By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Oct 16 2020 – As the United Nations plans to commemorate its annual UN Day, come October 24, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is presiding over a world body which has remained locked down since last March because of the spreading coronavirus pandemic.
“In a world turned upside down, this General Assembly Hall is among the strangest sights of all,” said Guterres last month, describing the venue of the UN’s highest policy-making body.
At its 75th anniversary last month, the UN resembled a ghost town, with not a single world leader in sight. But an overwhelming majority did address the UN—remotely via video conferencing, for the first time in the history of the 193-member Organization.
Still, the United States was notoriously missing in action (MIA).
“It was like staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark,” remarked one delegate, using a Shakespearean metaphor.
The US, which is traditionally given pride of place as host country to the UN, was not represented either by the President, the Secretary of State or the Permanent Representative to the UN (in that pecking order).
The designated speaker for the commemorative meeting was a deputy US Permanent Representative—way done the political hierarchy.
Vijay Prashad, Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, told IPS the United States stands almost alone in its disdain for the UN and for the goals of the UN Charter of 1945.
Disrespect to the UN at the 75th anniversary meeting comes alongside US withdrawal or pledges to withdraw from UNESCO, UNICEF, UNRWA, and the WHO.
Keep in mind, he said, that the US government has sanctioned senior members of the International Criminal Court (ICC), while US unilateral sanctions against countries such as Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela are a violation of international law.
There is no surprise that no senior official came for the anniversary meeting; in fact, it is to be expected, he added.
The United Nations remains one of the most important institutions committed to international peace and development, declared Prashad, author of thirty books, including Washington Bullets, Red Star Over the Third World, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World and The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.
Meanwhile, as the lock down continued, the overwhelming majority of over 3,000 staffers at the UN, and its affiliated agencies in New York, are working from home.
Speaking of the 75th anniversary meeting, Barbara Adams, chair of the board of Global Policy Forum and former Chief of Strategic Partnerships and Communications for the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), told IPS: “Yet again people around the world were witnesses to the enormous gap between the well- articulated diagnosis of where we are and what needs to be done not only in the face of COVID-19 but also of pre-existing inequalities, vulnerabilities and multi-dimensional violence.
Could it be, she asked, that the UN has been “captured” as the President of Equatorial Guinea lamented: “We cannot accept [either] that after so many years, the Charter of the UN continues to preserve the primacy of the major powers who trample on the legitimate aspirations of the weak so that they can enjoy the advantages of the UN system.””
Joseph Chamie, a former director of the UN Population Division, and currently an independent consulting demographer, told IPS: “In my opinion I did not hear any significant or noteworthy contributions from world leaders who addressed the meeting.
Their statements were not informative, insightful or inspiring. In brief, their remarks were disappointing and unmemorable, he pointed out.
Chamie said the lofty goals, ideals and accomplishments of the United Nations should have been highlighted and stressed.
During the past 75 years, he argued, the United Nations has accomplished much and contributed greatly to many critical areas, including peace, security, human rights, health, education, women’s equality and development.
“In the next 75 years, the United Nations must promote and expand its essential work for a world population now approaching nearly 8 billion, four times its size when the United Nations was established”.
While many challenges remain, including the current pandemic, this is an opportune time for world leaders to support and strengthen the United Nations and work together on effectively addressing the critical issues of today and tomorrow, said Chamie.
“The spirit, leadership and vision of 1945 can be rekindled and the United Nations revitalized for its indispensable role in the 21st century”, he declared.
The final declaration, which was adopted by the 193 member nations, singled out the UN as the only global organization with the power to bring countries together and give “hope to so many people for a better world and … deliver the future we want.”
“No other global organization gives hope to so many people for a better world and can deliver the future we want. The urgency for all countries to come together, to fulfil the promise of the nations united, has rarely been greater,” the declaration said.
Mandeep S.Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance, told IPS statements by world leaders at the meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary were mostly along expected lines reflecting their governments’ political priorities, and in some cases, their personal predilections.
Notably, there was significant support for international cooperation through multilateralism. The continuing relevance of the key principles of the UN Charter was affirmed even as their realization remains a work in progress, he said.
In a sign of the times, Tiwana pointed out, the United States despite being the host country and as the country whose leaders and visionaries played a key role in establishment of the UN chose to downgrade its representation at the high-level meeting.
The country’s statement was delivered by its deputy permanent representative to the UN whereas other countries were represented by their presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers.
Tiwana said “one thing we’d like to see as an outcome from 75-year celebrations is the creation of an office of a Civil Society Envoy to champion peoples and civil society’s organisations’ participation in the affairs of the UN”.
Such an office could help in enabling (i) more consistent civil society participation across UN forums, agencies and departments, (ii) more inclusive convenings by the UN of various kinds of civil society actors, and (iii) better outreach by the UN to civil society across the globe.
“You’ll probably agree that the call has enhanced significance in light of the 75-year celebrations of the UN Charter and its commitment to ‘We the Peoples’. Coalitions such as UN 2020 and Together First with whom we’re closely associated are pushing for such an office.’
As Adams, of the Global Policy Forum, pointed out the Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley, expounded in detail the failure 75 years later to move forward to close the gap between disaster and recovery:
“Surely reconstruction of the COVID shattered economies of our countries is a priority now. Unless we forget financing was found in the form of a Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of Europe and financial space was given to war-indebted Britain for over 50 years through bilateral loans and lines of credit at exceedingly low interest rates”.
“It is not beyond the international community’s capacity to develop mechanisms to ring-fence and differentiate COVID related debt and to treat to it with the far-sighted realism that was shown then to the British debt.
“In the absence of such an approach, my friends, it is clear that the debt to GDP ratio of our region and many small island states will be unsustainable and there will be no fiscal room to build the resilience that we need as we stand on the front line of the climate crisis.”