliver on political concessions in eastern Ukraine. Meetings between Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and U.S. President Barack Obama, as well as between Poroshenko and U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, both scheduled for Sept. 21, will therefore be important to watch. Poroshenko, for his part, will try to persuade the West to maintain pressure on Russia in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, particularly through sanctions. (Poroshenko already met with the French and German foreign ministers in Kiev recently.) A possible meeting between Poroshenko and U.S. Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland could also provide clues on the status of this negotiation.

Obama, British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Francois Hollande and Lavrov are scheduled to meet Sept. 21 to discuss Syria. This meeting is supposed to focus on the progress, or lack thereof, of the current cease-fire so far. On Sept. 20, Obama will present to the assembly a new U.S. plan to resettle more than 100,000 refugees, 40,000 of whom are from the Middle East and South Asia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meanwhile tout the efforts his country has made to manage the migrant situation in Syria and will try to lobby for greater international support for its plans to create a safe zone in northern Syria. With or without international endorsement, the Turkish military is forging southward to the strategic city of al-Bab, relying on close coordination with the U.S. military to mitigate any potential clash with Russia on the battlefield.

The General Assembly will offer an opportunity for several world leaders to get a sense of the policies the winner of the U.S. presidential election may enact. Leaders from the Asia-Pacific region are particularly uncertain over just how committed Washington will be to security and trade in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Clinton on Sept. 19, likely looking for any assurances he can get that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will not be fundamentally renegotiated before it moves ahead for ratification in the Japanese legislature. (Vietnam has already decided to delay ratification.) The United States and Japan will discuss greater security cooperation in the South China Sea — and potential Chinese responses to it. After all, Japan recently pledged to participate in U.S. exercises in the South China Sea, and it is watching carefully for any Chinese provocations in the East China Sea as a result. North Korea will be on the agenda, too, as Pyongyang continues to accelerate its nuclear program, driving tighter U.S.-Japanese-South Korean security integration.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will represent Beijing at the summit and will meet with Obama on Sept. 19. The United States has sought tougher measures on North Korea, including unilateral sanctions, but Beijing is concerned that such measures would only make it more difficult to engage Pyongyang diplomatically. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, meanwhile, arrived in New York on Sept. 18 and held talks with his counterparts from the United States and South Korea. The three parties discussed ways to strengthen their respective sanctions against North Korea and agreed for early adoption for U.N. Security Council resolution on additional sanctions. At a bilateral meeting, Kishida and South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se also discussed the issue of comfort women, a key sticking point that has hampered closer cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo. Kishida will meet officials from G-7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, and the United States) on the sidelines of U.N. meetings to discuss North Korea's nuclear and missile developments. Kishida is also seeking talks with his peers from Brazil, India and Germany on Sept. 21

The foreign ministers of the six world powers (the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States) will discuss the Iran nuclear agreement on Sept. 22 with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and, possibly, President Hassan Rouhani. It has already been determined that both sides are upholding the technical requirements of the deal. The primary concern for Iranian officials is performing for a domestic audience that is unhappy with the amount of economic progress that has been made since sanctions were lifted in accordance with the agreement. Consequently, some pushback against the United States is to be expected. When Rouhani addresses the General Assembly he will be playing primarily to his domestic audience, which is why an unconfirmed meeting with Obama would bolster Rouhani's image at home, even if nothing substantial results from it. It is only a matter of months before Rouhani is up for re-election, and the determining factor is the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal and the benefits evident to all Iranians. Meanwhile, U.S. election rhetoric surrounding the Iranian nuclear issue and calls by U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump to renegotiate the deal and take a harder line against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps navy provocations in the Strait of Hormuz is empowering Iran's own hard-liners.

On Sept. 22, there will be a side meeting between foreign ministers on devising the optimal international response to Libya's political and security crisis. But this meeting is less important than meetings in Cairo that have sought to determine the structure of potential leadership councils. Government of National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Faiz Serraj is attending the General Assembly and is seeking to gather as much international support for the unity government as possible. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is speaking in support of resolving the political crises in Libya and Yemen as well, but Egypt's support for Khalifa Hifter reveals that Egypt (as well as the United Arab Emirates) prefers the former general's Libyan National Army to confront Islamist militias in the North African country.

India and Pakistan will also be worth observing during the General Assembly meeting. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — scheduled to speak Sept. 21 — plans on drawing attention to the self-determination movement in India-administered Kashmir following months of deadly protests in the capital of Srinagar. Sharif's task will be complicated by a terrorist attack that took place Sept. 18, when four militants allegedly from Pakistan killed 18 Indian soldiers in an army base in the border town of Uri. India immediately accused Pakistan of sponsoring terrorism, and it is likely that the Indian delegation will press this point during the meeting, though Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not attend.

Finally, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will host a gathering on Sept. 21 to encourage ratification of the Paris climate agreement. The United States and China have already ratified it, bringing the agreement much closer to the threshold for emissions, but 55 countries still need to sign on, meaning this meeting could determine whether or not the deal will go through by the end of 2016. However, if India does not send a representative, it would be notable because the country is one of the largest emitters (and the flag-bearer of developing countries) that has not ratified the agreement. While ratifying the agreement by the end of 2016 would reveal global opinion on climate change, the pact is still limited in its ability to alter policy. Instead, financial support and technological advances making alternative technologies more economically competitive will be required to reduce emissions.

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