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What we’re watching at the UN General Assembly

‘There is a democratic deficit at the UN and global institutions that helps feed nationalist populism.’

World leaders will speechify, schmooze, and rub shoulders as activists and campaigners try to influence from the sidelines. It’s UNGA time.

This year’s UN General Assembly is a high point in the diplomatic calendar (and a low point for Manhattan traffic). Its most high-profile sessions kick off today. We don’t need to tell you that there are a number of political and military flashpoints and personalities that will grab the headlines (think Saudi Arabia-Iran, China-US, India-Pakistan).

But here’s an overview of humanitarian-related topics we're watching:


Will new commitments breathe life into the Paris Agreement target to limit temperature increases and the impact of climate disasters?

Coming the week after a massive global strike for climate action on 20 September inspired by activist Greta Thunberg, countries are expected to announce plans at today’s UNGA Climate Action Summit.

The UN wants countries to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 and bank contributions to its Green Climate Fund. But carbon dioxide emissions are increasing by two percent a year and nothing less than “deep de-carbonisation” will lead to meeting the targets of the Paris Agreement, according to a new UN summary report, “United in Science”.

The Cost of Doing Nothing”, a new report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, meanwhile, estimates that about 50 million more people will need humanitarian assistance every year by 2030 if the world does nothing to mitigate climate change. Relief costs are set to skyrocket if inaction persists as climate-related disasters worsen. Another UNGA event on Friday, 27 September will focus on the special needs of Small Island States, many of which face particular threats from climate change.

Financing the Sustainable Development Goals

Can new money and political energy be found, or will the UN’s flagship development uber-strategy fall further behind?

Hunger is rising, extreme poverty is not dropping fast enough, and sufficient money is not forthcoming to hit 17 global targets set for 2030, according to an annual stocktake produced by the UN. Nations attending a UNGA event, the SDG Summit (24-25 September), have been told “much greater urgency and ambition” is needed. Reaching the SDGs could cost $5-7 trillion a year, according to a UN background paper.

Finding finance for poorer countries to reduce poverty, provide better education, health, and social services, and meet all the other SDGs will be the agenda of another event on “Financing for Development” on 26 September. Public debt, automation, and climate change are adding pressure to already hefty demands for finance. But technology advances in health, energy, and education, and private sector interest in sustainable investment are on the positive side of the scales, according to a report prepared for Thursday’s meeting, which has been dubbed a “dialogue”.

What about refugees?

A report from the International Rescue Committee says pressure on support systems for forcibly displaced people and refugees are “immense”. Yet how states deal with refugees and their rights are not part of any of the 17 SDGs.

Kelly Razzouk, IRC’s director of humanitarian policy, told The New Humanitarian that refugees “are at risk of being totally left behind if they're not included in [UN] member states’ action plans.”

The first draft of a declaration expected to come out of the SDG Summit “did not mention refugees at all”, Razzouk said, but added the final text may include mention of some 70 million IDPs and refugees around the world.

Dealing with refugee issues specifically, the inaugural Global Refugee Forum, a separate UN conference set up as part of last year’s landmark Global Refugee Compact will take place in Geneva this December.

The UN’s humanitarian agenda

UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told an audience at a think tank in Washington, DC (video here) last week that some of his priorities and important meetings include: avoiding a “massive conflagration” in Syria’s Idlib region; making progress in Yemen; containing the Ebola outbreak; and improving the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. He said this year’s UNGA would rightly focus on climate change but could offer some other areas of opportunity. One example: he said now might be the “best chance in a generation” for Sudan to “escape from the trap it’s been in”.

A long-awaited tranche of funding is expected to replenish the UN’s agencies in Yemen, which had started to close programmes due to a shortage of cash. Lowcock said he “looks forward to” signing agreements for a transfer of $500 million from Saudi Arabia on 25 September. The amount – along with a similar amount from the United Arab Emirates – was pledged in February, but had not materialised, partly due to Riyadh’s frustration about the usage of a similar 2018 grant.


The UN turns 75 in 2020, and so this year’s UNGA is serving as a build-up to a renewed focus on multilateral governance and cooperation (or the lack thereof). On 26 September, member states have the chance to join the Alliance for Multilateralism. The main goals of the informal coalition are to foster a shared respect of international humanitarian law and principles of humanitarian action, and a new commitment to managing climate risks – including aid in the wake of disasters.

The partnership, led by France and Germany, comes at a time of increasingly populist and nationalist politics. When the initiative was launched, Democracy Without Borders Executive Director Andreas Bummel said: “The crisis of multilateralism is also a crisis of democracy. There is a democratic deficit at the UN and global institutions that helps feed nationalist populism.”


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