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Will the UN high mass make a difference?

September 19, 2023 at 4:16 pm

Flags of the UN and USA fly outside the United Nations headquarters ahead of the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 15, 2023 [ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images]

This week marks the beginning of the traditional high-level debate in the framework of the 78th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York. World leaders will meet to discuss a number of issues ranging from peace and security, to climate change, development and global governance.

Of course, the war in Ukraine will be, for the second time at the annual UNGA, extensively debated, with the West trying to convince an ever-larger group of states to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine. But other less Europe-centred issues will be equally important. Among those will feature prominently the revitalisation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agenda, a set of 17 commitments pertaining to reducing extreme poverty, while promoting peace and the preservation of the environment. The plan was adopted in 2015 and is to be completed by 2030, but has been significantly delayed, in part, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact of UN high masses

Will the high-level meeting then make a difference? Every year, the question comes back about the relevance of UN diplomatic high masses and their adaptation to rapidly evolving global challenges. This year, key leaders have decided to skip the event, not least Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, but also French President, Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and of course Russian President, Vladimir Putin, who cannot run the risk of travelling to the US, given that an arrest warrant was issued for him by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crime. By contrast, US President Joe Biden will make the trip to New York, as will Brazilian President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Turkiye’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The war in Ukraine has, no doubt, undermined the role and legitimacy of the UN Security Council. Contrary to the UN General Assembly that brings together the totality of UN members (193), the Security Council counts 15 members, five of which are permanent (the US, Russia, China, France and the UK). Those five permanent members hold a veto right over any important decision of the Council, which practically paralyzes the UN body in the context of the war in Ukraine. Reforms of the Security Council have been discussed for ages, yet the supremacy and prerogatives of the “permanent five” are unlikely to be effectively called into question as any reform would require their consent.

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In this context, the absence of key world leaders at the annual General Assembly reunion says something about the added value of the exercise, at a time when the UN suffers from growing polarisation, most notably between the North and the ill-defined Global South.

Beyond the fallout between Russia and the West, the war in Ukraine has also shown that quite a few countries from the South (particularly in Africa), have issues with the very idea of “siding with the North” on what they see as a European war. Only a very few have then accepted to apply sanctions against Russia.

The challenge of G-20 and BRICS

The centrality of the UN as a global governance instrument has also been challenged by the parallel increased importance of ad hoc diplomatic forums such as the G-20, which met on 9-10 September in New Delhi, or the BRICS, which met on 22-24 August in Johannesburg. Trust in the UN is shaky for quite a few states, and more restricted clubs may appear a better fit for current needs. The BRICS, composed of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and recently enlarged to six new members, also emerges as a body that can ostensibly contest the supremacy of the Western-led “rules-based international order.” Its own cohesion with China and India, both being present and, therefore, efficacy remains uncertain though.

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The fact is that it is global governance, in general, that is in poor shape. Yet the structural challenges that the UN is suffering from should not lead to too hasty conclusions. States fight and diverge on many issues for which the UN is then unable to offer solutions, yet the current state of international affairs is also a plea for more rather than for less UN.

This week’s high-level debate will include a meeting dedicated to the implementation of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), from which new political guidance should emerge. For the Global South, this is more of an issue with the North than the Ukraine war is. The North is here accused of not delivering on its aid promises toward the South, and of trying to impose on the Global South strict measures to compensate for two centuries of Northern countries’ gas emissions. These discussions are no doubt difficult, yet the SDGs require a mid-term new momentum and there exists no easy alternative to the UN for such talks.

The diplomatic card is also the one used by the Ukrainian President, who will take advantage of his presence in New York to meet his peers and try to rally them around his cause. Zelenskyy will also appear at the UN Security Council, where Russia seats as a permanent member. It is likely that no Russian representative will attend Zelenskyy’s address, yet the Security Council will play its diplomatic forum’s role. Through its various bodies, the UN acts as a multilateral framework that allows for diplomatic contacts while reducing transaction costs, whereas ad hoc bodies or restricted clubs can only allow for limited state-to-state interaction and socialisation. No quick fix or magic solution should be expected; the UN plays the long game and offers a very imperfect yet probably irreplaceable forum.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.