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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Trump's maiden speech, talks on Qatar and a lottery for the best seats — the week ahead at the UN General Assembly

There's a great deal on the line as the 193 nations gather this year for the 72nd annual General Assembly. The most controversial issues have already provoked a series of no-shows

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres speaks at a news conference ahead of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 13, 2017. Mike Segar / Reuters
UN secretary general Antonio Guterres speaks at a news conference ahead of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York on September 13, 2017. Mike Segar / Reuters

The official NYPD no-parking stickers litter the pavements. New Yorkers have been told to avoid the east side of Manhattan. The hotel lobbies are filled to bursting.

Its UN week in the Big Apple. The first gathering with former local resident Donald Trump in charge of the global superpower means watching the US president is going to dominate the action.

There's a great deal on the line as the 193 nations gather this year for the 72nd annual General Assembly. The most controversial issues have already provoked a series of no-shows. Attempts to stop Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority is top of the agenda. British and Turkish diplomats have organised high-level meetings to put pressure on the government and military.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate and de facto leader of the Myanmar government, was forced to pull out of a trip to New York when she realised she would be treated as a pariah not a paragon.

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Read more:

Global hunger on the rise for first time in decade, UN says

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Also missing from the fray will be president Vladimir Putin of Russia and president Xi Jinping of China. Mr Putin is still in the crosshairs over Russian interference in the US presidential election. Meanwhile Mr Xi has little to offer president Trump or Asia leaders on their demands to rein in North Korea. Expect fireworks too over the Iran nuclear deal as Mr Trump presses his case that the deal with Tehran must be recast to put much tighter restrictions on the regime.

The first speaker of Tuesday’s opening session is always the Brazilian president. This year the spotlight could be unfortunate. President Michel Temer has just been charged with racketeering. Elevated to his country’s leadership after a power struggle ousted his Leftist predecessor, he is now a symbol of its failing politics.

Once the speeches get under way there is the perennial dogfight over timings for the leaders. Everyone gets 15 minutes, hardly anyone sticks to it. The record is Fidel Castro’s 269-minute diatribe.

Seating is arranged by a lottery. Look out for North Korea’s delegation in the middle of the front row, particularly under the nose of Mr Trump during his debut speech on Tuesday.

The new US leader seeks to be a transformative figure at the UN. Despite swingeing cuts in departments such as peacekeeping as a result of shrinking US contributions, Washington has an ambitious agenda. Nikki Haley, the Trump-appointed UN ambassador, said she expects much from the meetings. “President Trump has always seen there is value in the UN and now I think the world is seeing it,” she said.

The risk that the president’s address goes over badly is down to Mr Trump’s own appetite for confrontation.

"The president's biggest challenge will be himself: the media pack will be hoping and praying that Trump will cause ructions at the UN," Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations told CBS News. "He may not be able to hold back."

The US leader hosts a summit on UN reform on the day before the general assembly opens. The gathering of 100 representatives on Monday has been called by secretary general Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, who took charge of the UN at the start of the year.

With so much up in air, it is notable that one of the expected breakthroughs should be on Libya on Wednesday when Ghassan Salame, the special envoy presents a road map for compromise between the factions.

“We have a strong political process I think, under UN leadership. We have a process that will bring the people together, will help them amend their political agreement and implement it, and that is what the country needs so that it can tackle the threat from terrorism and tackle threat from criminal gangs who are abusing so many migrants as they leave Libya,” said Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the UN.

Regional issues in Syria, Yemen and Qatar will be at the forefront right from the start as Mr Guterres meets Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, on Sunday and shortly afterwards hosts King Abullah II of Jordan. Dr Anwar Gargash, the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, is slated to speak to the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr Trump will continue his mediation efforts when he meets the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to make up for lost ground after hopes for a breakthrough on the Qatar crisis were undermined earlier this month. Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the Egyptian president, is also travelling to New York and hopes to overcome the impasse with the US over a cut in bilateral aid.

President Trump will also holds talks with Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Britain and lunch with African leaders. On Thursday, he will meet with leaders from Turkey, Afghanistan and Ukraine, then take part in a joint lunch with leaders of South Korea and Japan.

The UN meeting is one occasion when the outside events provide as much progress as the formal gathering. There is a significant focus on the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the urgency of reinvigorating these with only 13 years to meet the 2030 deadline.

“The things that are talked about more often are the things that are the sexiest,” Kevin McAndrew, director of strategy at Save the Children. “But I think the things where innovation is actually truly accomplishing something on the SDGs are much more incremental and on the edges and not as sexy.”

Climate change is another flashpoint waiting to happen. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, speaks after Mr Trump and his message on the Paris Accord is expected to amount to a rebuke of the US leader’s withdrawal from the deal.

The end of an era will be marked on Wednesday when former US president Bill Clinton gives an address to the Bloomberg Global Business Forum. Established by Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, the forum will replace the Clinton Global Initiative — which had its final meeting at last year's General Assembly — as the elite social event of the week.