Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 29 October 2020

UN General Assembly

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande: Coronavirus could not derail UN ahead of 75th anniversary

UN75 Declaration resets consensus for world body's work

Tijjani Muhammad-Bande at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. UN Photo
Tijjani Muhammad-Bande at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly. UN Photo

The UN on Monday marked three quarters of a century since its founding, and for Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, the presentation of the UN75 Declaration was a significant moment of pride.

The departing Nigerian president of the UN’s General Assembly faced the challenge of keeping its work going as the world went into lockdown in February and March.

There was also the formidable challenge of responding to the pandemic and bringing forth a globally agreed plan of action at a UN level.

There was also the matter of resetting the political consensus for the anniversary.

The 12-point declaration for the 75th anniversary of the UN was formally adopted on Monday.

“The negotiations were tough but we got it done,” Mr Muhammad-Bande told The National.

“The remarkable achievement of having the declaration ... must be stated out loud.

"At one time we worried that the division in-house would mean we would not have a declaration or have one that has no teeth but we have to admit that we struggled with the divisions, especially among the major powers.

"Still, we thought we owed it to ourselves to have a forward-looking approach to offer to the people of the world.

“The key thing is rebuilding trust and the actionable plans have been given to the Secretary General for the task of recovery and rebuilding with resilience.”

UN adapts to life with the pandemic

Much of the UN's work has been severely hampered by the pandemic. After travelling to Geneva in February, Mr Muhammad-Bande found himself reinventing how the body worked.

“We worked every day, not in the same number, but we met in my office, as many as we could admit,” he said.

“From March, there was no way of travelling. Those meetings we could do virtually, we did them. Our view was we should do what was possible.”

One of the big tasks was to issue an “omnibus resolution” on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus measure made clear the leading role of the World Health Organisation in the fight to address the health crisis while seeking to sustain economic stability.

Increased research and development funding for vaccines, faster supply of medicine and ensuring supplies were widely available and affordable where they are most needed were set out as global principles.

“Trust and solidarity that we are all in it together is the essential glue in the system,” Mr Muhammad-Bande said.

“No country is free from Covid-19 if one country is still in the grips of it.

“What really helped us was the willingness of the membership to come together. This pandemic became very dire for most countries very quickly.

"We argued that it was therefore all the more important to to focus on the 2030 agenda.”

Progress on attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development goals had been lagging behind before the pandemic but it soon became clear they were now in danger of missing a feasible timeframe.

“Many were not really on target to meet the goals,” Mr Muhammad-Bande said.

“Now this has happened, we can say are there resources in the system that can be leveraged to build back and to achieve the 2030 agenda. I think it is possible.

"But to do so would require a commitment to peace because conflict is a serious problem that even when progress is made, it can be lost completely.

“The ingenuity of the UN will come to bear on this but we do need to overcome the funding issues."

One regret is the failure to make headway on reform at the UN, in particular the imbalance in the Security Council's power structure.

“Most of the delegates felt that the nature of the conversations had better take place in person so that process could not go forward,” he said.

“There is a very important issue around equity and it has bearing on the issue of legitimacy. The Council needs reform and it is important.

“We worry about disputes among the major powers because that has implications for the Assembly because of the influence they have over other states.”

With statistics showing income from abroad for some countries has dropped as much as 80 per cent and access to education has been worst hit for the poorest, Mr Muhammad-Bande said the world body must promote more equal access to technology.

“As for the issue of disparity in access to technology, to be clear I think broadly technology itself has become a key issue," he said.

"If you are dealing with having a more equal world, that is especially so in education.

With so many hopes riding on a vaccine to blunt the spread of Covid-19, Mr Muhammad-Bande struck a more optimistic note on universal access for all countries.

“I am very confident that once a vaccine is available, it will be available to all,” he said.

The commitment still is that public health still needs to be supported and the WHO is the lead organisation to guide us through this.”

Updated: September 22, 2020 02:06 AM

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