Global disorder on display at the UN’s gathering of world leaders
Dignitaries from the UN’s 193 member states have descended on New York this week to take part in the General Debate of the UN General Assembly, which has been an annual event since the organization was founded in San Francisco in 1945. As the world shakes off its pandemic-imposed travel restrictions, this year’s 78th session appears more crowded than ever. About 140 heads of state or government are in attendance, while 40 more delegations are headed by vice presidents, deputy prime ministers or foreign ministers. Still more nations come, led by lesser officials, in addition to hundreds of organizations that also take part in these convocations. Scores of speeches mark this week, amid dozens of important side events that aim to take advantage of the presence of so many luminaries.
However, despite the large numbers, there is no hiding the fact that the world body is in trouble because of superpower tensions. It is conspicuous, for example, that many great power leaders have decided to skip the UN gathering this year. In fact, only President Joe Biden of the five permanent UN Security Council members is here. The leaders of the other four — China, France, Russia and the UK — are not.
The geopolitical disorder is most evident in the Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body, where the five permanent members enjoy the right to veto any decision they do not like. This translates into paralysis these days, in light of the intense rivalry between its members.
By tradition, Brazil speaks first at the General Debate. The US speaks next. Biden’s focus was Ukraine, which he mentioned about 10 times in his speech. He pushed the assembled leaders to support Kyiv, asking them: “If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?” If the UN’s core principles are flouted, he said, “can any member state in this body feel confident that they are protected?” The US is working hard to put the Ukraine cause center stage at international gatherings, but there are signs that support for that cause is somewhat flagging. A CNN poll indicated that a majority of Americans oppose more US aid for Ukraine. Dissent is especially pronounced among conservatives.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was met with thunderous applause when he took the stage and proceeded to give a dramatic 15-minute speech, lambasting Russia and appealing passionately to the UN audience for help.
Polish President Andrzej Duda recalled Adolf Hitler’s invasion of his country in September 1939 and said that Poland understands the tragedy of Ukraine better than any other. “Today, the victim is Ukraine. Tomorrow, it could be any one of us,” he said. Despite his convincing show of support for Ukraine, there were reports of disagreement between the two allies, especially around the handling of the grain export crisis. In addition, Duda is facing rising dissent from right-wing groups at home that are opposed to his support of Ukraine.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also weighed in with some surprisingly sharp remarks on the Ukraine war and criticism of Russia’s role. He said that its invasion was “in violation of the United Nations Charter and international law. It has unleashed a nexus of horror: lives destroyed; human rights abused; families torn apart; children traumatized; hopes and dreams shattered … Beyond Ukraine, the war has serious implications for us all. Nuclear threats put us all at risk. Ignoring global treaties and conventions makes us all less safe. And the poisoning of global diplomacy obstructs progress across the board.”
Despite the large numbers, there is no hiding the fact that the world body is in trouble because of superpower tensions.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
In the opening speech, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva struck a more conciliatory and positive tone. He appeared to be trying for a comeback as the preeminent leader of Latin America and spokesman for the Global South as a whole — a role he enjoyed in his first two terms as president between 2003 and 2010. Since returning to power in January, he has tried to regain that glory, traveling to some 20 countries and meeting with 50 heads of state, while repeating the slogan “Brazil is back.” This reflects his determination to reclaim his old role, but times are different now, with the heightened geopolitical tensions between China and the US, as well as the Russia-Ukraine war. He keeps trying to strike a balance between the opposing camps — last month in South Africa during the BRICS Summit, earlier this month in India during the G20 gathering and again on Tuesday at the UNGA.
While the jury is out on how Lula can strike a balance in the new cold war, he is nevertheless an effective advocate for climate action and for giving developing nations a greater role in multilateral organizations and the global economy. The words of the grandfatherly 77-year-old resonated with many in the audience and they gave him the treatment normally afforded to rock stars, especially the representatives of developing nations, who are more concerned with livelihoods than superpower rivalry.
During the Cold War of old, US-Soviet rivalry nearly made the UN irrelevant. Now, the UN is trying very hard to immunize its economic and humanitarian missions from superpower tensions. Developing countries, which represent the majority of UN members, rely more than rich nations on UN help and they fear that tensions could reduce the organization’s ability to play that role. Civil society groups, which rely on the UN to promote their various agendas, are also concerned about the political paralysis spilling over to other areas. This is the challenge facing the organization.
Guterres warned he may not be able to meet that challenge, saying the world was “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations; one that threatens a single, open internet; with diverging strategies on technology and artificial intelligence; and potentially clashing security frameworks.” He called for the reform of what he called the “dysfunctional, outdated and unjust international financial architecture.”
While Guterres has been criticized in the past for being alarmist, this year his scathing remarks struck a chord with most present in the General Assembly Hall. In one part of his speech, he lamented the neglect and disregard for civilians in so many conflicts. Referring to the devastating floods in Libya, he said: “The people of Derna lived and died in the epicenter of that indifference — as the skies unleashed 100 times the monthly rainfall in 24 hours … as dams broke after years of war and neglect.”
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views.