UNGA 2019: Multilateralism remains best bet to save world

This year's General Assembly is an opportunity for the international community to once again cherish the idea of a shared future. The danger is if they don’t, there might not be a future at all.

FILE - Jan. 13, 2018 file photo, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres talks to the media during a join declaration with the Colombian president, in Bogota, Colombia. Saying humanity is waging war with the planet, the head of the United Nations isn’t planning to let just any world leader speak about climate change in Monday’s special “action summit.”
Guterres says only those with new specific and bold plans can command the podium and the ever-warming world’s attention.  (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara, File)
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As representatives of the 193 member states of the United Nations convene in New York for the 74th General Assembly, the annual meeting of world leaders cannot have come at a more important time.

For one thing, the very idea of multilateralism is battling for survival against the forces of nationalism and populism at a time when the world is faced with global problems that require global solutions. One such problem – that of climate change – has become so acute that the international community is more hard-pressed than ever to find solutions urgently as the crisis escalates.

As outgoing International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde said in an exclusive interview with The National, it is a "combination of the national imperative and international solutions" that will help tackle key issues such as terrorism, money laundering, finance and climate change.

It is significant, then, that UNGA 2019 on Monday hosts the Climate Action Summit, in which the UN expects countries to build on their commitments to the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat global warming. It follows the global climate strike on Friday, inspired by environmental activist Greta Thunberg, whose message was loud and clear: “Our house is on fire. We will not just stand aside and watch.”

The Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries, including the UAE, seeks to limit global temperature increases to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. However, scientists have cautioned that the world risks exceeding that within a decade if nations do not act, which could be catastrophic for low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and the Maldives. UN secretary general Antonio Guterres has himself called for action to tackle the climate change "emergency".

Undoubtedly, there will be questions about whether the discussions that take place at UNGA are relevant to the populations of countries it represents, or whether they are a mere exercise in diplomacy. However, the fact that world leaders have chosen to gather this and every year since 1945 demonstrates the importance they continue to place on the organisation’s role as an instigator of co-operation, diplomacy and – most crucially – multilateralism. The fact that even the 16-year-old Ms Thunberg felt it was the most important platform to speak for her generation, and chose to travel to New York as an advocate of climate action, says volumes.

It also begs the question: without the UN, would individual nations be as effective in fighting to end hunger, poverty, illiteracy and poor health?

UNGA has been, and continues to be, the most important platform for nations to raise issues, debate differences and, hopefully, arrive at lasting solutions. It remains the most credible organisation for world powers.

The annual assembly comes at a critical time for the region, with several Arab countries seeking international solidarity and support in countering terrorism and Iranian provocation. This will be key to discussions led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose delegation is led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation. Gulf countries have reaffirmed their commitment to multilateralism and finding peaceful solutions amid escalating tensions.

This is an opportunity for the international community to once again cherish the idea of a shared future. The danger is if they don’t, there might not be a future at all.