The assertion by the United Nations’ Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres’ that the organisation is as strong as it members resonated across the globe as the world body marked its 75th anniversary a couple of days ago. The charter that brought it to life was signed in San Francisco, California, United States of America on June 26, 1945. The celebration kicked off in January 2020 with a determination to work with partners to initiate dialogues within and across borders, sectors and generations. The aim was to reach as many people as possible: to listen to their hopes and fears; learn from their experiences; and empower them to think and act globally.
He used the occasion that climaxed on September 21, to urge leaders of what he described as ‘increasingly polarized, go-it-alone world’ to work together and preserve the organization’s most important success since its founding: avoiding a military confrontation between the major global powers.
“Today, we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions,” the UN chief said, and stressed that COVID-19 has “laid bare the world’s fragilities,” which can only be addressed together. Compounding that situation are climate calamity that looms just as biodiversity is collapsing; poverty is rising, hatred is spreading, geopolitical tensions are escalating, nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert.
He appealed for a new multilateralism that draws on civil society, cities, businesses, local authorities and young people. He pointed out that no one wants a world government, but all must work together to improve world governance.
This newspaper shares the anxieties of the Chief Scribe of the organisation that was set up on the ashes of the League of Nations. It was meant to avoid the mistakes of that ill-fated union that made the Second World War inevitable.
Seventy five years hence, can the UN beat its chest in a self-congratulatory gesture that it has done enough to make the world safe and habitable? To the extent that there hasn’t been any conflict of the magnitude of the World Wars, yes. There have been wars all the same – the Cold War, the Middle East Wars that are still raging in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, proxy wars that are bringing in their wake asymmetric conflicts like terrorism and banditry as well as the multiplication of small arms that cannot be controlled by any rules that might have been put in place by resolutions of the UN.
Has the organisation been able to muster enough clout to compel nations to commit to measures that will yield the desired push towards managing climate change? It tried. But the world knows the outcome as the same major powers talk tongue- in- cheek while the challenge compound by the day.
The major problem of the United Nations in its 75 years is that it is intimidated by the world powers that pay its bills. The organisation drives the democracy campaign around the world while it is anything but democratic. The power of veto that makes it mandatory that five members of the Union must agree on an issue before it can be said to be a United Nations’ decision, and that is regardless of the position of all other members, makes the whole set look like a charade. The UN cannot deny that it celebrates the stronger member- nations and barely tolerates the weaker ones who are used to complete the numbers.
The so-called developing nations are treated as outsiders within the UN structure to be seen and not heard. And even when they force themselves to speak, their voices are treated with benign neglect. For instance, the commemoration event was suspended with 58 countries waiting to speak, primarily because many leaders, you bet they are from the affluent countries, spoke far longer than the three minutes they were allotted. That is the UN that is superintending over a world of extreme affluence and abject poverty with lips service paid to efforts to bridge the gap.
But Covid-19 is a stark reminder of the need for cooperation across borders, sectors and generations. The pandemic has proved that the imaginary line that divides the rich and the poor is faint if it exists at all. As a newspaper, we are satisfied that the UN and its members are sufficiently aware that how the world responds henceforth to the pandemic and other pressing challenges: from the climate crisis to inequalities, new forms of violence, and rapid changes in technology and in our population will invariably determine how fast the world recovers and whether the world achieves the Sustainable Development Goals.