Palestine and More: the 66th UN General Assembly

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Full house this week: the UNGA during its General Debate, courtesy of UN Photo/flickr

September marks the beginning of term not only for students but also for hundreds of UN diplomats in New York. Taking over the role of Assembly president from Joseph Deiss (Switzerland), Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser (Qatar) opened the 66th UN General Assembly last Tuesday. After having had a couple of days to deal with organizational matters, the GA started its substantive deliberations today:

  • High-Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are non-infectious illnesses such as cardiovascular and chronic lung diseases, cancer or diabetes. The high-level meeting will discuss methods to help prevent and control such diseases, which kill three in five people worldwide. The GA will especially be focusing on NCDs’ economic and social impacts, particularly on developing countries.
  • Following this, tomorrow (Tuesday), a second, lower-key, High-Level Meeting on Desertification will take place. Participants will address the issues of desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The meeting is being held under the auspices of the 1996 UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
  • The General Debate, which is what the media mean when they say ‘General Assembly’, starts on Wednesday 21 September and will continue through next week. The topic of debate will be “The role of mediation in the settlement of disputes by peaceful means”, an item which was, for the first time, also included on the agenda of the GA (ยง 54). Despite debate supposedly being limited to this theme, many heads of state, heads of government and foreign ministers will nevertheless use the occasion to communicate their views on the state of the world and how to best solve its problems.
  • On Thursday 22 September, the GA will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the World Conference Against Racism in its High-Level Meeting on the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. Commemorating the Declaration will be a delicate affair, as the conference ended with the withdrawal of Israel and the US and a controversy over Zionism and racism.

These are the meetings of the GA scheduled so far: The real work at the UN will only begin once world leaders have left New York at the end of the month.

Who Follows After Gaddafi?

For the next two weeks, however, New York City will be the center of world politics. Many who keenly follow the goings-on in the General Debate will miss Muammar Gaddafi, whose appearances at the General Assembly for the last forty years became synonymous with lively and passionate tirades against the West and revolutionary speeches on the world’s various injustices.

The representation of Libya at the UN by the Transitional National Council (TNC) led to some controversy last week as the GA had to vote on whether to recognize the diplomats of the TNC as officially representing Libya. Angola, Cuba and other countries questioned the legality of this recognition; however, in the end, a large majority of votes were placed in favor of the TNC.

Will Palestine Become a UN Member?

The question of Palestine’s international status – be it as an independent country, a UN observer state or something else – will undoubtedly dominate the 66th General Debate. Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will present Israel’s stance on Palestinian statehood during his speech at the GA and many Arab states are expected to do the same.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is believed to be filing the official request for UN membership with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon today. Many countries, the US above all, have tried to stop him, but Abbas is likely to remain as stubborn as he did with a resolution condemning Israeli settlement earlier this year, when he forced the US to use their veto in the Security Council. The US will no doubt do the same this time – and the Palestinian membership request will therefore not make it to the General Assembly. Should this happen, there is a good chance that a resolution will instead be passed that would make Palestine a UN observer state, a further upgrade from the status of observer organization the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) had has to content itself with.

Whatever the outcome, the UN will receive much attention over the coming weeks – attention it rightly deserves. While the glare of the media spotlight may fade, the 66th General Assembly will continue to meet – with decreasing intensity – until 17 September 2012.

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