Sep 13, 2016

The World Looks to New York as Secretary-General Ban and President Obama Take Their Final “UN Week” Turn

The 71st Session of the United Nations General Assembly has begun, with a very busy high-level week ready to kick-off in New York on Monday, September 19.  Over the last several years, “UN Week” has become the place to be for anyone looking to find solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.  Much of the increased participation and focus on this annual convening can be credited to UN Secretary-General Ban and President Obama.  As both leaders will be participating in and presiding over “UN Week” events for the last time – their tenures end nearly simultaneously as 2016 comes to an end – it is worth a quick look at how this week has been transformed into the can’t-miss week for global problem-solvers.

Leaders' Summit on countering violent extremism

Leaders’ Summit on countering violent extremism

Both the Secretary-General and the President have made sure UN Week serves to actually tackle issues, not just talk about them.  SG Ban has made a tradition of holding a Summit each year on a key issue on the global agenda in order to force governments to focus and make progress while their top leaders are in New York.  These have included climate change, development (the Millennium Development Goals and the Sustainable Development Goals), and, this year, Refugees and Migrants.  The General Assembly has taken up the SG’s calls to assure that progress is made.  I, for one, am convinced that these summits led to the successful negotiations that gave us the truly historic Sustainable Development Goals and The Paris Agreement on Climate Change last year.  These annual gatherings have allowed leaders to dream big, and to begin the practical steps toward achieving shared aspirations.

For his part, President Obama has pushed governments to make real commitments on issues by hosting his own high-level meetings.  In these “leadership” sessions, governments must put forward real actions to be invited to the table – and when the U.S. President is hosting, the klieg lights are bright and leaders want to be there.  Last year many countries put forward significant commitments to better support UN Peacekeeping. This year, look for much the same during the President’s session on Refugees.

But, the week is not just for government leaders anymore.  The Secretary-General and his UN team know that today’s challenges need everyone at the table – civil society, the private sector, academia, and anyone who has an idea or a belief in change for the better.  There are literally hundreds of big and small so-called “side events,” both at the UN and around New York City, where offering or just considering thoughts, ideas, and dreams is open for all.  And, it is not solely restricted to those in New York: the UN has thrown open its doors, webcasting many events and engaging via social media, to ensure the widest possible participation.

This is what makes “UN Week” so important and exciting: you might rub shoulders with some of the biggest political leaders in the world, but you also might hear the solution for tackling global poverty or ending a civil war in a venue uptown, downtown, or crosstown.  During “UN Week,” everyone in New York – or tuned into New York – can make a difference!    You can follow me and participate in events in NY and beyond on Twitter with #UNGA and @RobbinWashDC and @UNICDC.