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An insider’s guide to humanitarian events at the UN General Assembly

JC McIlwaine/UN Photo

As world leaders gather for this week’s 73rd UN General Assembly, dozens of events fill the UN’s official calendar and several times as many are scattered around the sidelines in New York. Here are the main humanitarian crises we'll be watching for progress on, and why.

Monday 11:00-12:15 Ministerial Meeting on Libya
  13:15-14:30 The Humanitarian Response in Yemen
Tuesday 9:00-11:00 Building sustainable pathways to end cholera in Haiti
  11-12:30 High-Level Humanitarian Event on South Sudan
  17:00 Regional conference on the mixed migratory flows from Venezuela
Wednesday 8:00-9:30 Safe and Respected: Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector
  8:30-10:00 Civilians under fire: humanitarian protection and respect for International Humanitarian Law
  10:30-12:30 High-Level Meeting on Syria
  11:00 Meeting of the UN Secretary-General on Climate (closed to press)
  14:00 One Planet Summit
Thursday 10:00-13:00 High Level Event on the Issue of Rohingya
  11:00-13:00 High-Level Meeting on Somalia
  16:00-18:15 Ministerial Level Meeting on the Central African Republic
Friday (no time set) High-Level Meeting on the Democratic Republic of Congo


We're watching: Yemen
Monday from 13:15 to 14:30

Why: The vital port city of Hodeidah is under attack, 22 million Yemenis now need humanitarian assistance, and a renewed cholera epidemic is feared; will the sessions at the UN be anything more than political theatre?

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir apparent to the Saudi throne, is expected to deliver his country’s speech on Thursday as his Emirati coalition partners move ahead with leading an assault on Houthi rebel-held Hodeidah. Earlier this month, peace talks in Geneva failed, a breakdown that comes after aid group Oxfam reported that August was the bloodiest month in the three years and half years since the Saudi and UAE-led coalition intervened. Hodeidah has been hit particularly hard; more than 500,000 people have fled fighting in the wider province.

On the eve of the UNGA, UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock issued a stark warning that the fight against famine in Yemen was being lost. "The position has deteriorated in an alarming way in recent weeks,” he said. “We may now be approaching a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to prevent massive loss of life as a result of widespread famine across the country."

In addition to several private meetings on Yemen on the sidelines of the UNGA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, is hosting a session on Monday on the humanitarian response. A funding event in New York in April was criticised by NGOs for giving a platform to the Gulf states that are also belligerents in the conflict. “The last event on Yemen turned into a PR exercise for one side, but we're hoping that this time it will be a more balanced account of the response and the challenges agencies like ours face in responding,” Kathryn Achilles, senior humanitarian policy advisor at Oxfam, told IRIN.

It’s a tricky spot for the UN. There’s no getting around the Gulf countries’ aid largesse, nor the UN’s reliance on it. Nearly two thirds of donations to the UN’s current funding appeal for Yemen has been met by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait – all active parties to the conflict (the United States, which also supports the coalition, has pledged $203.4 million or 10.6 percent of all donations to the UN plan). The Saudis and Emiratis argue they are fighting to bring peace to Yemen and support the internationally recognised (but deposed) government, and say they do their best to avoid killing innocent people, but a UN group of experts said last month that coalition airstrikes are responsible for the majority of civilian casualties.

There’s no expectation of any high-level diplomatic breakthroughs to end the assault on Hodeidah, but we’ll be keeping an eye out for any progress on the sidelines; such work recently led to the announcement of a humanitarian air bridge, which should allow critically ill Yemenis to be treated outside the country.

We're watching: Syria
Wednesday from 10:30 to 12:30

Why: Diplomatic efforts at the UNGA offer a chance to avert what is already developing into a massive humanitarian crisis, in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Syrian government and Russia had begun to intensify attacks on the rebel groups who control the area, but a tentative deal last week overseen by Russia and Turkey has staved off a full offensive – for now. The discussion is already shifting to what happens after the war. How will Syria be rebuilt, and who will pay for it? Some donors have balked at promising funding for the monumental task of reconstruction. To what degree will Western countries be prepared to work with a government accused of innumerable war crimes? More pressingly, will diplomacy avoid bloodshed – or merely forestall it? A high-level meeting convened by the EU will be held on Wednesday. On the table are “humanitarian, resilience, [refugee-] hosting and emerging issues.” On the same day, the EU, Belgium, and OCHA host a separate event on civilians and violations of international humanitarian law in conflict.

We're watching: Myanmar
Thursday from 10:00 to 13:00

Why: Critics have called for the UN to get tougher with the Myanmar government over its treatment of the Rohingya. A brutal crackdown a year ago by its security forces in Rakhine State drove more than 700,000 Rohingya over the border into Bangladesh. There they remain, living in squalid camps, while negotiations on their return have stalled. Two UN agencies signed a fresh agreement in May that could lead to closer cooperation with the Myanmar government on returns. Rights groups say such plans are premature.

The Saudi Arabian government, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, and the EU are sponsoring an event on Thursday on the plight of the Rohingya. A UN fact-finding mission late last month recommended that top members of Myanmar’s military face genocide charges before an international court. The panel did not shy away from calling out the UN’s own failures to act. Tensions brewed for years as some UN staff pushed internally for more action while other senior officials privileged development and access. Myanmar has repeatedly denied nearly all allegations of violence against the Rohingya, but de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi won’t be there to argue the case in person – Myanmar officials said she plans to skip this year’s summit.

We’re watching: South Sudan
Tuesday from 11:00 to 12:30

Why: President Salva Kiir and rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar signed a peace agreement last month, but there’s little faith it will hold or bring an end to an almost five-year conflict and humanitarian crisis that has claimed anywhere between 50,000 and 300,000 lives, and displaced 3.5 million people internally and to neighbouring countries.

Last week, Amnesty International reported on the “staggering brutality” of government operations in South Sudan this year. Civilians in Leer and Mayendit counties were “deliberately shot dead, burnt alive, hanged in trees and run over with armoured vehicles in opposition-held areas,” the report said. A high-level humanitarian event on South Sudan is scheduled for Tuesday. According to OCHA, the event will highlight difficulties in delivering humanitarian assistance, risks taken by humanitarian organisations, and peacebuilding – all longstanding issues.

We’re watching: Refugees and migrants

Why: This September marks two years since the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, agreed to by the General Assembly. Two non-binding compacts – for migrants and refugees – are expected to be adopted by the end of the year.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, will host a high-level event on Monday to promote the final draft of the refugee compact. A December adoption is planned, but no date and location has been set. The adopting of the migration compact is expected to take place in Marrakech, Morocco during an intergovernmental conference held 10-11 December. Look out for a full IRIN briefing on the compacts soon.

We're watching: Trump

Why: In the 20 months since US President Donald Trump took office, his administration has slashed and threatened – but not extinguished – US support for the UN and other international bodies. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this month that the United States would further slash the number of refugees it allows in during the 2019 fiscal year to only 30,000, from a high of over 231,000 when limits were first introduced in 1981.

Trump kicks off so-called “high-level” UNGA week with a US-sponsored event on Monday entitled the “Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem”. Heads of delegation were told to sign a non-negotiable text to appear at the photo-op with Trump. At least 124 agreed, but several high-profile holdouts refused, and the EU has drawn up its own, duelling, letter. Trump will also preside over a Security Council meeting on Wednesday – a spectacle sure to suck the air out of Turtle Bay for half a day.

We're watching: Climate change
Wednesday at 11:00, One Planet Summit at 14:00

Why: The US pulled out of the Paris accords in 2017, but it's Climate Week in New York and public and private groups are joining forces in a renewed push to keep climate change at bay.

It’s not all doom and gloom this year for climate activists. Cities, including many in the United States, have moved on with their own measures to staunch carbon emissions, and in some urban areas they appear to have already peaked. “While governments and elected officials are not doing enough, ordinary people around the world are rising up to demand bold and sweeping action on climate change,” Lindsay Meiman, a spokesperson for the climate group 350, told IRIN. “Across the US and around the world, communities are rising up to demand climate justice be taken seriously, and that politicians, especially at the local and state level, go further and faster.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres will host a high-level meeting on climate change on Wednesday. The One Planet Summit on the same day will unite public and private representatives from 150 countries behind 12 key commitments aimed at ensuring the objectives of the Paris accords are achieved on schedule. Looking ahead, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is due to release its latest findings in a new report entitled “Global Warming of 1.5C” at meetings in South Korea in early October.

We're watching: Haiti and cholera
Tuesday from 9:00 to 11:00

Why: More than 800,000 people have been infected and nearly 10,000 have died from a disease accidentally re-introduced by UN peacekeepers to the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and UN Special Envoy for Haiti Josette Sheeran will hold an event on Tuesday on “building sustainable pathways to end cholera in Haiti”. It’s difficult to overstate how disastrous the disease has been for the Caribbean nation. Cholera struck just as Haiti was trying to build back from the devastating 2010 earthquake. In 2016, outgoing UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon announced a “new approach” to tackle the outbreak and, belatedly, to address the UN’s role in the crisis. But only a fraction of promised UN funds have materialised and advocates worry that the UN is still not taking enough responsibility. Among their fears is that the second track of the 2016 plan – “material assistance” for those affected – will be subsumed into more general development projects.  “The bigger issue is you are losing the whole promise of providing justice to victims,” Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice & Democracy, told IRIN. “This was supposed to be a new approach, responding to people who have suffered.”

Some good news. Last week, Guterres’ office released its latest report, showing a marked decrease in transmissions during the first quarter of 2018.

We're watching: Sexual abuse and aid
Wednesday from 8:00 to 9:30

Why: Seven months after the Oxfam scandal spawned revelations of serious misconduct among staff at NGOs, the Red Cross, and UN agencies, what progress has been made to implement new procedures and what remains to be done?

These issues will be up for discussion on Wednesday at an event organised by OCHA and the British government: “Preventing Sexual Exploitation, Abuse and Harassment in the Humanitarian Sector.” Oxfam’s executive director Winnie Byanyima is expected to speak, along with UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi and several UN, UK government, and NGO representatives. According to a UK-OCHA concept note, the meeting will allow attendees to “share good practices and highlight their contributions in preventing and responding to sexual exploitation and abuse, to increase support for joint efforts in this area and highlight tangible actions that will be taken in the future.” A larger summit will be held by the UK government in London on 18 October.

We’re also keeping an eye on:


The Democratic Republic of Congo: There’s only one event on the official UN calendar centering on Congo and it’s organised by the UN’s peacekeeping department, not humanitarian agencies. It will take place on Friday and is expected to focus heavily on security for the upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 23 December. A high-level meeting on Somalia is slated for Thursday, sponsored by the government in Mogadishu and those of Britain, Ethiopia, and Italy. A ministerial-level meeting on CAR is planned for the same day.

Venezuela: Colombia will host an event on Tuesday on “migratory flows” from Venezuela. More than 1.6 million people have left Venezuela since 2015 amid a catastrophic economic collapse and political dysfunction. Look out for IRIN’s special series soon from inside Venezuela, where those staying behind face crippling hyperinflation, disease epidemics, and dire shortages of food and medicine.

Libya: France has organised a ministerial-level meeting on Libya for Monday and it couldn’t be more timely. Worsening violence has reportedly claimed upwards of 100 lives in Tripoli this month alone, and despite EU and UN efforts to repatriate, evacuate, or resettle migrants and asylum seekers, the country hosts up to a million people on the move, on this dangerous route to Europe.

Somalia: A high-level meeting on Somalia is slated for Thursday, sponsored by the government in Mogadishu and those of Britain, Ethiopia, and Italy. Insecurity linked to the al-Shabab jihadist insurgency, coupled with prolonged drought have left some 5.4 million people in Somalia in need of food assistance and 2.6 million internally displaced. The overall security situation remains “volatile and unpredictable,” according to Guterres’ latest report on the country.

Central African Republic: A ministerial-level meeting on CAR is planned, also for Thursday. An array of armed groups hold sway across most of the country, with a weak central government controlling little more than the capital. Some 2.5 million people, about half the total population, require humanitarian assistance. For more, read our recent special report: “Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live”.

What we wish we could watch for:


Other large displacement crises – such as in Ethiopia, the Lake Chad Basin, and Burundi – have no official, dedicated events.


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