September 21, 2022
Not since the Cold War has the world been as divided as it appeared on the opening day of the UN General Assembly’s General Debate on Tuesday. Heads of state and government, foreign ministers and lesser diplomats from around the world are taking turns this week to speak in this annual ritual, which precedes the assembly’s sessions that will continue for months, long after these leaders have departed.
The Ukraine war cast a shadow on the first day of proceedings. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whose job is to remain hopeful, appeared to lose almost all hope in his opening speech. He lamented: “Our world is in big trouble. Divides are growing deeper. Inequalities are growing wider. Challenges are spreading farther.”
The fact that this is the first fully in-person gathering since 2019 has injected some enthusiasm into the delegates, as COVID-19 put a damper on UNGA activities over the past two years, but that energy was not enough to mask the deep divisions in the international community.
Last week, the secretary-general warned that it is a time of “great peril” because “geostrategic divides are the widest they have been since at least the Cold War,” adding that: “The war in Ukraine is devastating a country — and dragging down the global economy.”
This week, again citing Ukraine, Guterres said: “The war has unleashed widespread destruction, with massive violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The fighting has claimed thousands of lives. Millions have been displaced. Billions across the world are affected. The risks to global peace and security are immense.”
Since the UN’s founding in San Francisco in 1945, this annual event has served as a barometer of how the world is doing. The first few years were marked by unity and hope that wars and conflicts were things of the past. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and similar ambitious documents were adopted during those early years. That harmony did not last long. By 1950, there were divisions surrounding the Korean War, followed by nearly 40 years of division over decolonization, the Vietnam War and the Middle East, among other conflicts. The Cold War divided the UN membership and nearly paralyzed the organization, especially the Security Council.
The emerging victors from the Second World War designed the new organization to prevent another devastating war, but also ensured their permanent control through exclusive veto power in the Security Council, the most important UN organ. Until today, China, France, Russia, the UK and the US retain permanent status and veto power at the council, while 10 other nations are chosen to serve rotating two-year terms without a veto.
Since the UN’s founding in San Francisco in 1945, this annual event has served as a barometer of how the world is doing.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
When the five UNSC permanent members agree on an issue of peace and security, the UN machinery is able to work, but when they disagree — or when a veto-wielding superpower is itself involved in an international conflict — paralysis sets in.
Superpower polarization and the fact that Russia is a permanent member of the UNSC with veto power have made the council unable to do much to deal with the Ukraine conflict. Last week, Guterres told the press that he did not think there was any chance of dialogue between Russia and Ukraine in New York, saying that they were a long way from the conditions for a peace agreement.
The UNSC is planning yet another session on Ukraine on Thursday, but it is not expected to make any headway. But while the Security Council has not been able to do much in the Ukraine conflict, the General Assembly adopted a number of resolutions early in the war, including Resolution ES‑11/1, adopted at a rare emergency session on March 2, when 141 of the 193 UN member states deplored Russia’s actions and demanded a full withdrawal of its forces from Ukraine. While UNGA resolutions do not have the power of UNSC decisions, they do carry a lot of political and moral weight when endorsed by such a clear majority of nations.
While there is overwhelming support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and criticism of Russia for launching the war, some diplomats from Africa, Asia and Latin America said that they felt pressured to take sides on the war and that the conflict is diverting international attention away from their countries’ issues. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, appeared to address those concerns when she said last Friday: “We know that as this horrible war rages across Ukraine, we cannot ignore the rest of the world. There are conflicts taking place elsewhere. There are issues that impact us all.”
While Ukraine dominates the headlines, there are several hot issues this year. First is the impasse in the talks over Iran’s nuclear program and serious concerns that Tehran is moving rapidly toward a nuclear weapon. French President Emmanuel Macron’s talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in New York this week did not appear to move the latter’s position toward compromise.
Raisi is a controversial figure at the UN, where critics cite his long record of abuses, having allegedly played a key role in the executions of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988, as well as in the crackdown on the country’s Green Movement in 2009. This year, he is expected to face more criticism over the death last week of a 22-year-old Iranian woman while in religious police custody for violating Iran’s strict dress code. Guterres said he will raise concerns about human rights and Iran’s nuclear program if, as expected, he meets with Raisi.
In his remarks before the UNGA and in press briefings, Guterres went through a long list of trouble spots, including Palestine, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and the Horn of Africa. Most of these issues will be the subject of discussions among the leaders gathering in New York this week, and those discussions are expected to continue throughout the year in the various committee meetings and high-level gatherings that will no doubt be convened regularly over the coming months, especially now that COVID-19 restrictions have been eased and delegates are eager to resume their deliberations.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1
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