In New York, in the renovated hall of the General Assembly, the leaders of the 193 member countries are called to debate on main topics of the global agenda. Is this history in the making?
The General Debate of the 69th regular session of the UN General Assembly started last September 24th, addressing the following: “Delivering on and implementing a transformative post-2015 development agenda”. The General Assembly, considered the most democratic body of the UN, in which all the 193 members of the UN are equally represented, meets in regular session every year starting from the third Tuesday of September (last 16th for the current session) until the closing date to be fixed at the beginning of the session itself, usually mid-December (the 16th for the current session). The General Debate, as it is referred to, is as specific and crucial moment of the session in which the Heads of State and/or Governments of the member countries are called to address the assembly with a 15 minute speech on a specific topic, although formally there is no time limit. The rules of procedure of the General Assembly, as changed over time, state that the General Debate “shall open on the Tuesday following the opening of the regular session of the General Assembly and shall be held without interruption over a period of nine working days”.
Critical issues to be addressed in the current international context
Although the agenda includes the canonical 9 macro-topics (namely: promotion of sustained economic growth and sustainable development; maintenance of international peace and security; development of Africa; promotion of human rights; effective coordination of humanitarian assistance efforts; promotion of justice and international law; disarmament; drug control, crime prevention and combating international terrorism in all its forms and manifestations; organizational, administrative and other matters) there are critical issues to be debated.
The current international context probably makes this General Assembly one of the most important in the history of the UN. During his opening speech, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon used a metaphor to underline it:
“The world’s ‘fasten seat belt’ light is illuminated; turbulence is testing the multilateral system, national institutions and peoples’ lives” adding to reporters that the “world is living in an era of unprecedented level of crises”.
But what is so important about this General Assembly?
Post-2015 development agenda and climate issues
When talking about post-2015 we generally refer to what is coming to substitute Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which are about to expire. It’s necessary to establish a new set of goals and targets for the next fifteen years and the General Assembly is in charge of it. Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, held in June 2012, and its Final Report titled “The Future We Want” identified the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the handover between pre-2015 and post-2015, establishing an Open Working Group (OWG) consisting of 30 members of the General Assembly tasked with preparing a proposal on the SDGs. This proposal was submitted this month to the General Assembly: it outlines 17 SDGs and 169 to achieve them, resulting in some discontent among member states who believe that the goals are too many (more than twice the number of MDGs); the debate has already taken off during the General Assembly, whose President, Ugandan Sam Kutesa, invited members to reach an agreement in the next 12 months.
According to a definition given in the UNEP Report “Our Common Future”, sustainable development is strongly linked to climate issues, as it is defined as a development capable of ensuring that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It is no coincidence that the General Debate began with a day’s delay to allow the Climate Summit 2014 to be held, hosted and strongly backed by Ban Ki Moon. The summit was attended by more than 120 Heads of State and/or Government and attracted an unusual attention from the media, international public opinion (with dozens of rallies and marches around the world) and celebrities (during the Opening Ceremony Li Bingbing and Leonardo Di Caprio addressed the hall).
The purpose of the summit was, as stated by the SG, “to serve as a public platform for leaders at the highest level – all UN Member States, as well as finance, business, civil society and local leaders from public and private sectors – to catalyze ambitious action on the ground to reduce emissions and strengthen climate resilience and mobilize political will for an ambitious global agreement by 2015 that limits the world to a less than 2-degree Celsius rise in global temperature.” However, the initial ambition was not matched by optimism on the outcomes, also because of the notable absence of leaders from China, India and Russia (3 of the 4 most polluting countries in the world, along with the USA). Despite this, Climate Summit was more prolific than expected with key outcomes such as:
- 73 national governments, 11 regional governments and more than 1,000 businesses and investors showed support for pricing carbon. Together, these leaders represent 52% of global GDP, 54% of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost half of the world’s population.
- EU countries pledged to reduce emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.
- A large-scale commitment to double the rate of global energy efficiency by 2030 by improvements to vehicle fuel efficiency, lighting, appliances, buildings and district energy was launched.
- The insurance industry promised to double low carbon investments to US$84 billion by the end of 2015.
- A new coalition of leaders will mobilize over US$200 billion for financing low carbon and climate-resilient development.
Unfortunately, huge differences on climate change prevention, specifically on reducing polluting emissions, remain.
The terrible Ebola outbreak that is hitting West Africa (Guinea, Sierra Leona, Liberia and Nigeria) hard, caught the United Nations unprepared. Several calls to action from NGOs deployed on the field (MSF in particular) have been underestimated or unattended. To date, we have more than 2630 victims and more than twice the number of infected; among them, many are health professionals, local or foreigners. If the efforts of containment and eradication of the virus will not intensify, experts estimate 20000 possible cases of infection.
The World Health Organization (WHO), the UN agency tasked with protecting and improving world’s health, received much criticism for its substantial downtime in the fight against Ebola. In the past the WHO showed a great ability and preparedness to react to epidemic and pandemic risks: some examples are the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 and influenza A H1N1 (also known as “swine flu”) in 2009. In these cases it intervened immediately and succeeded in a short time to contain the threat of contagion. Against Ebola this just hasn’t happened; or at least not in timely manner. WHO faced a downsizing in funds in the past years, which forced it to cut resources in different sectors, including the epidemiological, essentially depriving WHO of its weapons against new epidemics. While this stimulates a deep reflection on funding management of UN agencies, which are those tasked to put in practice programs, on the other side it allows criticism of those who say that where there is no profit (or economic interest) there is also less willingness to intervene. In other words, the WHO (and therefore the UN) has been accused of considering Ebola a secondary, limited issue compared to other global diseases (eg. Diabetes) which are more profitable and, therefore, not worthy of attention and investments in intervention and research for a vaccine.
The General Assembly has the demanding task to dismiss these critics, fielding concrete solutions to curb the epidemic and to support local and NGOs health structures involved, providing them with instruments and personnel where needed. Especially if we look at the Resolution 2177(2014) adopted early September by the Security Council, which classified Ebola as a “threat to international peace and security”.
Islamic State, peace and security
Last but not least, the General Assembly has to give a strong response against international terrorism and threats to peace and security such as the Islamic State (IS) and the Ukrainian crisis.
The shock caused by the beheading of Foley, Dotloff, Haines and Gourdel, perpetrated by the Islamic State, stirred national public opinions that now demand an intervention by the international community. As it often happens, the task was taken by the United States, now leading a coalition of more than 30 countries (including Arabic countries) committed to “eradicate and destroy” the Islamic State through military actions. Although air strikes have weakened some IS’s strongholds, they are not enough to eradicate the problem, and should probably be accompanied by a strong political and diplomatic commitment.
Last week, the Security Council passed a historical Resolution 2178(2014), strongly backed by President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. This Resolution addresses the issue of “foreign fighters” for the first time. In the past years, an estimated 15000 foreign citizens reached Syria to join the anti-Assad militias; governments are now fearing that they not only can radicalize and join the ranks of the IS (it was discovered that the executioner of the IS is a British citizen) but they can also return home and become a threat to national security.
However, the resolution has its limits. First of all it focuses too much on the IS, underestimating other threats. Furthermore it avoids addressing the responsibilities of the Assad’s regime in the Syrian crisis and those of the political system in Iraq. It is useful to know the military actions against the IS were planned and decided outside of the UN system. Still, it marks a fundamental step towards a global action that contemplates also an intervention by the General Assembly. Of course it cannot deal just with the IS issue: the General Assembly has to face all the crisis and wars shaking our world, especially in Africa.
Moreover, the Iranian nuclear issues remains, as the wounds of the war in Gaza and in Ukraine are still fresh.
RESOURCES: General Assembly regular session and General Debate updates http://www.un.org/apps/news/infocus/ga69/index.asp http://www.un.org/en/ga/ http://www.un.org/News/ Climate Summit http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/ Related Articles http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/24/un-begins-talks-sdgs-battle-looms-over-goals http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/sep/24/gathering-data-sustainable-development-crippling http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/09/21/us-un-assembly-idUSKBN0HG0W820140921 http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/9/22/isil-ebola-and-ukrainewhatsontheagendaattheungeneralassembly.html