MENA region finds few solutions at UN as organisation turns 75

Despite largely positive speeches, it was clear that challenges lie ahead in collaborating to beat back the coronavirus pandemic, end conflicts in the Middle East and achieve UN goals to eradicate extreme poverty.
Tuesday 22/09/2020
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers his opening speech of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, September 22. (DPA)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres delivers his opening speech of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, September 22. (DPA)

 NEW YORK/ UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations marked its 75th anniversary Monday with its chief urging leaders of an increasingly polarised, go-it-alone world to work together and preserve the organisation’s most important success since its founding: avoiding a military confrontation between major global powers.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s appeal for a revival of multilateralism — the foundation of the United Nations — was echoed by leaders of countries large and small, rich and poor.

But despite largely positive speeches, it was clear that challenges lie ahead in collaborating to beat back the coronavirus pandemic, end conflicts in the Middle East and achieve UN goals to eradicate extreme poverty and preserve the environment by a 2030 target.

“Today, we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions,” the UN chief said, stressing that COVID-19 has “laid bare the world’s fragilities,” which can only be addressed together.

“Climate calamity looms, biodiversity is collapsing, poverty is rising, hatred is spreading, geopolitical tensions are escalating, nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert,” Guterres said.

Appealing for a new multilateralism that draws on civil society, cities, businesses, local authorities and young people, Guterres said “no one wants a world government — but we must work together to improve world governance.”

— Sobering assessment —

The United Nations marked its actual 75th anniversary — the charter’s signing in San Francisco on June 26, 1945 — at a scaled-down event.

Monday’s mainly virtual official commemoration was a sobering assessment of the state of the world, the impact of the 193-member world body over seven decades and the struggles ahead.

Some leaders appeared in native dress and in unusual settings, adding some colour to pre-recorded speeches.

The commemoration was suspended with 58 countries waiting to speak, primarily because many leaders spoke far longer than the three minutes they were allotted. No date was set to hear the remaining speakers.

As the general outlook seemed bleak, the Middle East, in particular, emerged as the most crisis-hit part of the world when it comes to conflicts and wars.

Addressing the General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Taayip Erdogan  jumped from one Middle East crisis to another.

He complained about what he said was Turkey’s disproportionate role in Syria’s refugee crisis, then brought up conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

US President Donald Trump (on screen), as he addresses the general debate of the seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 22. (AFP)
US President Donald Trump (on screen), as he addresses the general debate of the seventy-fifth session of the United Nations General Assembly, on September 22. (AFP)

Erdogan later criticised the US-brokered Israel-Palestine “peace plan” released in January, calling it a “document of surrender” that is detrimental to Palestinians.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel also seized on the occasion to talk about conflicts across the Middle East.

— Reasons to be hopeful —

“When it comes to the most intractable security issues, such as the situation in Libya and the tragedy in Syria, it is vital, despite all the setbacks, to do everything in our power to find common and thus viable responses. This was particularly important to Germany during our non-permanent membership of the Security Council,” she said.

Guterres, however, said there are reasons to be hopeful, pointing to a new peace agreement in Sudan and a ceasefire largely holding in Syria’s Idlib province.

 “The world needs a global cease-fire to stop all `hot’ conflicts,” he said. “At the same time, we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War.”

 Hope as mentioned by Guterres, however, dis not seem to apply to Yemen, a few days after the UN humanitarian chief warned that “the spectre of famine” has returned to the conflict-torn country.

 In recent months, escalating violence, greater humanitarian needs and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation in the country, with concerns rising  about the fate of the of Marib province, where more than 1 million people have sought refuge since 2015.

 Famine in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, was averted two years ago because donors swiftly met 90% of the UN’s funding requirements, enabling humanitarian agencies to increase monthly aid from 8 million to 12 million people and save millions of lives.

Today, however, the UN appeal has received only 30%, about $1 billion, leaving 9 million Yemenis to cope with deepening cuts to aid programmes including food, water and health care.

As a sign of the commemoration’s importance, heads of government like Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke.

US President Donald Trump was first on the list of 182 speakers, but he didn’t offer remarks.

In a snub to the United Nations, the United States instead was represented by its acting deputy UN ambassador, Cherith Norman Chalet. The White House had no immediate comment.

“In many ways, the United Nations has proven to be a successful experiment,” Chalet said. But for too long, she added, it has resisted “meaningful reform,” lacked transparency and been “too vulnerable to the agenda of autocratic regimes and dictatorships.”

— Trump’s world —

On the very day that the UN was celebrating its anniversary with a virtual summit, Trump said that he was imposing sanctions on the Iranian regime for violating a UN arms embargo and demanded enforcement by US allies, who dispute that he has any such authority.

The Trump administration said it was imposing sanctions on 27 individuals and entities under a UN resolution including Iran’s defence ministry, its Atomic Energy Organisation and Venezuela’s leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, whom Washington has been trying without success to topple.

“The United States has now restored UN sanctions on Iran,” Trump said in a statement.

“My actions today send a clear message to the Iranian regime and those in the international community who refuse to stand up to Iran.”

The Trump administration argues that it is enforcing a UN arms embargo that Iran has violated, including through an attack on Saudi oil facilities.

The embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran is set to expire next month after the United States failed to win support for a new UN resolution. In the meantime, Tehran and Ankara continue to pursue the path of militarism and expansionist designs, undeterred by the impotence of the international community.

With such developments taking place and likely in response to the US unilateral announcement on return of UN sanctions on Iran, China’s Xi urged UN members to recommit to multilateralism and “work to promote a community with a shared future for mankind.”

“Unilateralism is a dead end,” he said. “No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world.”

Trump spoke again on Tuesday only to take aim at China and urge the UN to hold Beijing “accountable” for failing to contain the coronavirus, which has killed about 200,000 Americans and nearly 1 million around the world.

Macron said the United Nations has remained true to its promises made three-quarters of a century ago: “To save future generations from the scourge of war, to assert human rights and the equality of nations, and to promote social progress in greater freedom.”

But he warned that “our common home is in disarray, just like our world.”

“Faced with the health emergency, faced with the climate challenge, faced with the decline in rights,” Macron said, “it is here and now that we have to act, with those who want to and with those who can, by exploiting all possible spaces for cooperation.”

Guterres and many others said the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the commitment to cooperation after two world wars and the Holocaust produced results.

“Never in modern history have we gone so many years without a military confrontation between the major powers,” the secretary-general said. “This is a major achievement of which member states can be proud — and which we must all strive to preserve.”

Guterres cited other major UN victories over 75 years: peace treaties, decolonisation, setting human rights standards, the end of apartheid in South Africa, eradication of diseases, a reduction in hunger, development of international law and landmark pacts to protect the environment.

But 25 years after world leaders adopted a platform to achieve equality for women, he said “gender inequality remains the greatest single challenge to human rights around the world.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed that “the United Nations can be only as effective as its members are united” and urged new efforts “to do everything in our power” to find common responses and end “the most intractable security issues,” including conflicts in Libya and Syria.

— Global concerns —

Guyana’s President Irfaan Mohamed Ali, the head of what’s called the Group of 77 and China — the main UN bloc of developing countries that now has 134 member states — said the commemoration “must send a strong and positive signal to the peoples of the world of our commitment to multilateralism and our resolve to strive for peace, justice and development.”

Echoing broader global concerns, the president of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang, said, “There is no justification for the huge economic gap between rich and poor countries today.”

Similarly, Seychelles President Danny Faure warned that issues like climate change know no borders.

“I assure you that the smallest, poorest and weakest of nations can contribute ideas as innovative … as the biggest, wealthiest and most powerful countries,” Faure said.

Diplomats from the UN member nations managed to agree after sometimes difficult negotiations on a declaration to mark the UN’s anniversary, which was adopted Monday.

It recalls the body’s successes and failures and vows to build a post-pandemic world that is more equal, works together and protects the planet.

Richard Gowan, UN director for the Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, said the declaration was weakened by the US opposing strong language on climate change and Britain and others objecting to China trying to insert language including its hallmark phrase, “win-win.”

President Xi used it Monday in speaking about “Cold War mentality,” declaring “what we need to do is to replace conflict with dialogue, coercion with consultation and zero-sum with win-win.”

Gowan said the dispute over the declaration was minor but “captures the real question that has emerged over the UN in 2020, exacerbated by COVID, which is: How is this organisation going to navigate an era of US-China tension?”

Amid those questions, the UN released results of “a global conversation” it launched in January, using surveys, polls and gatherings to determine what all kinds of people thought about the future.

Guterres said the UN’s 75th anniversary is an ideal time to realise goals that were expressed, including speeding up the transition to zero carbon emissions, ensuring universal health coverage and ending racial injustice.

“We face our own 1945 moment,” he said.

“We must meet that moment. We must show unity like never before to overcome today’s emergency, get the world moving and working and prospering again.”