UN General Assembly 2018: Key issues Rohingya , Syria , UNRWA , Iran and North Korea

The Rohingya

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called last month for Myanmar to be held accountable for “one of the world’s worst humanitarian and human rights crises” following the publication of a UN investigation into alleged atrocities against the Rohingya.

The report recommended that the country’s military leadership be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Rakhine State last year, where around 700,000 Rohingya were forced to flee their homes.

US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has called for strong and immediate action against the Myanmar leadership, while Chinese ambassador Wu Haitao has urged a softer approach based on “constructive assistance”.

The International Criminal Court has said it has jurisdiction to bring an indictment against military leaders but the country’s government has denied this, and rejects all claims of atrocities.

The UN will be eager to progress with a controversial deal struck with Myanmar in June to return displaced Rohingya, but human rights groups say the safety of returnees cannot yet be guaranteed.

Bangladesh, which has struggled to host the vast numbers of refugees, will be a focus point.

Donations towards the assistance of Rohingya refugees have not reached the one billion dollars the UN has called for.

“World leaders meeting next week at the General Assembly in New York have a golden opportunity to send a strong message and pave the way for justice for the Rohingya and for ethnic minorities under attack in northern Myanmar,” says Sherine Tadros, head of the UN office for Amnesty International in New York.

“States must see through Myanmar’s repeated lies and deception, and establish an independent mechanism to gather and preserve evidence of crimes under international law before it’s too late.”


The UN has warned of “unprecedented” levels of internal displacement in Syria as government forces advance to re-take swaths of the country still under the control of rebel groups.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian air power, is preparing for an assault on the northern province of Idlib, which holds three million civilians.

The UN has warned the century’s “worst humanitarian catastrophe” could result. UN officials have called on all parties to ensure that civilian casualties are avoided, but there are no signs of these warnings being heeded.

“Should we see three million of the people headed to the Turkish border, this is a scenario that by far outweighs the capacity of all the humanitarian organisations put together,” the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, Panos Moumtzis said last week.

Idlib is expected to feature heavily through high-level meetings at this year’s General Assembly.


The future of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was thrown into doubt last month when the US announced it would pull all funding for the agency, which provides support for five million Palestinian refugees and their descendants.

UNRWA was established in 1949 following the expulsion of Palestinians during the Nakba, and has been a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighbouring countries like Jordan and Syria.

The US has historically been its leading donor, but since the election of Donald Trump, its funding has dropped precipitously.

The Palestinian National Council has called on governments across the world to use the General Assembly to oppose the US.


US President Donald Trump used his first General Assembly address last year to rail against Iran, labelling the country a “corrupt dictatorship” and blasting its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah.

It seems unlikely Trump will hold his hold his tongue this year following his dramatic withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in May. Combative rhetoric against Iran could anger European allies, who are determined to salvage the historic agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is due to appear in New York, which has in itself provoked debate within Iran, with hardliners calling for the leader to pull out in protest at the US, and reformists urging him to present a message of peace and diplomacy.

“Hardliners would like nothing more than for Iran to become more internationally isolated,” says Holly Dagres, nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. “On the other hand, those seeking rapprochement with the West, the reformists and pragmatists, believe that if Rouhani didn’t attend the General Assembly, it would hurt Iran’s diplomatic standing.”

Dagres expects Rouhani will repeat some of his past statements in New York.

“This includes how the United States is becoming more isolated due to the Trump administration’s policies … the impact of sanctions, and the claim that Iran is a resilient country which has endured far worse. Rouhani will also focus on regional issues including how Tehran fought ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”

The Iranian president can also expect heat from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, who last year warned delegates that the country’s expanding influence risked “an Iranian curtain … descending across the Middle East”.

North Korea

If any moment defined last year’s General Assembly, it was surely Trump’s threat to “totally destroy North Korea” unless Kim Jong-un backed down in what was then a dangerously escalating war of words.

This past year has seen major developments on the Korean Peninsula, including a historic peace agreement between North and South Korea in Panmunjom in April and a meeting between Trump and Kim in Singapore in June, where both pledged to work towards Pyongyang’s “complete denuclearisation”.

The deal was light on detail and relations have been unpredictable since.

In August, Trump cancelled US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned trip to North Korea citing a lack of progress towards denuclearisation.

Then, on September 6, Trump tweeted enthusiastically: “Kim Jong Un of North Korea proclaims ‘unwavering faith in President Trump.’ Thank you to Chairman Kim. We will get it done together!”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in met Kim this week in Pyongyang, where both vowed to bring peace to the Korean Peninsula.

“The warm glow of the Pyongyang Summit between North and South Korea will surely continue through the [General Assembly],” says Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Americas.

“President Moon will meet with President Trump in New York and seek to persuade him to respond positively to the steps outlined in Pyongyang [and] to undertake the ‘corresponding steps’ that were ambiguously referred to in Pyongyang as a condition for North Korea to permanently close the Yongbyon nuclear site.”

“In other words, the change of tone and atmosphere regarding the North Korea issue will be 180 degrees different from last year.

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