World leaders gather for U.N. General Assembly

More than 190 world leaders, foreign ministers, and ambassadors, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will converge on U.N. headquarters this week to participate in a 3-day summit aimed at reducing poverty and illness and to address the U.N.’s annual General Assembly debate. The yearly diplomatic gathering provides an opportunity for ...

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Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

More than 190 world leaders, foreign ministers, and ambassadors, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will converge on U.N. headquarters this week to participate in a 3-day summit aimed at reducing poverty and illness and to address the U.N.'s annual General Assembly debate.

The yearly diplomatic gathering provides an opportunity for international leaders to promote their foreign-policy priorities and to take stock of the state of the United Nations, which has been struggling to find its way after peacekeeping setbacks in Congo and Chad and a major failure to secure a binding agreement on emissions that fuel global warming.

But it also provides a platform for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose first term expires at the end of 2011, to make his case for a second five-year term by highlighting his leadership of a major five-year mission to alleviate hunger, poverty, and illness. Ban has also organized a series of high-level meetings to assess humanitarian challenges in Haiti and Pakistan, and political crises in Burma, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

More than 190 world leaders, foreign ministers, and ambassadors, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will converge on U.N. headquarters this week to participate in a 3-day summit aimed at reducing poverty and illness and to address the U.N.’s annual General Assembly debate.

The yearly diplomatic gathering provides an opportunity for international leaders to promote their foreign-policy priorities and to take stock of the state of the United Nations, which has been struggling to find its way after peacekeeping setbacks in Congo and Chad and a major failure to secure a binding agreement on emissions that fuel global warming.

But it also provides a platform for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, whose first term expires at the end of 2011, to make his case for a second five-year term by highlighting his leadership of a major five-year mission to alleviate hunger, poverty, and illness. Ban has also organized a series of high-level meetings to assess humanitarian challenges in Haiti and Pakistan, and political crises in Burma, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

Over the coming weeks, foreign dignitaries will deliver a blizzard of speeches on every aspect of world affairs — most of them mind-numbingly dull and forgettable. But in years past, the event has also provided some of the most memorable moments in foreign affairs — from President Harry S. Truman‘s declaration of the end of U.S. isolationism to President George W. Bush‘s call for action against Saddam Hussein. And who can forget Venezuelan President’s Hugo Chávez‘s 2006 address to the U.N., when he called President Bush a racist, imperialist devil who gave off the scent of sulfur — a reference to Satan’s smell.

President Obama will use the visit as a platform for addressing a wide range of global crises and issues, including nuclear deliberations on Iran, the Middle East peace process, efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the upcoming independence referendum on South Sudan, according to a senior U.S. official.  

But other key leaders like French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is facing political attacks over his immigration policies, will play an unusually low-key role in this year’s session, spending more time in New York vacationing than attending to world affairs. Rwanda President Paul Kagame — whose government recently threatened to withdraw U.N. peacekeepers from Darfur in retaliation for a U.N. report alleging Rwandan military atrocities in the 1990s — is expected to try to smooth out Rwandan relations with the United Nations.

Even before the start of the session, President Ahmadinejad demonstrated once again his flair for drawing public attention to his visits to New York, which was preceded this time by the release of Sara Shourd, one of three American hikers who were arrested last year for crossing into Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iranian government has accused the three of spying, and continues to hold the two other hikers, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal. On Sunday, Ahmadinejad told ABC’s Christiane Amanpour that Shourd’s release was a "huge humanitarian gesture" and urged the United States to release several detained Iranian citizens. The Iranian leader "is ready to discuss" his country’s controversial nuclear program with a group of key powers, known as the P5+1, in an effort to assure the world that its nuclear program is peaceful.

The group — which includes the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — has been pressing Iran to begin negotiations on a deal that would provide Iran with a series of political, commercial, and technological incentives in exchange for halting its enrichment of uranium and providing verifiable assurances that it is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. U.S. and European diplomats said they are skeptical about the latest Iranian offer, saying that Tehran has repeatedly reneged on previous commitments to engage the international community. Hillary R. Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state, said on the same program that the U.S. has repeatedly expressed "our readiness to meet" with Iran. "But it’s been very clear that the Iranians don’t want to engage with us," she added.

Last year, Ahmadinejad warned that any prospects of political progress in relations with the United States would be impossible if Washington pressed ahead with U.N. sanctions against Iran. But Ahmadinejad told Amanpour that Iran is prepared to have talks with the United States on Iran and Afghanistan if they are "based on mutual trust."

"If the U.S. administration truly wishes to alter its policies in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and to move in a direction that serves the interest of the people of those two countries," he said, "we are always open to cooperation, as we are now."

In a special session on poverty, world leaders from 139 nations and foreign ministers from dozens of other countries will adopt a declaration that calls for efforts to increase funding and accelerate effort to meet the Millennium Development Goals’ 8 anti-poverty goals — which call for slashing global rates of poverty, hunger, and illness by 2015.

The international community has made some ground in achieving some of the MDG targets, including a call for cutting poverty by half. The percentage of people surviving on $1 a day or less has fallen from 46 percent of the world population in 1990 to 27 percent in 2005, a development that has been driven largely by economic growth in China and India. But it is likely to fall short on its goals of slashing maternal mortality and child mortality and halting the spread of HIV/Aids. (More MDG highlights here from the Associated Press.)

Michel Sidibe, the head of the U.N. HIV/AIDS agency UNAIDS, warned last week that a decade-long effort to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is under threat because of a shortage of funds, citing a $10 billion shortfall in funds required to achieve universal access to HIV treatment, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Sarkozy, the first leader from the developed world to address the conference, will promote a French initiative to use innovative forms of financing — including an international tax on air travel — to raise funding for the U.N.’s poverty goals. He will also announce a modest increase in funding to the Global Fund, which provides money for fighting HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Sarkozy’s wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the former model who serves as a goodwill ambassador for the Global Fund, will accompany the president. But President Sarkozy — who is under fire in Europe for shutting down illegal Roma settlements and deported the residents — has canceled his only press conference at the event, and plans to leave Monday evening, before President Obama and most other leaders arrive.

Another controversy has arisen over whether the two co-chairs of a U.N. advisory panel on the MDGs — Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Rwanda’s Kagame — will even meet in the same room. A Spanish court has indicted more than 40 Rwandan military officials for alleged war crimes in the 1990s, and the Spanish leader bowed to domestic  pressure to boycott a meeting earlier this year with Kagame in Madrid.

After his arrival Wednesday, Obama  will deliver a speech that underscores the U.S. commitment to meeting the MDGs — though he will not announce any new financial commitments to achieve those targets. Obama will address  the General Assembly on Thursday and attend a high-level U.N. meeting on Sudan.

"We set out to rather dramatically change the tone and the substance of our engagement up here at the United Nations," Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told reporters in a briefing last week. "We’ve seen ta
ngible results that in fact will make Americans safer and make the world of a more peaceful and prosperous place. We’ve ended needless U.S. isolation on a range of issues."

The most serious immediate security challenge for the United Nations is unfolding in Sudan, where preparations are underway for a landmark referendum that will determine whether South Sudan, which fought a bloody, decades-long civil war against the ruling government in Khartoum, will vote for independence. U.N. officials and diplomats expect the South to vote for independence and warn that the country could return to the violent fighting that ended with a 2005 power-sharing agreement that guaranteed southerners the option to chose independence. Ban plans to convene a meeting of world leaders, including Obama, to prod Sudanese rivals Ali Osman Taha, Sudan’s vice president, and Salva Kiir, the leader in the South, to ensure a peaceful referendum.

U.N. officials said that Kagame’s decision to attend the meeting suggests Rwanda is not planning to make good on its threat to withdraw thousands of peacekeepers from Darfur, Sudan. U.N. diplomats say Kagame has promised Ban not to withdraw his more than 3,000 troops from Darfur unless the U.N. takes further steps that could lead to the possible prosecution of Rwandan officials for war crimes.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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