H I G H L I G H T S
• A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations
• Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction
• Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda
• Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic
• David Overcomes Goliath
The United Nations (UN) system, is both a stage and an actor.
It provides a unique platform for stakeholders (primarily States) to engage and arrive at shared solutions to shared problems. Since outcomes that are acceptable to all are usually in the nature of least common denominators, the UN as a stage has been seen as fulfilling a necessary but not very successful global role to address an array of common challenges.
It also is an actor that engages in advocacy on subjects of global importance such as climate change and human rights. Additionally, it implements a range of mandates relating to peace and security(primarily through Peacekeeping Operations) and in the humanitarian and development space. Here the UN’s role has expanded, in response to growing need for such support.
Given the breadth of arenas in which the United Nations system is engaged through its various organs and specialized agencies, it is easy to focus on the maze of events and activities and lose sight of broader trends they reflect. UNcovered will endeavor, every month, to glean some of the most interesting issues from the wider UN system. It will uncover their moorings and cover their possible impact from a broader perspective.
A novel 75th anniversary session of the United Nations
September is the centre-piece of the UN’s diplomatic calendar. The “General Debate at the start of a new session of the General Assembly attracts upwards of 100 Heads for State/Government of the 193 Members of the UN to New York annually. While statements made from the pulpit at the General Assembly attract media attention, a lot of quiet diplomacy is undertaken on the margins.
This year, with the UN celebrating its 75th anniversary, the event was, in many ways, novel. Covid-19 restrictions meant that all activities were virtual. Leaders sent their video-statements which were played in the presence of a limited number of socially distanced delegates at the General Assembly Hall. The mood was somber with no celebrations; the motorcades were missing from mid-town Manhattan; and premium hotel rooms remained empty. However, the mounting global concerns meant there was a talkfest, without the ballast of substantive engagements on the sidelines.
Reflecting a lack of appetite for serious change amidst geopolitical tensions an anodyne Declaration was adopted to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN. The quest for reform was pushed down the road. The UN Secretary General was entrusted with the responsibility to “report back before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly with recommendations to respond to current and future challenges.”
The week-long “General Debate” was on the theme “ The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism - confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action”. The standout feature was the divergences between the USA and China. President Trump called for holding China accountable for unleashing the plague of “China virus” on the world. President Xi rejected the attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization.
Other leaders, including the UN Secretary General, warned that lack of international cooperation could worsen the coronavirus pandemic, slow a global economic recovery or even lead to outright conflict. Most used the platform for announcing their priorities and voicing concerns to the world and touting achievements at home for domestic audiences.
PM Modi spoke twice - at the 75th anniversary commemorative event and the General Debate. His advocacy of reforming the UN and a greater role for India in decision making on international peace and security was the most vigorous pitch for change made by an Indian leader at this forum. His assurance that India’s vaccine production capacities would be used to help all of humanity in fighting the Covid-19 crisis, drew praise for standing up for global good amidst fears of ‘vaccine nationalism’.
For the second straight year PM Modi ignored Pakistan in India’s list of multilateral priorities by making no reference to it (or to China). On the other hand, the perennial side-show that Pakistan triggers by making references to Jammu and Kashmir and other aspects of the Indian polity, leading to India using its right of reply to set the record straight was repeated, with the Indian delegate also staging a “walk out” of the General Assembly Hall even as PM Imran Khan’s recorded statement was being played there.
With physical presence not a necessity the total number of Heads of State and Heads of Government who made statements exceeded the usual number. The level of interest generated was well below par, even though the show was kept going .
Comment: The UN @75 is ensuring ‘business process continuity’, amidst the most trying times since it was established in 1945. That the organisation needs rejuvenation, to be fit for purpose to address the looming challenges of modernity is well understood. However, given the paucity of international cooperation amidst great power competition, pathways towards change remain elusive.
Contention Exemplifies Security Council Dysfunction
The depths to which Security Council’s diplomacy has descended was exemplified in the exchange of accusations at a virtual Council meeting on Post-COVID-19 Global Governance convened by President Issoufou of Niger, as President of the Security Council for the month on September 24.
“ Shame on each of you....I am disgusted by the content of today’s discussion. I am actually really quite ashamed of this Council” charged US Ambassador Kelly Craft during her remarks. She was responding to veiled swipes by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, at the United States.
“Abusing the platform of the UN and its Security Council, the US has been spreading political virus and disinformation, and creating confrontation and division” countered China’s Ambassador Zhang Jun, accusing the US of “lying, cheating and stealing”.
Amidst, such acrimony the Secretary General Guterres’s reiteration of the need for the Council to play an active role in working towards a global cease-fire did not excite responses. Also, his appeal for broadening global governance, to take in businesses, civil society, cities and regions, academia and young people was lost. However, over the next year matters of more inclusive and flexible mechanisms to address global challenges are likely to be fleshed out and presented at various UN fora.
The US effort to enforce “snap back” UN sanctions on Iran played out outside the Council as there was little support for the US within the Council on the issue. Following the completion of the 30 day period since it had notified the initiation of the process to reimpose UN sanctions specified in Resolution 2231 (2015), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that US considered that all UN sanctions on Iran were now back in place. On the other hand, most Council members ( including all other Permanent members) reiterated their views they consider the US as having left the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA) and hence having no legal standing to initiate the “snap back” process.
Faced with uncertainty and no definitive interpretation in face of conflicting views, Secretary General Guterres declined to take any further steps until the Council clarifies its stance. With no hope of that, it sets the stage for US taking unilateral action should it consider any state is violating various UN sanctions, including the embargo on sale of conventional weapons to Iran. Most other Council members are playing for time, and look towards the outcome of US elections as a possible way out.
Such discord did not restrict the Council from extension of the mandates of the Missions in Afghanistan, Colombia and Libya. Also, there were regular meetings on Syria, Yemen and the situation in the Middle East. A host of African issues including Sudan and South Sudan were addressed and the Annual meeting with the AU Peace and Security Council was held.
Comment: The Security Council continues to routinely address issues on its agenda, but the sharpness of the geopolitical divide has aggravated following the US’s inability to get support for the “snap back” of Iran sanctions. Disputed assertions about whether UN sanctions are back in place on Iran can potentially lead to unforeseen situations.
Environmental Priorities Rise On Global Agenda
Two UN reports issued during the month harness scientific inputs to raise environmental concerns, which have been overshadowed by the pandemic. The cumulative impact of the findings is to once again highlight environmental degradation and climate change as a priority on the global agenda. They also dovetail into the rising advocacy by the UN Secretary General of environmental initiatives in general and particularly proposals such as early phase out of fossil fuel use so as to meet sustainability goals of carbon neutrality.
The United in Science 2020 report, issued on September 9, projects that the average temperature during the first five period since the signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change is expected to be the warmest on record. It will be about 1.1 degree Celsius above 1850-1900 (a reference period for temperature change since pre-industrial times) and 0.24 degree Celsius warmer than the global average temperature for 2011-2015.
CO2 emissions in 2020 will fall by 4%-7% in 2020, due to COVID-19 confinement policies. At the height of COVID-related lockdowns, daily global fossil CO2 emissions dropped by an unprecedented 17% compared to last year. However, by early June, the emissions had returned to within 5% below 2019 levels and in July 2020 the World Meteorological Organization bench mark stations were reporting higher emissions than last year.
The UN’s fifth Global Biodiversity Outlook, published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), on September 15, provides an authoritative overview of the state of nature worldwide. It highlights the importance of biodiversity in addressing climate change, and long-term food security. It warns that the continued degradation of the environment is increasing the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans and concludes that action to protect biodiversity is essential to prevent future pandemics.
It serves as a “final report card” for the “Aichi Biodiversity Targets”, a series of 20 objectives set out in 2010, at the beginning of the UN’s Decade on Biodiversity, most of which were supposed to be reached by the end of this year. However, none of the targets – which concern the safeguarding of ecosystems, and the promotion of sustainability – have been fully met, and only six are deemed to have been “partially achieved”.
Although the lack of success in meeting the targets is a cause for concern, the Outlook stresses that virtually all countries are now taking some steps to protect biodiversity. The bright spots include falling rates of deforestation and raised awareness of biodiversity and its importance. The findings are aimed to be a wake-up call, and bring out the dangers involved in mankind’s current relationship with nature. They will be raised by many at the virtual UN Summit on Biodiversity, and will feed into a new set of targets, for the period between 2021 and 2030, currently under negotiation for adoption at the 15th Conference of Parties of the Convention of Biological Diversity to be held in Kunming, China, in May 2021.
The release of the two reports has catalyzed a series of announcements. During his statement to the General Assembly President Xi JinPing, indicated that Chinese carbon emissions would peak “before 2030” and pledged that China would strive to be carbon neutral by 2060. Even as this year, China builds the largest number of coal based power plants since the Paris Agreement, the canny political move has been welcomed as it will represent the biggest reduction in emissions of any country, if it can be achieved. The new target will lower global warming projections by 0.2C-0.3C, according to the non-profit research group Climate Action Tracker.
Many other leaders in their General Assembly statements drew attention to the ravages of caused by extreme climactic events. The UK Prime MInister Boris Johnson and the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced plans to co-host an online “Climate Summit” on 12 December, 2020, to mark the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement in 2015. The effort is to rally global leaders to commit to greater climate action and ambition, so as to increase momentum ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (CoP 26) which was to be held this year in Glasgow but is rescheduled for November 2021.
Following up on the Biodiversity Outlook, more than 70 leaders (including several from South Asia) from five continents signed onto the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature . They embraced 10 commitments related to building sustainable economic systems, reducing deforestation, halting unsustainable fishing practices, eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies and beginning the transition to sustainable food production systems and a circular economy to put nature and biodiversity on a path to recovery by 2030. These are aimed at fulfilling the vision of living in harmony with nature by 2050. Missing were key countries including Australia, Brazil, China, India, Russia and US.
Comment: Even as multilateral cooperation has been stalemated on most issues, climate change and other environmental concerns are resurfacing as priorities on the global agenda. The next substantive steps, will like much else in the multilateral sphere, also depend on the outcome of US Presidential elections.
Independent Panel starts probing Pandemic
The thirteen member Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response led by Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia had its first meeting on 17 September. In accordance with its mandate, the panel will strive to establish the timeline and events which culminated in COVID-19 becoming a global pandemic, and make recommendations aimed at safeguarding human health and economic and social wellbeing in the face of future global health threats. According to a readout by the Co-Chairs, the meeting was devoted to discussing the program of work and the methodologies to be adopted to make “evidence-based, practical, and people-centred recommendations” that will “make a real difference for the future of global health security”.
Comment: The panel is keen to emphasize on its independent nature and transparent working. Its report, to be submitted next May, will be eagerly awaited.
David Overcomes Goliath
Elections at the UN rarely attract attention, unless there is an upset. China, which has been a member of the 45 member Commission on Status of Women (CSW) continuously since 1980 lost its re-election bid for a 4 year term at elections which were initially scheduled to be held at the 54 member Economic and Social Council in April but were delayed until September due to Covid-related restrictions. For the two seats allocated to the Asia-Pacific region Afghanistan which has never been a member of the CSW polled 39 votes and India which was in the CSW until 2018 and was seeking to join after a gap got 38 votes.Both were declared elected. China was last of the three candidates with 27 votes and lost.
Comment: Afghanistan’s victory is a reflection that Davids can and do overcome Goliaths. Such outcomes where the shadows of the Permanent Members loom over all activities, makes the UN a place that never ceases to amaze.
(The views expressed are personal)