UN efforts stymied by discord among its members
For the second year in a row, the UN General Assembly’s high-level general debate is being held under a thick COVID-19 cloud. UN officials admit that the pandemic has slowed down their work, with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying on Saturday: “We were not able to make any real progress in relation to effective coordination of global efforts.”
Last year, the organization’s plans to celebrate its 75th birthday were derailed by the pandemic and the high-level debate was muted — conducted virtually for the first time in its history. This year, while restrictions have been eased, the pandemic has still forced some changes in the way this annual event is handled, including limiting the number of delegates in the UN building and assembly hall. Proof of vaccination is required, although some leaders, such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, are flouting such restrictions.
In preparatory meetings preceding this week’s main event, the UN identified dozens of global issues it wanted its member states to tackle. Guterres underlined three particular major issues: COVID-19, climate change, and the fallout from America’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On the pandemic, Guterres said that the world had failed to take unified action, calling it “totally unacceptable” that 80 percent of the population in a country like Portugal has been fully vaccinated, while in many African countries the figure is less than 2 percent. “It’s completely stupid from the point of view of defeating the virus, but if the virus goes on spreading like wildfire in the Global South, there will be more mutations,” he said.
On climate change, Guterres also sounded disappointed. He said: “One year ago, we were seeing a more clear movement in the right direction, and that movement has slowed down in the recent past. So we need to re-accelerate again if we are not going into disaster.”
And on Afghanistan, Guterres dismissed as “fantasy” any hope that UN involvement would be “able all of a sudden to produce an inclusive government, to guarantee that all human rights are respected, to guarantee that no terrorists will ever exist in Afghanistan, that drug trafficking will stop.” If the US and its allies could not do it with thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars, and even made the situation worse, how could the UN succeed with far fewer resources, he asked.
In theory, the failure of America’s ill-considered adventure in Afghanistan could strengthen the UN’s role and, with it, the international rules-based system. Afghanistan and other intractable problems can now be addressed under those rules, instead of great powers trying to solve them by themselves. However, the prospect of the international community working together any time soon is dimmed by increasing discord among some of the great powers.
In an interview with the Associated Press this week, Guterres also warned of a potential new cold war and called on China and the US to repair their “completely dysfunctional” relationship and “re-establish a functional relationship” to address pressing global issues. “Unfortunately, today we only have confrontation,” he lamented.
In theory, the failure of America’s ill-considered adventure in Afghanistan could strengthen the UN’s role.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
For the past two years, Guterres has been warning of the risk of a global split, with the US and China creating rival internets, currency, trade, financial rules and “their own zero-sum geopolitical and military strategies.” His new warnings are louder, fearing that this rivalry threatens to divide the world. “We need to avoid at all cost a cold war that would be different from the past one, and probably more dangerous and more difficult to manage,” he said.
The US in particular has pushed back against such warnings and in particular does not believe in the notion of a new Cold War but instead sees that its strong competition with China should not turn into conflict. However, the discord is too obvious to ignore. The China-US rivalry is now dividing the Western alliance, as can be seen in the raging dispute over Australia’s canceling of a military deal with France, a deal meant to bolster Australia’s defenses against China. Paris has blamed the US for Canberra’s change of heart. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian angrily said last Thursday: “President Biden’s method resembles that of President Trump without the tweets.” He also said that the US was acting according to its own narrow “core interests” and linked the matter with the crisis in Afghanistan.
Usually, this high-level week has hundreds of side events, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic only a limited number are being held, mainly virtually or outside the UN headquarters. These include events on vaccines, on children as the invisible victims of the coronavirus and conflict, on multilateralism and democracy, and on global hotspots including Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are also high-level meetings on energy and the nuclear test ban treaty, and a summit on the nexus between producing, processing, distributing and consuming food, which is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the UN. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden is hosting a virtual summit on the pandemic. He is expected to ask global leaders to boost their commitments to sharing vaccines and addressing oxygen shortages around the world, among other issues.
This is Biden’s first UN participation as president — an occasion that usually helps a new president to cultivate new relationships with counterparts from around the world and strengthen existing ones. However, the chaos of last month’s withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan has raised questions about US leadership and reliability as a partner. Close allies that had committed blood and treasure to the mission in Afghanistan have decried the lack of consultation, the hasty withdrawal without a comprehensive peace deal, and the disorganized evacuation.
While the UN secretary-general and many other observers expressed low expectations ahead of this year’s UNGA, the South Korean pop group BTS managed to inject some optimism. On Monday, they took part in an effort to promote the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, held at the renowned General Assembly Hall, where they performed an inspiring tune (“Permission to Dance”), garnering tens of millions of online views in less than a day, demonstrating that young people around the world still believe in the UN promise.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.