Time for world to recommit to UN’s ideals
It is not unusual for the annual UN General Assembly, referred to universally as UNGA, to take place in the shadow of a crisis somewhere, and this year is no exception.
Long-standing pressures on the UN are often thrown into sharper relief by particular events. The erosion of the international post-1945 architecture, from arms control to territorial ambition, has been steadily growing and, with it, the threat of breakdown rises.
The generation of leaders and diplomats who had witnessed the near-destruction of the world through the horrors of world war and the use of nuclear weapons has gone — and with them the memory of why they instituted what they did at the UN. The ability of the UN to respond, either to prevent conflict or to end it once it has begun, is increasingly being hampered by the inability of the UN Security Council to act collectively, when its permanent member states decide to pursue their own interests rather than collective ones.
It remains fundamental to appreciate that the UN is the sum of its parts; that it has no power beyond that given to it by its constituent states. Accordingly, its structures for collective action, and its powers to deliver, are only as good as the will and determination of states to pursue policies in common or to curtail their own national interests for a common good.
This year, the particular event of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia — a permanent member of the UNSC — violated the UN Charter and set up the biggest challenge to the organization for years. Notwithstanding the responses of sanctions and condemnation from most member states, the war looks likely to continue for some time, straining the alliances needed to get many things done in the UN structure. At the same time, another permanent member, China, was busy aggressively pursuing interests in its region, prompting fears among its neighbors.
The invasion highlighted two further difficulties for the UN. Firstly, many states have complained that the urgency and concentration afforded to a crisis in Europe demonstrated an inequality when compared to pursuing an end to conflicts and abuses elsewhere, from Central Africa to Syria and Myanmar. Demands for reform to the UNSC are likely to be increased but rejected, thus fueling further frustration.
Secondly, the impact of the conflict on energy supplies threatens climate change ambitions, as states will resort to fossil fuels to combat short-term pressures on their populations, lessening the likelihood of further progress on the issue at COP27 in Egypt in a few months’ time. The extreme climate events seen this year — of prolonged and unusual heat, worldwide wildfires and dramatic flooding as in Pakistan — should have driven the heaviest-polluting states to acknowledge the need to act collectively and even more quickly. Again, the voices of those states that are the innocent victims of global warming will demand even more of a hearing and for the UN to deliver more than a conference.
The ability of the UN to respond, either to prevent conflict or to end it once it has begun, is increasingly being hampered
This year’s UNGA should again prompt deep consideration of the risks of losing what the UN offers: It is still an objective and fact-based repository of knowledge, a platform allowing explanation and challenge to the actions of nation states, and the only place to come to cry foul in front of others and seek support. With the unimaginable threat of nuclear war back after decades, according to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, every single world leader who attends should acknowledge such a risk and pledge to do all they can to modernize, but uphold, the ideals of the organization.
There are good reasons why. Amid all the political concerns, it would be wrong to miss the achievements of some of the agencies, funds and programs driven by the UN, which tackle the most pressing humanitarian issues throughout the world. The quality of outstanding individuals and organizations was demonstrated by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Program under David Beasley in 2020. And every day, UN agencies, mostly unsung, are seeking to overcome life-threatening situations in terms of health epidemics, helping refugees and feeding the hungry — events too often caused by the actions of member states of the UN.
The political envoys too, which are unenviable roles, deserve attention and support. The painstaking efforts of Hans Grundberg in Yemen may yet pay dividends, though once again the UN must work with the nation states engaged there, convincing them that their best interests lie in peace and resolving the conflict.
Finally, states should not forget that, at a time when populations worldwide are sick of poor, corrupt, partisan and polarized governance, young people see the UN as one of the few institutions whose ideals they can espouse and which gives them hope in an otherwise dispiriting world. Our generation is leaving them many problems. Let us not add the end of the UN to the list, but instead recommit to its ideals and how to deliver them.
• Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK