UNGA in crisis: Issues that resonate strongly in Asia and the Arab world
The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly is opening at a time when international cooperation is most urgently needed
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is the UN’s principal deliberative and representative body. As it brings together all the 193 members of the UN on one platform, it is effectively the global parliament of nations. And, yet, there is a pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with the functioning of this body over the last several years.
Critics have pointed out that it has neither sufficient deliberation of discussion, and, when consensual views do emerge and are articulated robustly by this world body, they are drowned by the lack of support from the real power center – the UN Security Council (UNSC).
For instance, at the last session, the UNGA passed a number of resolutions with overwhelming support against various aspects of Israeli rule over the Palestinians, but none of them mattered since they will not pass the western veto at the UNSC.
The latest session of the UNGA, the 71st session, commenced on 13 September, with debates slated to commence from 20 September. These are in the nature of speeches by national leaders who present to the world body their understanding of regional and global issues and advocate specific action to address these matters for the benefit of their region and mankind in general.
The 71st session includes in its agenda issues relating to: refugees and migrants; sustainable development goals; anti-microbial resistance (in the context of the Zika crisis); and reviews of earlier matters before the UNGA such as the declaration of the right to development, the call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, and of course the issue that resonates most forcefully in several countries – the reform of the Security Council to make it more representative and reflective of the obvious changes in world order since 1945, when the present body was structured to privilege the victors of the Second World War.
Each of these issues resonates strongly in Asia and the Arab world. However, if past form is taken into account, it is unlikely that the current UNGA session, which is meeting at a time of grave crises, will really make an effective contribution to the global debate. In fact, it is very likely that many world leaders will adopt postures at the global platform which will have very little to do with reality and much to do with pandering to domestic constituencies.
For instance, the Pakistani Prime Minister, Mr. Nawaz Sharif, is likely to devote a large part of his address to castigating India for “human rights abuses” in Jammu and Kashmir, asserting that India is responsible for promoting militancy in the province of Baluchistan, and calling on the world body to intervene in Kashmir to enforce UN resolutions going back to 1948. These remarks will enjoy little credibility at the UNGA since most members already know of Pakistan’s role in fomenting trouble in Kashmir, its position as the epicenter of regional terror and the abuses it has perpetrated upon the Baluchi people for several decades.
The Arab perspective
From the Arab perspective, the immediate issues before the UNGA are those of Syria, Yemen and that of refugees and migrants. Syria has been in the throes of widespread destruction for at least five years, with half a million of its people killed in civil conflict, and millions of others displaced and living as refugees in neighboring countries. But, the UN special envoy has been effectively non-functional because the principal role-players in this battleground continue to pursue their maximalist agendas that admit of no accommodation or compromise.
Similarly, Yemen remains the theatre of sustained internecine conflict in which several thousand have been killed and the country faces an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in which the well-being of several million Yemenis is at risk. Here again, the mission of the UN special envoy is paralyzed as the contending parties will not dilute their demands.
The third issue involving the Arab world is that of refugees and migrants to which this UNGA session will be devoting special attention. Global concerns have emerged from the unleashing of several thousand refugees who are seeking sanctuary from the war zones that their nations have become, particularly Syria and Libya, but also others in Africa and Afghanistan. World leaders are expected to seek enhanced funding, more relaxed norms for the admission of refugees into developed countries and broadening of the education and skills of refugees so that they can lead lives of personal dignity in their adopted homes.
Unfortunately, the climate in western countries is not particularly welcoming of refugees, given their own economic woes and the upsurge of racism and “Islamophobia” in many societies. Thus, on most matters of interest to the Arab world, the outlook is not propitious, largely on account of the divisions and rivalries among the regional powers themselves.
Call for reforms
In this bleak scenario, certain issues of long-term importance to Asian and Arab interests are not likely to receive the positive outcome they deserve. The most important among them is the proposal for the reform of the Security Council, and, linked with it, the need to re-vitalize the UNGA itself.
Both these proposals have seen little progress due to divisions within the international community. UNSC reform has not moved forward mainly because China seems to be reluctant to see Asian rivals, Japan and India, join the world’s top decision-making body.
The proposal to make the UNGA “more focused, efficient and relevant” has been before the world body for several years. However, it remains a toothless talkshop because of the developed countries’ opposition to promoting a body that would deprive the UNSC of its supreme say in world affairs. They hold this position even if it means that the UNSC’s endemic inability to achieve consensus on major issues leads to the escalation of violence and destruction.
Fight against terror
Similarly, the UNGA remains inert before the challenge of developing an international coalition against terrorism. This is because the countries concerned will not agree on an acceptable definition of terrorism; more seriously, on several occasions, in areas of military contention, some countries are not averse to using militant groups as allies for short-term battle-field advantage even if it means encouraging the growth of monsters who will return to haunt their sponsors in later years.
The inability of the international community to build consensus on crucial political matters finds an echo in the economic and social domains as well, so that the world’s laudable goals of sustainable development and poverty eradication are placed on the back-burner and show little forward movement in spite of considerable rhetoric and pious posturing by world leaders.
Thus, though the 71st session of the UNGA is opening at a time when international cooperation is most urgently needed, it is likely to do very little to live up to its vaunted status as the world’s principal forum for global debate and action to address global issues.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.