The U.N. Steps Into Relevance, Colltalers
As dignitaries of 193 nations leave New York, after the U.N. Summit on global goals for sustainable development, we’re once again ambivalent as whether such an agenda has any teeth, or the U.N. itself remains relevant on the year of its 70th anniversary.
Partially due to the staggering power acquired by multinational corporations in the past few decades, or if you’re based in the U.S., because of open hostility by the radical right, the first impulse is to believe that the organization may have run its course.
After all, despite annual summits, conferences, and resolutions, the U.N. has been often either ignored by the world powers’ military pragmatism, hopeless to prevent armed conflicts, or merely behind the curve, as with the current mass refugee crisis in Europe.
Also, given its formidable mandate and historical significance, it’s constantly strapped for funding and its gargantuan bureaucratic apparatus is often an obstacle to quick action and effective intervention. On the same token, having to physically be present in far corners of the world requires it to count on and cooperate with local armed forces, a strategy fraught with opportunities for failure.
Episodes of abuse of power and incompetence handling conflict are common, as are even more serious instances of sexual abuse and slavery conducted by troops credentialed by the U.N., which is supposed to represent and defend high moral standards.
Whereas the former are a consequence of a simple fact – the U.N. is not a military or police institution, and has no expertise of its own on the matter – the latter is much more disturbing, since it’s a result of bad management and poor oversight of human resources.
For the U.N. is, by definition, a non-ideological, non-politically biased structure, dedicated exactly to the management of decisions taken by its nation-members. When it fails militarily, that may be credited to the specific country or countries that are in charge of that particular mission. But when it fails to manage its operations appropriately, then it has no one but itself to blame.
Without going too deep into the corollary of sins that the U.N., as an organization created to set standards of diplomacy and to abide by the world’s best possible aspirations for peaceful coexistence among nations, may be arguably guilty of there’s its very own power sharing structure, which can be frustratingly ineffective and at times seriously unjust. But that seems to be the nature of the game.
There wouldn’t be any need for such an institution if it wasn’t to give a space to even the most undemocratic regimes, and at least ideally, have them be heard and accountable in the concert
of nations through principles of tolerance and understanding.
For that, much of what the U.N. lacks in terms of judicial power and enforcement of universally accepted rules of government conduct is somehow fulfilled by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, even though that many don’t recognize it. It’s valid to say that, if the two international forums could work better in tandem, the world could indeed become a better place. Perhaps.
But as it’s been shown by the summit that just ended, and the recent agreement between a group of nations and Iran over its nuclear program, the U.N. is still the most effective place to bring together conflicting sides and have them work out their differences. Even the most well intended initiatives may be bound to fail if they are short of its nation-members’ powerful endorsement and support.
This summit’s agenda was loaded with ambition, and the 17 goals that more than double the Millennium ones set in 2000, are far reaching but maybe fatally too lofty to fulfill by 2030 as proposed. Indeed, some of them sound more like a wishful thinking list than a pragmatic set of steps to be followed. In that way, they mirror a common pattern of seven decades of U.N. resolutions.
But they do set priorities for humanity if it’s to survive another century. And for as much as the list is long on directives and short on strategy, it does fulfill the U.N. mandate of bringing nations together to work a common ground of actions for a better world.
Pope Francis, who threatened to upstage the conference with his road show in Cuba and the U.S. in the days leading to his inaugural U.N. speech on Friday, made another call for action against climate change, an issue central to many of the world’s ills today.
But even if he may have stolen the thunder of President Obama, for instance, on that particular issue, more was happening on the sidelines of the summit, and that may have a more immediate impact of world affairs than much of the official agenda.
Although refugees continue to test Europe’s ability to cope, without losing its footing, with its greatest humanitarian crisis since WWII, it only managed to collectively commit about a billion dollars to it during the conference, an amount that may prove too short for any considered solution. The increase of immigrant quotes previously announced by some countries may have a much greater impact.
Still, a step in the right direction. The Obama administration, on the other hand, which has promised to welcome Syrians fleeing their homeland without much conviction and already a lot of opposition, continues to avoid linking that crisis with its own contradictory immigration policies. And proceeded to prioritize its meetings with the Chinese and Russian presidents over any other issue.
A rare visit by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who’s speaking today at the U.N., does deserves the undivided attention of a so far less than welcoming U.S., specially if the world community is to have any shot at a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war.
But it’s China that unwillingly provides the hook to this year’s most underrated issue at the summit, and it’s neither its $3 billion partnership with the U.S. to fight climate change, vowed commitment to reign in on domestic hackers, or one billion pledge to help eradicate poverty. The surprising factor is its co-hosting of a conference on women’s rights, which gathered over 70 world leaders.
The idea of putting China in charge of such a meeting, given its notorious imprisoning of women activists and opaque civil rights record, is either dumb or, as pointed above, actually very clever, for shedding light on a country known as a bully.
It was the one event that made clear the common flaw of Pope Francis’ embrace of contemporary liberalism, Mr. Putin’s own civil rights record, and the Development Goals’s agenda itself: they all deny, belittle, or refute women’s transformative role in society.
Ignoring half of the world’s population has been the mistake of a lot of well intended initiatives that run to the ground. When the U.N. agenda calls for gender equality and women empowerment, but fails to acknowledge that its success is intrinsically connected to the well being of women – workers, leaders, wives and mothers – there’s room to question the call’s efficacy, breadth and scope.
The week also marked Saudi Arabia’s tragic poor planning hosting the annual Hajj, a 2-million strong Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, as a stampede killed almost 800 people. It adds up to another 100 killed a week before in an accident nearby. And the first year since the disappearance and allegedly execution by drug traffickers of 43 Mexican students, whose bodies are yet to be uncovered.
These are but just a couple of breaking news events that the U.N. conference has not fully acknowledged, despite them being related to two dominant discussions of our era: religious fervor and drug criminality. However, the organization should not be blamed for choosing a long view strategy to set its goals, instead of following a more topical approach for action. Leave that to politicians.
For despite its vagueness, lack of practical ideas to enforce it, and over a decade in the making, the 17-goal agenda has finally managed to find common ground among a large group of nations, a victory of persistence and reaffirmation of the U.N.’s mandate.
We’re now on to the even harder task of engendering ways to fulfill it, if not this October or the next, then one in a hopefully not too distant future. The U.N. may be a relic from a time when idealism hadn’t cracked up one too many times. But it’s still our decent hope to have different countries and political enemies sitting at the same table and committed to a better world. Have a great one. WC