There is an apocryphal story about an ambassador delivering a speech to the UN General Assembly, with only one other ambassador present. After finishing his speech, the ambassador approaches his counterpart to express gratitude for attending his speech. “I am just the next speaker, Your Excellency,” responds the other ambassador.
Unfortunately, there is some truth to this story, as most speeches are predictable and rarely attentively listened to. The real conversations happen in the corridors and restaurants of New York, where many officials gather. This year, few heads of state from Security Council countries were present, highlighting the world’s current state and the UN’s limited influence.
The UN still does some tremendously important work, but this is largely at the level of its agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, UNICEF or the UNHCR, all providing essential assistance to many millions of people in need. They still represent the hope the UN once incarnated and which it used to deploy to cool heads and end or even prevent conflicts.
The creation of the UN organization in 1945 represented the budding of hope after a devastating Second World War, which ended with two atomic bombs being dropped on Japanese civilians. Out of the ravages of war and power, human civilization insisted that we should never see this again and that conflicts must be resolved through dialogue and compromise, guaranteed by the gathering of world nations and consciences represented by the UN General Assembly.
We must sadly conclude that war and conflicts did not end and that the nuclear powers went from two to nine, and others are waiting to join this club of insanity. Instead of being united, the world has broken down into smaller alliances that pose increased threats today.
This year’s assembly should restore lost hope, as acknowledged by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. However, the UN is in distress, disunited and prone to conflict. Guterres admitted to having no power, as it lies in the member states. The UN seems to be on life support, gasping for a chance to recover. This is not a strong or effective position to be in.
This article acknowledges that the world has shifted toward smaller alliances focused on their own interests, leading to conflicts and instability. The secretary-general recognizes devastating wars, power seizures and rising inequalities. Who knew before the Ukraine conflict that Russia and Ukraine provided the world with more than a third of its wheat and three-quarters of its sunflower oil?
As the Arabic saying goes, when a lion shows you its teeth, do not mistake it for a smile. Nobody is smiling today, and the UN is wounded amid a wounded world. We are all orphans of this world where there are almost no more fish in the sea, where Mother Nature’s wrath crashes down upon us with increased frequency and intensity, where human beings just cannot seem to stop bickering.
The rain comes only to those who are already drowning, while others suffer drought and starvation. It is a gloomy future we are facing, a small death that should be alarming us all. The tragedy is that the UN, and most of us citizens, recognize the tremendous damage we have done to our planet, to the equality and equal chances of our fellow humans and to all those in distress who count on our empathy and assistance.
Man always retains some hope and our children represent that hope. As the UN secretary-general insisted, “young people need a vision of hope for the future” and “we must prove to children and young people that despite the seriousness of the situation, the world has a plan.”
We all want to believe the secretary-general when he says: “This is our time. A moment for transformation. An era to reignite multilateralism. An age of possibilities.”
Today humanity is weeping, but there is still time for us to finally pay attention, to start collecting empathy and to begin repairing the damage we have done.
• Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked with Saudi petroleum ministers Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani from 1959 to 1967. He led the Saudi Information Ofﬁce in Washington from 1972 to 1981 and served with the Arab League observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.