Survival Governance at the UN General Assembly

Survival Governance at the UN General Assembly

The president of the seventy-seventh UN General Assembly session, Csaba Korosi, opens the event.
The president of the seventy-seventh UN General Assembly session, Csaba Korosi, opens the event. Wang Ying/Xinhua/Getty Images

The annual General Assembly debate is happening at a time of cascading challenges on health, climate, and human security. Can the United Nations carve a path through?

September 15, 2022 5:00 pm (EST)

The president of the seventy-seventh UN General Assembly session, Csaba Korosi, opens the event.
The president of the seventy-seventh UN General Assembly session, Csaba Korosi, opens the event. Wang Ying/Xinhua/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The seventy-seventh UN General Assembly (UNGA) session will be the center of the diplomatic universe when the high-level debate kicks off on September 20. The annual event typically showcases division, and the occasional unifying moment, but this year, urgent global action is needed on many fronts crucial to peace and security.

Can the United Nations galvanize action when there are so many areas of global insecurity, humanitarian emergencies, and human rights abuses?

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The United Nations has the potential to act boldly in the face of such challenges. In fact, it was set up for them. The UN Charter established an aspirational agenda for unified action on peace and security, human rights, friendly relations, and economic and social problems in the aftermath of World War II. However, the operational clauses of the charter planted the seeds of division by explicitly warning the United Nations not “to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” so as to protect national sovereignty. World powers continue to heed this warning as they struggle to deal with global calamities and existential threats including climate change, pandemics, mass atrocities, and nuclear proliferation, all of which require lasting agreements to compel or inspire action.

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With these mounting threats, the world has entered an era requiring survival governance to achieve sustainable life on earth. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has launched what could be described as a survival agenda with far-sighted initiatives that frame this fall’s activities. His 2021 report, Our Common Agenda, seeks to unify governments to find solutions to planetary crises. The Summit of the Future he has set for 2023 will try to recharge the United Nations to build the frameworks of effective multilateralism, including a pact that world leaders are expected to sign to spur action across a spectrum of existential priorities. Also set for 2023 is a summit to try to rescue the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, from governments’ inattention at a time when progress is desperately needed. 

This year’s itinerary should attract the rhetorical support of UNGA speakers: a Transforming Education Summit to spur initiatives on learning; a renewed commitment to the UN Declaration on Minority Rights, which was approved thirty years ago; an SDG Moment to focus minds on the ambitiously designed development goals; a nine-day Global Goals Week convening 170 partners to accelerate action on the SDGs to meet the 2030 deadline; and a high-level meeting regarding the elimination of nuclear weapons, with many non-nuclear states likely to speak to that priority.

The United Nations’ survival agenda can be pursued only with the commitment of the relatively autonomous and mostly voluntarily financed UN funds, programs, and specialized agencies—such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, World Health Organization, UN Children’s Fund, World Food Program, and UN Population Fund—as well as the UN-affiliated World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund. These organizations all serve as vehicles for collective action: their personnel are on the front lines of the world’s most serious emergencies, and they can take swift action in the face of worsening crises. Still, as national leaders gather for UNGA, it remains unclear whether they will commit their governments to financially and politically strengthen these entities, which are the backbone of the United Nations.

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How will Russia’s war in Ukraine affect this year’s UNGA session?

In their addresses to the General Assembly, many Western leaders are likely to focus on the war in Ukraine and call for upholding international law and keeping sanctions against Russia. (There will be a Security Council meeting about Ukraine on September 22 under France’s presidency of that body.) They might seek a negotiated end to the war. A smaller number might highlight the legal accountability of Russian political and military leaders for the invasion and the atrocity crimes inflicted upon civilians and military forces.

Some leaders might speak of the restoration bill for Ukraine—currently pegged at $350 billion—and a few might demand reparations from Russia to supplement what will be sought in international appeals. More than two hundred days into the war, the circumstances beckon a strong voice at the United Nations rather than impunity for Russia, which has inflicted wanton destruction on Ukraine’s infrastructure and civilian homes, death and injury upon tens of thousands of civilians, and havoc on Ukraine’s economy.

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Has the rise of populist politics in many democracies weakened support for the United Nations?

Populist politics cut both ways at the United Nations. Many populist parties and movements around the globe aim to improve economic equity and development, achieve social justice, and build democratic institutions. Green parties in Europe and the United States exemplify some of these goals, which can align with UN objectives. This type of populism strengthens support for the United Nations.

However, other populist movements project authoritarian aims rather than elevating democratic principles. India’s formerly robust democracy, for example, has declined to “partly free” on the Freedom House index thanks to the populist nationalism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Under BJP leadership, India will not lead efforts at the United Nations to resist aggression in places such as Ukraine or to protect the rights of minority groups.

In the United States, America First populism helped former President Donald Trump win the White House, where he challenged the United Nations as a multilateral body seeking collective action. Among the steps he took as president were the withdrawal of the United States from multilateral bodies and agreements either under UN auspices or blessed by the organization, including the Paris Agreement on climate and the UN Human Rights Council. President Joe Biden largely reversed these moves.

What about the UN Security Council?

Great-power rivalries have often made the Security Council dysfunctional, such as in the Syrian conflict and in the case of Russian aggression and atrocities in Ukraine. The Council will remain a house divided for the foreseeable future. However, countries can take steps to reaffirm their commitment to the UN Charter and strengthen the efficacy of the Security Council in international peacekeeping.

For example, last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield delivered a speech in San Francisco to announce that “the United States will subscribe to six clear principles for responsible behavior for Security Council Members.” Those principles are: to act strictly in accordance with the UN Charter; to engage pragmatically with all Council members to address threats to international peace and security; to refrain from the use of the veto except in rare, extraordinary situations; to lead in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms; to engage frequently and substantively with the General Assembly; and to reform the UN Security Council to better reflect “the current global realities and incorporate more geographically diverse perspectives.” Still, two other permanent members of the Security Council—China and Russia—are unlikely to embrace these principles.

For the Security Council, unity of purpose will prevail only if its fifteen members, particularly the five permanent members, realize that it is in their respective national interests to collectively preserve a peaceful and inhabitable world.

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