Lots of talk but little action as global crises grow
Hollow talk and empty promises by world leaders on critical global issues like climate change, poverty, hunger and disease are the norm at international gatherings. The 77th session of the UN General Assembly, which concluded on Tuesday, turned out to be no different. Even worse, its thematic general debate on finding “transformative solutions to interlocking challenges” was overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, leaving the world more divided than ever.
This divide complicates the urgent task of dealing with the unprecedented rise in global energy prices and food shortages, which are a consequence of this war. The progress on persisting global crises such as climate change — whose disastrous implications are increasingly visible in continental heat waves, crippling droughts and catastrophic floods — also looks bleak. On other global issues like gender equality, the trend is visibly in reverse. Ongoing protests in Iran over the hijab follow the familiar tale of the denial of women’s rights in Taliban-led Afghanistan and elsewhere.
For seven decades, the US-Soviet Cold War and the subsequent US unilateralism distracted the UNGA from performing its obligatory functions. The least it could do was to keep the global focus on persisting conflicts like Palestine and maintain the fragile peace in conflict zones. In 2000, the Millennium Development Goals were launched to tackle key global issues. But the results were far from impressive.
It was against this backdrop that the UNGA unveiled the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015. This pathbreaking global initiative includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals to be achieved by 2030. These goals recognize that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand in hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth — all while tackling climate change and working to preserve the global ecosystem.
The progress on SDGs is also less than satisfactory, as the rich nations have been unwilling to provide the mandatory support to their poor counterparts. Under the Trump administration, the US even withdrew from the Paris climate accord and refused to fund UN bodies like the World Health Organization. Last year, President Joe Biden renewed the US’ commitment to multilateralism by rejoining the climate agreement and resuming funding to UN institutions.
Consequently, UNGA 76, held last September, revived hope of viable progress on the SDGs. “Our Common Agenda,” the report released by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres ahead of that session, called for “multilateralism with teeth,” while offering more robust approaches to crisis management and the mitigation of persisting security conflicts and emerging nontraditional threats. On the occasion, the US and other Western countries also appeared to be willing to meet their obligations under Agenda 2030.
Multilateralism was in action a couple of months later at the 26th UN climate change conference in Glasgow, where the member states renewed their commitment to realize the Paris accord’s goal of limiting the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius — ideally 1.5 C — by reducing carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050. From the issue of gender equity in Taliban-led Afghanistan to the cause of humanitarian relief in war-ravaged Syria, the world was willing to respond to the UN’s calls for help. Its collective resolve to combat the COVID-19 global pandemic also bore fruit.
The war in Ukraine has opened fissures among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War
A year later, however, and the emerging spirit of international camaraderie is nowhere to be seen. The war in Ukraine, Europe’s most serious conflict since the Second World War, has opened fissures among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War. Its consequences are all-pervasive. The global energy and food crises have hurt poorer nations the most, raising serious doubts about their ability to meet even minimal SDG targets in poverty alleviation and other spheres of human development.
This year has also been a bad one for climate catastrophes, including a summer heat wave worse than anything Europe has seen in its recorded history. The monsoon rains have played havoc in Pakistan, which is the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change despite producing less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
The US and other Western nations, which produce the bulk of greenhouse gases, are committed under the Paris Agreement to help such fragile nations. But their priorities have shifted in the wake of the Ukraine war. This unfortunate reality was on full display at UNGA 77, where the US and its European allies were more interested in settling scores with Russia than heeding the pleas of Guterres or the bulk of more than 150 leaders from Africa, Asia and South America for a better and safer world, and what it must entail.
China has its own axe to grind with the Biden administration, which has ramped up hostility against Beijing. Its recent provocation over Taiwan suggests as much. Meanwhile, Russia is indirectly at war with NATO, whose members are funding and arming Ukraine. Unfortunately, the geopolitical rivalries between the US-led West and both Russia and China are paralyzing the global response to the dramatic challenges we face today. We live in uncertain times but are facing a certain reality.
Climate change, in particular, poses an existential threat to humanity. But it is difficult to imagine that the upcoming UN climate change conference in Egypt will bridge the growing gulf between its disastrous effects and our commitment to climate action. For the same reason, the UNGA resolutions on this and the other SDGs have little value.
How the war in Ukraine ends, and the rivalry between the great powers evolves, will determine if the world emerges from this dark era or descends further into it. At least for now, the gap between rhetoric and reality in the international response to resolving critical global issues does not appear to be narrowing.
• Ishtiaq Ahmad is a former journalist who has been vice chancellor of Sargodha University in Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam Fellow at the University of Oxford.