Global leaders at UN tackle world's worst to-do list

Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people
Kerry: Russia needs to stop Assad from bombing people

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Story highlights

  • President Barack Obama is set to address the UN for the last time
  • Hillary Clinton will hold her own meetings on the side lines

(CNN)It's the world's toughest "to do" list: stop violent extremism, solve the worst global refugee crisis in a quarter century, foster peace in the ravaged Middle East and -- in the meantime -- work to end poverty, disease, hunger and the threat of nuclear weapons.

That's the agenda as more than 140 heads of state and government descend on New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly.
    As the world grapples with these and other pressing issues, US domestic politics may claim space on the New York stage: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is set to meet some world leaders in Manhattan this week as her family's controversial charitable foundation hosts the final meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
    The UN will mark its own endings, too, as both President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attend for the last time in their current capacities.
    The agenda for the 71st assembly, as aspirational as it is daunting, comes at a particularly uncertain moment.
    In Asia, North Korea's largest-ever nuclear test this month has cast a new shadow over a region that accounts for 40% of the global economy. In the Middle East, the world is watching to see if a shaky ceasefire will take root in Syria, where the five-year-old civil war and the brutality of ISIS have destabilized the region.
    That destabilization has seen European countries overwhelmed by record-breaking numbers of refugees moving across their borders, redefining the continent's political landscape and heightening the threat of terrorist infiltrators.
    It's the world's toughest "to do" list: stop violent extremism, solve the worst global refugee crisis in a quarter century, foster peace in the ravaged Middle East and -- in the meantime -- work to end poverty, disease, hunger and the threat of nuclear weapons.
    That's the agenda as more than 140 heads of state and government descend on New York this week for the annual United Nations General Assembly.
    As the world grapples with these and other pressing issues, US domestic politics may claim space on the New York stage: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is set to meet some world leaders in Manhattan this week as her family's controversial charitable foundation hosts the final meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
    The UN will mark its own endings, too, as both President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon attend for the last time in their current capacities.
    The agenda for the 71st assembly, as aspirational as it is daunting, comes at a particularly uncertain moment.
    In Asia, North Korea's largest-ever nuclear test this month has cast a new shadow over a region that accounts for 40% of the global economy.
    In the Middle East, the world is watching to see if a shaky ceasefire will take root in Syria, where the five-year-old civil war and the brutality of ISIS have destabilized the region.
    That destabilization has seen European countries overwhelmed by record-breaking numbers of refugees moving across their borders, redefining the continent's political landscape and heightening the threat of terrorist infiltrators.

    Terror threat

    Terrorism is already casting a particularly dark shadow over this meeting, as New York police investigate a Saturday bombing in Manhattan that injured 29 people.
    It occurred on the same day that a blast disrupted a Marine Corps charity run in New Jersey and a man stabbed nine people at a Minnesota mall. All three incidents are being investigated as possible terror attacks and security around UN events will likely be even more stringent than usual.
    Global leaders will hold special breakout sessions on refugees, Syria and Libya, where instability has also created openings for ISIS and other extremist groups. They'll address other priorities, too, including climate change, human rights, sustainable development and UN reform.

    Heightened tension

    On the sidelines, Obama will meet with world leaders. On Monday, he's set to discuss North Korea's nuclear tests and other Asian issues with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
    On Wednesday, Obama will review a newly signed $38 billion aid package for Israel with its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discuss the prospects for Mideast peace. He'll also meet with leaders such as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
    Amid the week-long swirl of meetings at the iconic rectangular UN building bordering Manhattan's East River, there will also be the usual smaller dramas: the leaders who use their speeches to denounce rivals in impolitic ways and heated speculation about potentially fraught or historic meetings.
    Last year, a tense meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin was swiftly followed by Moscow's intervention in Syria. This year, existing tensions will be heightened by a US strike on Syrian forces that the military had thought was an ISIS target, administration officials said.
    Obama administration regrets Syrian military deaths
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    Russia called an emergency UN Security Council meeting, arguing that the Saturday strike showed the US isn't fully committed to cooperating with Moscow on the fight against militant groups including ISIS and warned that the Syrian ceasefire might break down as a result.
    "We consider what happened as a natural result of the persistent refusal of the United States from the establishment of close cooperation with Russia in the fight against ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other affiliated terrorist groups," the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement Sunday.
    Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the architects of the nascent ceasefire, are expected to meet and may offer an update on its progress.
    The US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, expressed regret for the loss of life Saturday, but added that, "Even by Russia's standards, tonight's stunt -- a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding -- is uniquely cynical and hypocritical."

    Iran question

    Since 2011, Power said, "the Assad regime has been intentionally striking civilian targets with horrifying, predictable regularity."
    The 2015 General Assembly also featured a historic handshake between Obama and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. This year, with the Iran nuclear deal under fire in Tehran and a tight US presidential campaign underway, political observers wonder if the two men will meet again.
    State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner couldn't say if even Kerry will meet officially with his Iranian counterparts, men he knows well from months of nuclear talks.
    "We just don't have anything to confirm at this point," Toner said.
    Kerry also met Sunday with Asian allies to discuss North Korea and tensions in the South China Sea as a rising Beijing asserts itself in the region.
    Amid all this, the US will be focusing on "three topline priorities," according to Bathsheba Crocker, the State Department's assistant secretary for international organizations, listing "humanitarian response, peace and security, and countering terrorism and violent extremism."
    Kerry will touch on humanitarian needs at a high-level Monday meeting on refugees. The next day, Obama hosts a Leaders Summit on Refugees.
    The US announced Wednesday that it will increase the number of refugees it absorbs from 85,000 this year to 110,000 in 2017. And on Friday, the administration said it would give $11 million to a UN fund that helps countries accepting refugees.
    Waves of people fleeing countries such as Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan have overwhelmed the international refugee system.

    Unprecedented strains

    According to the UN, more than 21 million people are displaced today, half of them children, all of them in need of food, shelter, safety and livelihoods.
    They are placing unprecedented strains on their host countries, driving the rise of right-leaning anti-immigrant political parties in Europe and becoming a divisive US presidential campaign issue as well.
    In April, Republican candidate Donald Trump warned a crowd to "lock your doors" to stay safe from Syrian refugees, and in June added that "a lot of those people are ISIS."
    Crocker said Obama's leader summit on Tuesday aims to yield "significant sustained commitments to UN humanitarian appeals, expanded refugee resettlement programs or alternative legal pathways for admission, and new opportunities for refugees and their host communities to benefit from improved refugee access to education and legal employment."
    Tuesday will also mark Obama's final address to the UN as president.