Why the UN General Assembly still matters in 2022

Global powers have become more intransigent, but they are still willing to talk

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As world leaders rushed to London and billions tuned in, Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was her last great act of service – bringing the world together. Normally, that is the job of the UN, and the funeral venue was symbolic – a stone’s throw from where the UN met for the first time in London in 1946. The young Elizabeth was there.

World business paused a moment for her funeral but gave no respite from global quarrels and tribulations. The queen would have approved that dignitaries wasted no time in moving on to New York for the UN General Assembly (UNGA).

Creating norms and standards for its fractious membership is UNGA’s most significant service. Many of humanity’s greatest advances were championed at past General Assemblies, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Principles for International Humanitarian Assistance and the Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Even when key debates on specialised issues occur in other multilateral fora, conclusions come to UNGA for blessing and follow-up. The Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer; the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel mines; the Sendai Framework for disaster reduction, countering desertification, and stopping of child recruitment into armed forces, are just some diverse examples.

However, these were low-hanging fruit that matured at relatively benign moments of geo-political consensus or compromise. Today’s UNGA is in a much more difficult place where every issue, however mutually beneficial, becomes a trial of strength between competing world views.

UNGA’s powers, under the UN Charter, are highly circumscribed. Its resolutions are not legally binding, except on internal UN budgetary matters. It cannot even appoint the Secretary General without recommendation from the Security Council. While it elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, it is the permanent members that decide on the most vital issue for which the UN was created: peace and security.

Nevertheless, UNGA is useful. It provides a safe space for nations to proclaim lofty declarations, make blood-curdling speeches, issue fiery denunciations, or even bang their shoe in frustration as Khrushchev did in 1960. Participants can also show the highest form of diplomatic disapproval by ostentatiously walking out amidst someone’s speech. Better than going to war against them.

The 77th UN General Assembly convenes in September, 2022. Bloomberg

UNGA proceedings are webcast and domestic audiences can see their representatives declaiming. This boosts national prestige. The irony is that the ultimate forum for international co-operation is actually the biggest stage for projecting national self-interest.

UNGA delegates talk at, and not to, each other in set piece presentations in a vast cavern of a room. In any case, speeches can be accessed more easily online via their social media feeds. So, practical business is not conducted in formal UNGA sessions, as I learnt from attending UNGA and its subsidiary Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). And except when some world leaders or celebrities come, the chamber is mostly empty while delegates conduct whispered diplomacy in corridors, over coffee in the lounge, or at numerous receptions around Manhattan. Who you are seen talking to or shaking hands with, sends important signals.

That is where deals are made to get votes for positions on UNGA’s many Committees, Commissions, Boards, Councils, Panels and Working Groups. When these are described as “open-ended” in the official jargon, you know that no outcome is expected. How many committees you get into and where (not all committees are equal) demonstrates your nation’s standing. There is much horse-trading. Many special advisory and high representative positions are theoretically appointed by the Secretary General, but he is easily lobbied. Such roles are also opportunities for patronage and national support may be bought and sold, as may some diplomatic ambassadorships to the UN that include voting rights. Such corrupt practices degrade UNGA’s moral currency.

The further irony is that the people who are most critical of UNGA rush fastest from one related event to another. But that illustrates the real value of UNGA as a time-tabled space in the global calendar where key stakeholders converge to connect in an efficient manner. That is why no global organisation, foundation, thinktank, NGO or advocacy group worth its name, can afford not to hang out there. Not for UNGA – but for the many side shows.

Many of humanity’s greatest advances were championed at past General Assemblies

These may allow a chance to bend a prime minister’s ear in an elevator or plead with a donor if you corner them in the washroom. Or, as a street activist, select a prime location on 42nd Street/First Avenue where cameras following a dignitary may catch your banner and publicise your cause.

The 77th session of UNGA is currently underway. It is special because it is the first fully in-person conclave since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. It comes in the shadows of multiple other conflicts and disasters in every continent. These frame the political, economic, humanitarian and development challenges that are centre-stage at UNGA.

With at least 345 million facing acute food insecurity, according to the World Food Programme, including 50 million on the brink of starvation, an US/EU/AU co-convened food summit struggled to find policy solutions. Meanwhile, humanitarians are pleading for $41 billion to help 274 million needy people but they will be lucky to get half of this.

They must compete with other demands on the donor purse. Climate finance continues to be contentious, and the Glasgow Climate Compact remain un-fulfilled. The Global Fund seeks a $18bn replenishment to continue fighting HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Diseases also compete with each other as Covid-19 is not done while money is sought for future pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. Meanwhile, global education is also in crisis and held its own summit, and the overall Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 are all way behind schedule.

All leaders say that they don’t want the Ukraine-Russia war derailing UNGA discussions but, in practice, this is the real elephant in the room. So, although there are special panels on other conflicts such as on Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, no breakthroughs are expected. But discussions are still useful to gauge support levels for one side or other, understand the views of protagonists, correct misinformation, and influence hardlines positions where possible. These are still the basis for resolution – whenever a conflict becomes ripe for solving.

Meanwhile, corridor conversations indicate increasing discontent with Secretary General Antonio Guterres for doing too little, too late in relation to his principal mandate around peace and security. He may not have easy solutions up his sleeve but his softly-softly approach, even as a figurehead, emboldens aggressors and abusers, argue his critics.

The Secretary-General is also under pressure for providing little oversight and not acting boldly to tackle egregious misdeeds and misbehaviours including fraud and corruption around the UN system. An aspect that he has shied away from is accountability gaps and un-trusted, non-independent investigation and compliance systems. Although UNGA’s few powers include approving budget and staffing levels for many UN entities, it does not flex this muscle to push UN reform because of the conflict of interest in initiating actions that may affect the privileges and positions of their own nationals.

The over-arching UNGA77 theme is “a watershed moment: transformative solutions to interlocking challenge”, and its Hungarian chairman’s motto is to seek “solutions through solidarity, sustainability, and science”. Who can disagree?

The UN has turned such hyperbole into an art form, as no breakthroughs are expected here. Nevertheless, UNGA is significant because it is the only gathering where 193 UN members get equal voice and vote. That matters for small or weak nations threatened by bigger ones or getting buffeted by global factors outside their control.

Talking at UNGA cannot solve the world’s problems or heal its many hurts. Its greatest contribution comes just from holding a mirror to the world’s inequities. And, sometimes, the reflection is compelling enough to trigger some change for the better. Not on everything. But on some things. In our muddled world, that may be good enough – for now.

Published: September 23, 2022, 6:00 PM
Updated: September 27, 2022, 10:38 AM