Can the UN use this General Assembly to make its voice heard?

The organisation meets at a time when an array of shifting and overlapping alliances reveals that many countries are pursuing new relationships and networks

US President Joe Biden speaks during last year's UN General Assembly in New York. Four out of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council are choosing to skip this year’s gathering. Bloomberg
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As the 78th session of the UN General Assembly gets into its stride today, the organisation once considered an indispensable forum for global diplomacy finds itself having to reassert its leading role.

With more than 140 world leaders expected in New York City for the high-level debate at the General Assembly this week, the fact is the UN now exists at a time when an array of shifting and overlapping alliances reveals how many countries are pursuing new relationships and networks. The 15th summit of the Brics group of nations held in South Africa last month welcomed several important new members, and the G20 gathering in New Delhi shortly afterwards admitted an entire bloc of countries – the 55-member African Union. These developments are further proof that the world is becoming increasingly multipolar, and that countries are exploring new economic and political paths to stability, prosperity and development.

The UN, which is often accused of being overly bureaucratic and bogged down in procedural and political wrangling, must use this week’s high-profile gathering to prove that it can still unite countries, build consensus, help to resolve conflicts and champion issues of global justice. Sadly, this year’s convening is taking place amid levels of global distrust rarely seen in peacetime. We live in fraught times: China and the US are often at loggerheads, Russia is isolated from much of Europe and the West, and many developing countries accuse advanced industrial countries of failing to help them deal with climate change – a phenomenon worsened by the economic activities of the richer nations.

Nevertheless, there are several areas in which the UN can take action to assure its members that it can still be representative and effective. Redoubling efforts to reform the UN Security Council, possibly with expanded permanent membership – as US President Joe Biden suggested earlier this month – could help to resolve some of the stalemates frequently witnessed in this critical body. Too often, geopolitical tensions – such as the crisis in Syria and war in Ukraine – lead to an impasse as members wield their power of veto. A fresh look at these veto powers, as well as the transparency of the council’s deliberations, is important. Although such a process would be a challenging one, and consensus could take years to reach, the body is too important to go unexamined.

Revitalising work on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – 17 objectives to fight climate change, cut poverty and foster economic growth – is also vital, given that many countries are behind on their commitments. Concrete steps on global health care and climate finance would also go some way to making the developing world feel that its concerns are being taken seriously. On the last point, the UNGA also provides an opportunity to fine-tune policy and iron out differences before Cop28, the climate change summit to be held in the UAE later this year.

Other issues will have to be handled carefully. The Ukraine conflict, which has polarised world opinion, still takes up a large amount of diplomatic bandwidth, something that has vexed delegates from Latin America, Africa and Asia who have pressing concerns of their own. And the fact that four out of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council are choosing to skip this year’s General Assembly does not help to allay fears of a UN losing some of its relevance.

The UN can still be a major force for good in the world. Its role in negotiating the Black Sea grain deal is one example of the important role it can play as an arbiter and facilitator, even in the most trying circumstances. But the world is changing rapidly and the UN, if it wants to bring about the changes it says it champions, will have to follow suit.

Published: September 18, 2023, 3:00 AM
Updated: September 19, 2023, 9:56 AM