Ending poverty and conflicts take center stage at UN high-level week

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Once a year, world leaders descend on New York for their annual round of speeches and meetings on the sideline. This year, the focus is again on climate change – in addition to the next push to eradicate world poverty.

World leaders will gather at the United Nations starting Friday for what many call a “historic” week to pass a development agenda and discuss issues such as the migrant crisis, the Syrian conflict and terrorism.

The annual high-level week of the UN General Assembly, which marks the 70th anniversary of the UN, is expected to bring a record number of leaders together in New York to chart out a 15-year plan against poverty and tackle world crises.

Expected to speak are Cuban President Raul Castro and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both of whom are addressing the UN for the first time; US President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is returning after a 10-year hiatus.

The meeting, where leaders from 193 UN member states, the European Union and non-member observer states representing the Vatican and the Palestinian Territories will gather, also coincides with Pope Francis’ visit to the US.

Francis, who will address the UN on Friday before the start of a summit on development goals, is expected to focus on the importance of ending poverty, protecting the environment and stopping mass atrocities.

“The pope will not be speaking primarily as a politician, he will not be speaking like a technical expert, he will not be speaking like a high UN official,” said Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Holy See’s ambassador to the UN.

“He will be speaking above all as a pastor, as a religious leader, as a prophet and as a father.”

Auza said the pope’s main message will be that of hope and mercy urging world leaders to implement measures to end suffering and bring about development.

A three-day summit from Friday to Sunday will bring together 154 heads of state and government and 30 ministers to adopt and discuss the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which will set worldwide development benchmarks for 2030.

The ambitious plan, which contains 17 goals with 169 specific targets, aims to eradicate extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, provide quality education to all and achieve economic growth.

Leaders will also address the new agreement in the works on climate change, which will be finalized in Paris at year’s end and will be considered part of the SDGs.

Helen Clark, who heads the UN Development Programme, said the SDGs provide an integrated approach to economic and social development without “breaking the environment.”

She noted that the goals will also provide a roadmap to avoid large-scale conflicts in the future that plague a growing number of countries today.

“The SDGs … break new ground and begin to tackle some of the underlying factors which lead countries to tip over into conflict, crisis and despair,” she said.

The UN’s global campaign to introduce the SDGs will be launched with fanfare in New York’s Central Park on Saturday: Celebrities and bands such as Beyonce, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Pearl Jam will perform to promote the global goals.

On Monday, leaders will get down to business as usual – discussing world crises during the annual high-level general debate of the assembly.

The main topics will include the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, and the migrant crisis in the Middle East and Europe, which is in many ways the result of the war in Syria and the spread of terrorism in the region.

The Islamic State extremist group has continued to gain ground in Syria and Iraq during the past year, and Obama will chair a high-level meeting on countering violent extremism.

The US president will also hold a meeting on UN peacekeeping operations. After recent accusations of sexual abuse against blue helmets in the Central African Republic, many of whom are from less developed countries, the meeting aims to mobilize more highly trained troops from rich nations.

With Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in attendance, the Israeli-Palestinian question is also on the agenda.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is convening a ministerial-level meeting of the international quartet overseeing efforts to broker a peace deal in the Middle East at the sidelines of the general debate.

Besides the quartet’s principal members – the US, the EU, Russia and the UN – foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the secretary general of the Arab League have also been invited in an effort to widen international cooperation on the issue.

This year will also be the first time that the Palestinian territories, a non-member observer state at the UN, will raise its flag outside the UN headquarters after countries overwhelmingly approved a resolution allowing non-member states to fly their flags along with those of member states.

The Holy See, the official name for the Vatican, which is the only other observer state at the UN, will also raise its flag on Friday just hours before Francis’ visit.

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