UN’s Upcoming Summits May Foreshadow a Revival of Multilateralism or an Obituary for World Order

By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Sep 5 2019 – The United Nations will be hosting six high level plenary meetings –- unprecedented even by its own standards—during the beginning of the 74th session of the General Assembly in late September.

The meetings are being viewed primarily as an attempt at reviving multilateral diplomacy at a time when a rash of hard-right nationalist leaders, including US President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, are either rooting for authoritarianism, abandoning international treaties or undermining multilateralism—not necessarily in that order.

Regrettably, they are joined by a fistful of other demagogic leaders both from the North and the South, including from Russia, Italy, Myanmar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Turkey – among others.

The United Nations is expecting over 180 world leaders, including foreign ministers and high-ranking government officials, to participate in the six-day mega event.

The multilateral bodies — and international treaties– that have taken a beating include the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Human Rights Council, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and Paris Climate Change agreement.

As one delegate puts it: “It is either a resurrection of multilateralism or a prelude to an obituary for international order”.

Scheduled to take place September 23-27, the meetings will cover a wide range of political and socio-economic issues on the UN agenda, including climate change, universal health care, sustainable development goals (SDGs), financing for development (FfD), elimination of nuclear weapons and the survival of small island developing states (SIDS) facing extinction from rising sea levels.

Speaking to reporters last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that multilateralism is under attack from many different directions precisely “when we need it most.”

“In different areas and for different reasons, the trust of people in their political establishments, the trust of states among each other, the trust of many people in international organizations has been eroded and … multilateralism has been in the fire,” he complained.

On the upcoming six summits, Guterres warned “the people of the world do not want half measures or empty promises. They are demanding transformative change that is fair and sustainable.”

But will the talk-fest produce concrete results or end up being another political exercise in futility?

In an interview with IPS, Jayantha Dhanapala, a former Sri Lankan Ambassador and UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs, said: “As we survey the graveyard of multilateral security, environmental and economic agreements underpinning the mutually beneficial liberal order, fires burn 20% of the lungs of the world in the Amazon and even the Arctic has its tundra burning.”

“And the numbers of refugees fleeing violence and persecution are the highest in recorded history.”

With the unrivalled super-power under the quixotic leadership of Donald Trump, even developing countries like the Philippines, Brazil and others have abandoned global norms, Dhanapala told IPS.

“A rule based international order is collapsing before our eyes and Britain is on the brink of a messy Brexit while trade wars ruin Sino-US trade and drive the world towards a ruinous recession and the end of sustainable development.”

Martin S. Edwards, Associate Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University told IPS: “I think you’re right that the depth and breadth of the work that the UN is launching is more than just symbolic.”

With Bolsonaro set to address the General Assembly right before President Trump (on September 24), their comments will mirror each other, and will be in stark contrast to many of the other delegates, he added.

But the important thing, he pointed out, is that there’s needed substance here.

“The US might well sit out the Climate Action Summit, and that’s fine. The work of the UN and the member countries will go on without it”.

As for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), he said, this is a signature UN initiative that needs more attention and focus.

“The world is not on track to reach many of these goals, and without greater commitment by member governments, they are not likely to be met by 2030. With the US disengaged from many of these discussions, it falls to the Secretary General to recommit leaders to these goals,” Edwards noted.

James Paul, a former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, told IPS “This is a time of great international uncertainty and instability. What does this mean for the UN as a cluster of high-profile meetings approaches? And what can we expect from these events?”

“My sense is this: nationalistic enthusiasm is now waning at the popular level and posturing leaders are under increasing pressure from below to deliver more than rhetoric. So multilateral diplomacy may be headed for a much-needed revival, with a stronger and more egalitarian agenda coming to the fore.”

“As we have seen at the recent G-7 meeting in Biarritz, leaders are changing course and opting for more cooperation, though still far less than what is required. Above all, the environmental crisis is serving to mobilize public attention and energized youth are insisting that their voices be heard,” said Paul, author of the recently-released book titled “Of Foxes and Chickens: Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council”.

Greta Thunberg, the dynamic young Swedish activist, he said, will be at the UN climate meeting to dramatize the need for common action and to symbolize the essential role that the UN can play.

Will the leaders act with the seriousness and determination that she demands? It may be, as climate activists rightly say, our last chance. No politician will be excused for inaction in such a dramatic circumstance.

The UN has much to offer at this moment in history, Paul declared.

Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, sails into New York Harbor flanked by a fleet of 17 sailboats representing each of the Sustainable Development Goals on their sails. She embarked on a trans-Atlantic voyage on 14 August from Plymouth, England to New York City on a solar-powered, zero-emission racing boat, the Malizia II, to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York September 23, one of six summit meetings scheduled to take place late September. Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten

Dhanapala told IPS a gloomy future lies ahead unless a new leadership replaces the present.

The UN, he argued, has lost its moral influence and not even the upcoming ritualistic General Assembly gathering of heads of state can salvage sensible limits on nuclear weapons, conventional weapons and a new generation of Lethal Autonomous Weapons or robotic weapons while negotiating an end to regional wars.

Next year, in 2020, he said, the UN will observe its 75th anniversary when a new chapter rededicating this unique global body to the ideals of the Charter opens.

“New stringent agreements must be negotiated at the planned gatherings without the charade of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. The UN has the creative minds to do this. Can its member states summon the political will to do so?,” he asked.

Edwards said one other thing that is important to underscore is that these upcoming meetings will be a real credit to Secretary General Guterres’ quiet leadership style.

He has responded to the President’s call for a more minimal multilateralism by going big, but doing so without the bombast that is a hallmark of the Trump administration.

So, this might be an interesting inflection point. The world has proven with climate that it can move forward without the US. The question is how much this happens in other areas moving forward?, he asked.

“I like the attention on Financing for Development (FfD), but that meeting is probably not going to be a successful as developing countries raise the issue of G20 broken promises on foreign aid, and G20 countries are too cheap to admit it,” he declared.

The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@ips.org

Is There Discrimination Against Women in Healthcare in India?

By Farhana Haque Rahman and Raghav Gaiha
ROME, Sep 5 2019 – In an inaugural lecture at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, Amartya Sen began with a swipe at Queen Victoria who complained to Sir Theodore Martin in 1870 about & quote: this mad, wicked folly of ‘Woman’s Rights’ “, as in her rarefied world nobody could trample upon her rights. The world has of course changed dramatically and women’s rights are widely acknowledged but injustices persist. Our concern here is with health injustices that are widely prevalent in India. These take multiple forms: female foeticide, widespread morbidity and denial of access to good quality healthcare until a critical condition develops. Our focus here is on vulnerability of women to non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and their limited access to good quality healthcare in India.

Farhana Haque Rahman

NCDs kill 40 million annually, accounting for about 70 % of all deaths globally. NCDs are chronic in nature and take a long time to develop. They are linked to aging and affluence and have replaced infectious diseases and malnutrition as the dominant causes of ill-health and death in much of the world, including India. The major NCDs include cardiovascular diseases, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. These account for 42 % of deaths in India. Some of the risk factors associated with NCDs are aging, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, smoking, excessive use of alcohol and excess weight.

The burden of NCDs shifted to the older segments of population ( 60 years), highest prevalence being amongst to the oldest men and women ( 80 years+), with higher prevalence among women.

In sharp contrast to women who recorded a significant rise, overall prevalence of NCDs among men fell significantly during 2004-14, based on the National Sample Survey data for India. Men accounted for the majority in 2004, but women did so in 2014. The majority of NCD cases were in the rural areas for both men and women. However, the prevalence among urban women was higher than among urban men in 2014.

There was a significant affluence gradient to prevalence of NCDs among men, with a sharp increase in the prevalence from the lowest expenditure quintile to the highest in 2004. This is similar to what women experienced. A similar pattern is reproduced among both men and women in 2014, but with one reversal. While the prevalence among the most affluent men was higher than among the most affluent women in 2004, the latter recorded a higher prevalence ten years later, in 2014.

Raghav Gaiha

An important issue is whether higher vulnerability of women to NCDs manifests in greater access to good quality healthcare. To assess this, we rely on the India Human Development Survey 2015. To assess the quality of health care, we distinguish between two healthcare providers: public hospitals/doctors and private hospitals/doctors. More respondents rank private healthcare providers higher in quality than public providers. Another proximate indicator of quality is location of healthcare facilities. Quality of treatment received at home and in the same village is often inferior to treatment received in another village/town/district. The point to note is that a village may or may not have a primary healthcare centre but towns and districts are much better equipped with healthcare facilities for specialized treatment of NCDs. So location is another predictor of quality of healthcare.

Public providers were chosen by just under one-third of old women suffering from at least one NCD. In a striking contrast, large majorities –about two-thirds- depended on private providers (excluding traditional faith healers) in 2012. Similar proportions are reproduced for old men. So on this quality criterion, there was little difference between old men and women.

But the distance travelled by women and men reveals a contrast.

Large shares of old women, about 45 %, suffering from at least 1 NCD had their first treatment at home and in the same village. The majority, about 55 %, travelled to another village/town/district. Large shares of men suffering from 1 NCD, about 40 %- were treated at home and in the same village while the majority, about 58 %-travelled to another village/town/district.

From this perspective, the fact that larger shares of women received treatment at home and in the same village than men with a chronic NCD suggests that women had lower access to costlier and more specialized treatment despite their greater vulnerability to NCDs; however, the difference between men and women in their reliance on private providers is not significant.

In brief, while women are more prone to NCDs, their access to costlier and more specialized healthcare is lower than that of men. So the evidence favoring discrimination against women in good quality healthcare is limited but suggestive of a bias.

Social and family norms that restrict women’s access to health care are not as rigid as generally believed. Greater awareness of equity and better recognition of women’s contribution to household and social welfare could enhance their access to health care. Besides, outside employment options for women with some bargaining power (eg, high school education) could reinforce their autonomy.

(Farhana Haque-Rahman, a journalist and communications expert, is a former senior United Nations official and Raghav Gaiha is Visiting Scholar, Population Studies Centre, University of Pennsylvania and (Hon.) Professorial Research Fellow, Global Development Institute, University of Manchester, England).

Is America Defeated in Afghanistan?

Credit: UN

By Saber Azam
GENEVA, Sep 5 2019 – Following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on American soil, the United States and their allies went to Afghanistan to “smoke out” Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors. The most fundamental primary mistake was to let all terrorists flee to Pakistan instead of sealing the border and capturing their main figures.

Furthermore, the foundation of the new political make-up of the country was built with “wrong stones”. The power-sharing government agreed upon in Bonn on 5 December 2001 under the auspices of the United Nations with strong backing of the United States did not consider historic hurdles of the past and lacked vision for the future.

Whoever the United States liked was given parts and parcels of the power. Deployment of troops and erection of multiple military bases in major corners and cities of the country were impressive. The peoples of Afghanistan, nevertheless hoped earnestly for a better future, embraced the presence of foreign troops and establishment of the transitional power.

The third significant error consisted of bringing Hamid Karzai, the man of their choice, who had no credibility or required knowledge and experience, to the realm of power. Some years back, the Soviet Union had propelled Babrak Karmal under similar circumstances with devastating effects that ended in their military and political defeat.

Karzai thought Afghanistan was still a feudal country and surrounded himself with kin and “loyalists”. He governed through chieftains, poured money into their pockets and awarded undeserved titles.

The fourth main mistake of the United States was to avoid nation building efforts. Centuries of discrimination against some ethnic groups, the bloody civil war between 1992 and 1996 as well as five years of the horrendous Taliban regime had never allowed the populations of the country to feel as a nation.

Saber Azam

It was a golden opportunity to finally bring positive forces together for the benefit of the country. But, the occasion was horribly missed; George W. Bush made it clear that the International Community had not come to Afghanistan for nation building.

In addition to the aforementioned political and military howlers, the United States made some fundamental cultural mistakes that demonstrated their amateurish knowledge of Afghanistan. Violation of private premises was the most serious offense.

Certain of their military might, foreign troops brook into the houses without notice in “search of terrorists”, ignoring the basic courtesy rule of asking the head of the family for permission, something that they would have been granted with pleasure.

The reaction was instantaneous, summarized in total rejection of the methodology. Lack of respect for women in rural Afghanistan was another unforgiveable mistake. Afghans are definitely poor, but extremely rich in their pride. Search of women by male soldiers and tiding hands with plastic rope before even interrogating an individual should have never happened, had essential briefings been provided to the troops.

The United States and their allies, including the multilateral branch of the International Community, also failed to fulfill the essence of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1378, 1383 and 1386 of the year 2001 and 1390 of 2002. Afghanistan was supposed to be an example of safety, democracy, rule of law and equal opportunity for all citizens. This was short lived.

A government that was composed of corrupt, inept and inefficient individuals was entertained. Abuse of democratic principles, “selection” of parliament chiefs, systematic violation of law by its “guardians”, rampant fraud and embezzlement of public and international aid money by the government wolves as well as their allies and family members, nepotism and tribalism gangrened quickly the apparatus of a state that should have been exemplary.

The International Community on their part opted for the policy of “dumb, deaf and blind”, contributing further to the “endorsement” of venalities. Ethnic biased both at central and provincial levels composed the essence of governmental actions at all layers.

UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Credit: UN

Ineptness became the trade mark of a team that was totally supported, funded and kept in power by the International Community. Soon, people were frustrated to see billions of US dollars allocated for their welfare and reconstruction of their country wasted, embezzled and misused by the bigwig of the regime and some foreign companies.

Aware of people’s disdain, the Taliban regrouped. Encouraged, trained and armed by Pakistan, they begun to enter Afghanistan to terrorize the population and security forces. Less than a year after they were supposed to be smoked out, the Taliban and their terrorist associates were back in Afghanistan while the leader of Al-Qaeda was left “scot free” in Pakistan!

President Karzai’s election in 2005 did not pose a problem However, his second term “election” that coincided with the last months of Georg Bush’s presidency was marred with massive fraud to the extent that his challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah had to withdraw from the second round, leaving most observers to believe that the United States had obviously taken side in Afghanistan.

The arrival of President Barak Obama into the White House had a positive effect. He effectively put pressure on Karzai to curb corruption and nepotism, oblige government legislative, judiciary and administrative leaders to abide by the rule of law and endeavor to bring Afghan fragmented communities together.

Under such circumstances, the erratic leader of Afghanistan, the man who used to thank the United States and George Bush exaggeratedly in his public appearances, turned into a “patriot” blaming America for his own wrong doings. Nevertheless, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Pakistan provided some basis for optimism about security in the country.

But unhappiness of the population at large and corrupt government officials allowed the Taliban to make further progress, capture districts, hit the hearts of Kabul and other major cities, attack foreign troops and commit mass murders and genocide in the country. The 2014 presidential election was another shameful blunder to democracy and rule of law.

It was marred by scandalous rigging. Ashraf Ghani was propelled to the second round to face Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. After months of delay in announcing the final results, the United States had no other choice but to opt for temporary freeze of the constitutional requirements, a political agreement between the two contenders and formation of a government of national unity. It was a mockery of democratic principles.

Ghani caused further fragmentation of the society, did not curb corruption and nepotism and further exacerbated the population. The “second most intelligent brain” proved to be a mediocre politician and low-level manager who survived by instigating tribalism and giving empty promises to the people.

America’s effort to sign a “peace deal” with the Taliban, one of the most violent terrorist groups signifies their failure in Afghanistan with dramatic consequences on the lives of each one of us. It gives tremendous strength to other such organizations in Asia, Africa and elsewhere to “dream” about their success and will render them more determined and virulent.

This deal will not bring peace and security in Afghanistan, but further fragment the society leading to another prolonged war against terrorism!