Syria to take central stage at UN refugee meeting

Syria to take central stage at UN refugee meeting
The refugee crisis and Syria's war will be central talking points at the UN meeting on Monday, as a fragile truce holds.
4 min read
18 September, 2016
Refugees were a focus of UN talks along with Syria crisis [Getty]

World leaders meeting at the United Nations on Monday will try to make progress on two of the world's overriding problems - the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War and the Syria war, now in its sixth year which has claimed over 300,000 lives.

Against a backdrop of rising ethnic and religious tension, fighting elsewhere in the Middle East and Africa, extremist attacks across the world, and a warming planet, there are plenty of other issues for the 135 heads of state and government, and more than 50 ministers expected to attend to try to tackle.

"It's no secret there's a lot of fear out there," US Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters, citing the uncertainties sparked by the UK's vote to leave the European Union, and the threat posed by the Islamic State extremist group.

Global agenda

But Syria, where a tense ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Washington went into effect last Monday, remains at the top of the agenda at the UN General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting.

An apparently errant airstrike on Saturday in which the US military may have unintentionally struck Syrian troops while carrying out a raid against the Islamic State group could deal a crushing blow to the truce.

The ceasefire, which does not apply to attacks on IS, has largely held for five days despite dozens of alleged violations on both sides.

The UN Security Council held a closed emergency meeting Saturday night at Russia's request to discuss the airstrike. The acrimonious meeting offered a harbinger of the difficulties ahead as the US and Russia remain suspicious of each other's intents in Syria.

US Ambassador Power accused Russia of pulling "a stunt" that is "cynical and hypocritical" in calling for the meeting while not taking similar action in response to atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said he had never seen "such an extraordinary display of American heavy-handedness" as displayed by power.

The acrimony over the airstrike could spill over into a Security Council ministerial meeting on Syria scheduled for Wednesday.

Russia was pushing for a resolution to endorse the cessation of hostilities and look ahead, but the US refused to make public details of the ceasefire deal citing "operational security". 

US Ambassador Power accused Russia of pulling "a stunt" that is "cynical and hypocritical".

Churkin earlier had called the US uncooperative and said most likely "we're not going to have a resolution".

With the truce still fragile, no sign yet of humanitarian aid deliveries to rebel areas, and supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime trading accusations, diplomats said there may be a meeting Tuesday of some 20 key countries on both sides who are part of the International Syria Support Group to chart the next steps.

The spotlight during the week is also certain to shine on three leaders, who are all scheduled to speak at the assembly's opening ministerial session on Tuesday morning.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who steps down on 31 December, and US President Barack Obama who will leave office in January, will be addressing the 193-member world body for the last time.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May will be making her debut on the world stage less than three months after the vote to leave the European Union.

Refugee crisis

In UN corridors and at private meetings, the question of Ban's successor will be a hot topic.

Portugal's former Prime Minister Antonio Guterres has topped all four informal polls in the Security Council but he could be vetoed, possibly by Russia, and there are constant rumors of new candidates throwing their hats in the ring.

The US presidential race is already a hot topic at the UN, and no doubt leaders will be privately discussing the impact of a victory by Hillary Clinton, and especially Donald Trump, on the United Nations where the US is the largest financial contributor and has veto-wielding power in the Security Council.

In one of the week's highlights, the secretary-general has invited leaders to a first-ever UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants on Monday.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an "unprecedented" 65.3 million people were displaced at the end of 2015, an increase of more than 5 million from a year earlier and the highest number since Second World War.

They include 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million people internally displaced within their own countries.

"More countries must resettle more people who have been forced from their homes," Ban told reporters Wednesday.

"And everyone, everywhere, must stand up against the animosity that so many refugees, migrants and minority communities face."

The political declaration set to be adopted calls for separate global compacts for refugees and migrants to be adopted within two years.

But human rights groups complained that it was watered down, eliminating Ban's proposal to resettle 10 percent of the world's refugees annually.