The UN still matters

September 24, 2017

Even in this, the age of “Amer­ica First,” the United Nations matters. Some might say, the 193-member international body today matters even more to the world in general and to the Middle East and North Africa region in particular.

In fact, most of the leaders who spoke at the General Assembly made the case for working together to end conflict and strife.

It was ever thus. For all its shortcom­ings, the United Nations is not just a privileged club but the one place on the planet where rivals meet on common ground. It is a forum that allows the leaders of countries big and small the same amount of speaking time and the same opportunity to air their views.

It is much more than a talking shop, however. There is much to be said for the role the United Nations has traditionally played in facilitating contact between antagonists. The corridors of the UN headquarters have long been a venue for encounters that might have been unthink­able elsewhere.

The latest example of an unexpected and potentially significant meeting was that between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The first public meeting between both leaders, it was, according to Egypt, part of efforts to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Incremental steps to breathe life into a moribund but necessary mechanism can only be welcomed.

In this context, it is heartening that light was shone once again on so seemingly intractable an issue as the plight of the Palestinians. As Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas noted in his speech to the UN General Assembly, two states are the only solution. Even as he pledged to give peace efforts undertaken by US President Donald Trump a chance, Abbas warned against jettisoning a two-state solution.

In December, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution demanding an end to the construction of Jewish outposts in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The resolution passed after the United States, under Barack Obama’s outgoing administration, declined to use its veto and abstained.

Indeed, the United Nations remains the forum for discussing some of the most critical issues of the day. On the sidelines of the General Assembly, world leaders and tech company executives explored ways to act against online terrorism-related activity. The UN Security Council approved the creation of an investigative team to collect and preserve evidence of war crimes committed by the Islamic State in Iraq. A $500 million effort was launched to end gender violence, which is suffered by one in three women and girls across the world.

But the United Nations faces unique pressures today. Its budget is squeezed and the Trump administration’s proposal to cut peacekeeping funding by more than 50% is causing alarm. Especially because, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out, 55 peacekeeping operations were wrapped up over the years because they achieved their objective.

The United Nations’ peacekeeping forces and humanitarian agencies undoubtedly remain the last resort when chaos breaks out. The global body has begun a new push for stability in Libya and a peace deal between rival Tuareg factions in northern Mali. Fifty member-states have signed a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, a sign that all countries of the world can independently take initiatives for peace even when big powers do not share their views.